Nervous Nelly? 12 Things It’s Doing to Your Brain
We all tend to downplay its impact, but make no mistake: Chronic stress increases one of the stress hormones that affects many brain functions, putting you atrisk for several mental and physiological conditions.
Stress is an unavoidable part ofmodern life. And sure, not all stress is bad for you. But there are two main kinds of stress acute stress and chronic stress that serve as a springboard to a host of negative bodily responses. Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the fight or flight response.Once the threat has passed, your levels of stress hormones return to normal with no long-lasting effects.Some degree of acute stress is even considered desirable as it primes your brain for peak performance.(1)
Let’s face it: No matter how hard you try to eat healthy and live well, these days you just can’t avoid all of the harmful toxins in the air you breathe, the water you drink and the soil your food is grown in.
So chances are your liver is over-worked and struggling to do its job. If you don’t take action now, your health could continue seriously suffer.
But,chronic stress the kind most of us face day in and day out is a killer.Ninety percentof doctors visits are forstress-related health complaints.(2)Chronic stressmakes you more vulnerable toeverything from cancer to the common cold.(3)The non-stop elevation of stress hormones not only makes your body sick, itnegativelyimpactsyour brain as well.Chronic stress changes your brains function and even its structure down to the level of your DNA.(4)
The Dangers of Cortisol
Before we look at themanyways chronic stress affects your brain, we need to talk a little bit about stress hormones.Adrenalineis thestress hormone produced on an as needed basis in moments of extreme excitement.It will help you think and move fast in an emergency.In the right situation, it can save your life.It doesnt linger, dissipating as quickly as it was created.
Cortisol, on the other hand, streams through your system all day long and thats what makes itso dangerous.This stress hormonehas been called public enemy number 1.(5)Excess cortisol leads to a host of health problems including weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, cancer, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.(6,7,8)
Chronic stress takes a toll on adrenal glands.It can leaving you feeling exhausted, and wired but tired.(9)Weight gain, mood swings, poor sleep, short attention span, and memory issues are common signs of stress due toelevated cortisol.(10)
The Effects ofStress onYour Brain
While stress and cortisol take a toll on your body, theytake an equally high toll on your brain. Some of these brain-related stress symptoms will be obvious to you like forgetfulness, anxiety,andworry.But, most of these effects of stress on your brain are behind the scenes.You dont noticetheyre happening but you will notice the side effects eventually.
While the graphic above, which first appeared in the 6/10/2012 issue of Time Magazine, touches on a few of them, here are 12ways chronic stress impacts your brain health and mental well-being, along with simple steps you can take to counteract the damage.
1. Stress creates free radicals that killbrain cells.
Cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate.(11)Glutamate creates free radicals unattached oxygen molecules that attack brain cells much in the same way that oxygen attacks metal, causing it to rust.(12)Free radicals actually punch holes in the brain cell walls, leading them to rupture and die.
Stress also indirectly contributes to other lifestyle habits that create more free radicals.If stress causes you to lose sleep, eat junk food, drink too much alcohol, or smoke cigarettes to relax, these are contributingto your free radical load.
2. Stressmakes you forgetful and emotional.
Forgetfulnessmay be one of the first signs of stress youll notice.(13)Misplaced keysandforgotten appointments have you scrambling, further adding to your stress.
If you find all this stress is making you more emotional too,theres a physiological reason for this.Studies show that when youre stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen.(14)
3. Stresscreates a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety.
Stress buildsup an area of your braincalled theamygdala.This is your brains fear center.Stress increases the size, activity level and number of neural connections in this part of your brain.This makes you more fearful, causing a vicious cycle of even more fear and stress.(15)
4. Stress halts the productionof new brain cells.
Every day you lose brain cells, but every day you have the opportunity to create new ones. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) isprotein thats integral in keeping existing brain cells healthy and stimulating new brain cell formation. BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. (16)Its been compared tofertilizer for the brain.
But, cortisol haltsthe production of BDNFresulting infewernew brain cells being formed.(17)Lowered levels of BDNF are associated with brain-relatedconditions includingdepression and Alzheimers disease.(18)
5. Stressdepletes critical brain chemicals causing depression.
Your brain cells communicate via brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.Chronic stress reduces levels of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin anddopamine.(19,20)Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed and more prone to addictions.
Serotonin iscalled the happy molecule.Itplays a large role in mood, learning, appetite control, and sleep.Women low in serotonin are prone to depression,anxiety, and binge eating. (21, 22,23)Men, on the other hand, are more prone to alcoholism, ADHD, and impulse control disorders. (24,25)
Dopamine is the motivation molecule.Its in charge of yourpleasure-reward system. Toolittle dopamine can leave you unfocused,unmotivated, lethargic, and depressed.People low in this brain chemicaloften use caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and illicit drugs to temporarily boost their dopamine levels.
