Stress has been a part of our lives for as long as there have been humans. We have developed a mechanism for dealing with the stress we face, also. It is an automatic mechanism that kicks in as soon as we face any kind of stress.
The stress your ancestors faced was most often physical in nature. When that happened, their bodies geared up to fight the stress or flee from it.
A brain structure called the amygdala begins the process as the body’s alarm system. It triggers the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates automatic body responses. In the case of stress, it increases the heart rate, causes your breathing to speed up, increases blood pressure, activates your immune system, and decreases your digestion process.
Today, when the stress you face is more social and emotional in nature, your body responds the same way. In your ancestors’ day, once the stress was handled, their bodies returned to a resting, balanced state. Today, the stress you face is constant most of the time. Your body doesn’t get a chance to rest and re-balance itself.
This constant, unremitting stress brings on significant changes in the body and in health. This kind of stress is closely associated with hypertension, obesity, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and cancer. Psychological conditions are also associated with this kind of chronic stress. Conditions like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addictions, and social isolation.
A stress survey conducted annually by the American Psychological Association consistently shows approximately 25% of people in the U.S. live under severe stress. Another 50% live with what they call moderate stress. So, stress is a significant part of the American life.
Because this kind of stress can lead to significant brain changes, it’s important to understand what some of these changes are.
Any time stress hits, the adrenal glands become stimulated to secrete several hormones in an attempt to deal with the effects of stress. A major hormone released by the adrenals is cortisol.
Cortisol has been called the ‘stress hormone’ because it works to help the body deal with the effects of stress. It has also been called ‘public health enemy #1’ because it can lead to very real changes in your brain when it is in high levels in the body.
Cortisol leads to a surplus of glutamate, a neurotransmitter. High levels of glutamate produces large quantities of free radicals. Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that can literally eat brain cells. They create holes in the walls of brain cells causing them to die.
Chronic stress also affects the hypothalamus, a brain center related to memory and understanding. The medial prefrontal cortex is also affected in that chronic stress lowers the volume in this brain area. That leads to more long-term memory difficulties, decision-making, emotional responses, and social connections.
So, one of the first changes you might recognize in yourself that tells you stress is eating your brain is difficulty with memory. You may also find yourself getting more emotional. One reason for this is a change in the electrical connections in your brain. The areas dealing with factual memories grows weaker while those brain areas related to emotions get stronger.
The amygdala is the part of your brain dealing with fear. Stress increases the size of the amygdala by increasing the number of connections between neurons and their activity level. This serves to put you into a cycle of stress leading to fear and anxiety which increases your stress level.
Everybody loses brain cells every day naturally. You also grow new brain cells to replace those you lose. But stress stops the production of new brain cells.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein involved in helping to keep brain cells healthy and in the production of new brain cells. It has been called brain fertilizer and can help offset the effects of stress.
Unfortunately, cortisol stops the production of BDNF, resulting in fewer new brain cells being formed. Some conditions that come from lowered levels of BDNF include Alzheimer’s, OCD, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia.
Stress lowers the levels of dopamine and serotonin. These two neurotransmitters control depression. When levels are low, depression results. Depression that comes from low levels of dopamine presents as lethargy and no enjoyment of life. Too little serotonin leads to depression with anxiety and irritability.
One survival mechanism that comes with stress is that it negatively affects all of your thinking functions. This is a survival process that enabled our ancestors to rely on training and experience in dealing with the physical stressors they faced rather than logic and thinking. It made their responses faster, more automatic in life or death situations.
However, in modern life it is more of a hindrance than a benefit. It slows down your ability to think and hampers decision-making.
Chronic stress literally makes your brain smaller. Cortisol stops the production of new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus. This is the part of your brain that helps you store memories. It also helps you shut down your stress response when the stressor is gone.
Your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps in decision-making, that holds working memory, and that controls impulsive behavior, shrinks when you are under stress.
When you’re under chronic stress, the kind that so often affects you today, toxins are likely to enter your brain. Normally, the blood-brain barrier prevents these toxins from entering your brain while it allows nutrients your brain needs cross that barrier. Your brain is very sensitive to toxins.
When stress hits, this blood-brain barrier gets more permeable, making it more likely for toxins to cross and invade your brain. The barrier gets leaky in other words.
This allows heavy metals you ingest from the environment, pathogens, chemicals you’re exposed to on a daily basis, and other toxins to get into your brain. This leaky blood-brain barrier increases your risk of brain infections, multiple sclerosis, and even brain cancer.
Research has shown stress, especially that occurring in middle age, is significantly associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s is doubled with moodiness, anxiety, and jealousy in middle age.
Chronic stress with the accompanying high levels of cortisol has been shown to be related to the development and progression of dementia in the elderly.
The kind of chronic stress found in modern society leads to inflammation in the brain and to depression. In the brain there are tiny immune cells called microglia that can cause inflammation. Once they’re activated, they don’t shut off but keep causing inflammation until they die.
Chronic stress is one of the sure ways of turning on these microglia and causing inflammation in your brain. This inflammation is currently thought to be a major cause of depression.
One thing that happens often when you’re stressed is you turn to comfort food. Much of the time these comfort foods contain a lot of sugar.
Sugar has been shown to help you stay on more of an even keel emotionally even when you’re under stress. This is not a bad thing in itself, but the research shows you can feel emotionally stable even while stress is harming your body.
Sugar is a great short-term fix for stress. But long term it is harmful. It can cause stress in your hippocampus if eaten in large quantities for a long term. Sugar has also been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s.
There are a number of things you can do to help your chronically stressed brain heal itself. Following are some of those.
Change your diet. Most of us eat the Standard American Diet (SAD), composed of lots of processed foods and sugar. This needs to change in order for you to give your stressed brain some relief. To stop the free radical damage so often seen in chronic stress, begin eating anti-oxidant foods like vegetables, fruits, green tea, and dark chocolate.
Exercise. Increase your levels of BDNF through exercise. Strenuous exercise is not necessary; in fact, walking is great exercise. Be sure to do it on a daily basis. Other exercise that combine mind and body, such as yoga or tai chi, are also excellent.
Meditate. This is a great way to relax your mind and body, thus reducing stress overall. Meditation can help you gain control over your thoughts. Much of the time, thinking increases your stress. What you think about the things that happen in your life determines whether you feel stressed about them. Often, the thoughts that occur about these events are automatic negative thoughts and distortions of what actually happened. Meditation helps you develop mastery of your thoughts.
Sleep. Getting enough sleep is exceptionally important in dealing with stress. When you sleep, your body and mind repair themselves. Stress typically makes it harder for you to sleep, leading to increased fatigue, which then leads to more stress. Be sure you get seven or eight hours of good sleep every night.
Stress is, Literally, Eating Away At Your Brain https://breathingroom.umd.edu/2018/07/17/stress-is-literally-eating-away-at-your-brain/
Sugar, Stress, and Your Brain https://paleoleap.com/sugar-stress-brain/
5 Ways to Stop Stress Eating From Taking Over Your Brain https://www.health.com/fitness/5-ways-to-stop-stress-eating-from-taking-over-your-brain
12 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain http://thescienceofeating.com/2017/11/10/12-effects-chronic-stress-brain/