Serotonin-based depression is accompanied byanxietyand irritability, while dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment of life.(26)
6. Stress puts you at greater risk formental illnesses of all kinds.
The root cause of most mental illnesses isnot yet understood.Most likely the answers will be a complex variety of factors. Recent research has discoveredphysical differences in the brains of people with stress disorders. Theirratio of the brains white matter to gray matter is higher.(27)
7. Stress makes you stupid.
Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times exams, job interviews, and public speaking come to mind.(31)This is actually a survival mechanism. If youre faced witha life and death situation, instinct and training take over from rational thought and reasoning. This might keep you from being eaten by a tiger, but in modern life this is rarely helpful.
8. Stress shrinks your brain.
Stress can measurably shrink your brain.
Cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in thehippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories.The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over.(35,36)
Stress also shrinks the prefrontal cortex.This negatively affects decision making, working memory, and control of impulsive behavior.(37)
9. Stress lets toxins into your brain.
Your brain is highly sensitive to toxins of every kind.The blood-brain barrier is a group of highly specialized cells that acts as your brains gatekeeper.Thissemi-permeable filterprotectsyour brain from harmful substances while lettingneeded nutrients in.Stress makes theblood-brain barrier more permeable or leaky.(38)This lets things into the brain you dont want there such as pathogens, heavy metals,chemicals, and othertoxins.Having a leaky blood-brain barrier is associated with brain cancer, brain infections, and multiple sclerosis.(39)
10. Stress increases your risk ofdementia and Alzheimers.
One of the most worrying effects of stress on the brain is that it increases your risk for dementia and Alzheimers. Being diagnosed with Alzheimers disease isthe #1 health fear of American adults, even more so than cancer.Alzheimers is now the 6th leading cause of death. One in three US seniors will die with Alzheimers or other forms of dementia. And its the most expensive disease in the country.(40)
There is no simple magic bullet to prevent Alzheimers.Common sense advice includes eating a healthy diet low in sugar and high in brain-healthy fats, getting physical exercise, notsmoking, staying mentally active, avoiding toxic metal exposure, and minimizingstress.(41,42)Its been found that stress, particularly stress that occurs in midlife, increases risk of Alzheimers. Anxiety, jealousy and moodiness in middle age doubles yourrisk of developing Alzheimers.(43)Chronic stress and elevated cortisolis knownto lead to dementia in the elderly.(44)
11. Stress causes brain cells tocommit suicide.
Stress leads to premature aging on a cellular level, causing cells in both your body and your brain to commit suicide prematurely.To understand how this happens, we need to take a look at a part of your chromosomes called telomeres.You may recall from high school biology that when a cell divides, it passes on the genetic material to the next cell via chromosomes.Telomeres are protective endcaps on our chromosomes similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces.Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get a little shorter.When they reach a critically shortened length, they tell the cell to stop dividing actingas a built-in suicide switch.Subsequently the cell dies.
Shortened telomeres lead to atrophy of brain cells and longer telomere length leads to the production of new brain cells.(45)Telomere length may be the most important indicator of biological age and disease risk.Some researchers believe its a better predictor of your risk for age-related diseases like Alzheimers, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer than conventional diagnostic tools.(46)
12. Stress destroys your happiness and peace of mind.
Stress hugely affects the way you think and feel.It can wear you down mentally and emotionally, and sap the joy from life.
Some signs of stress that impactyour mental well-beinginclude:
- excessive worry and fear
- impatience with self and others
- mood swings, crying spells or suicidal thoughts
- insomnia, nightmares, disturbing dreams
- trouble concentrating and learning new information
- racing thoughts, nervousness
- forgetfulness, mental confusion
- difficulty in making decisions
- feeling overwhelmed
- irritability and overreaction to petty annoyances
- excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
- increased smoking, alcohol, drug use, gambling or impulse buying
Its no fun experiencing these stress symptoms. Its no picnic for those around you either.
Simple Steps to Help a Stressed Brain
Wewouldntleave you with all this bad news with no solutions.Minimizing stress and protecting your brain againstthe effects of stress iseasier thanyou might think.
Here are four simple tips to stop stress in its tracks and overcome its harmful effects on your brain.
- Stopfree radical damageby eatinga diet high in antioxidant-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate, and green tea.
- Increase levels of brain-boosting BDNF by getting daily physical exercise. It doesnt have to be strenuous. Walking is excellent. So are exercises with strong mind-body orientationslike yoga, tai chi, and qi gong.
- Starta daily meditation practice. Meditation not only reduces stress,its a proven way to keep your brain young by keeping telomeres long.(47)
- Monitor your thoughtsfor automatic negative reactions andcognitive distortions.Stress does not come from events in your life as much as it comes from your thoughts about these events. Meditation is the best tool for learning how to master your thoughts.
Deane Albanholds a bachelor’s degree in biology from University of South Florida, where she also studied journalism. She has taught and written on a wide variety of natural health topics for over 20 years, including teaching healthy cooking classes. Her current focusis understanding how our modern lifestyle impacts the health of our brains and our mental well-being. She helps people of all ages overcome brain-related problems like brain fog, memory loss, and inability to focus at her website Be Brain Fit. She believes that the right lifestyle choices can make you happier and more productive now, and ward off mental decline in the future.