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Chronic Stress and Brain Health



Stress.  We’ve all got it.  It’s a constant companion in our lives.

We’ve become so comfortable feeling uncomfortable that it’s almost a prerequisite quality of anything worth doing.  Work, relationships, fitness, education… the badge of honor goes to those who can tolerate the most amount of stress, regardless of the toll it exacts on our bodies.

But stress is more than a feeling.  It’s more than an inconvenience.  It’s a real problem that needs to be addressed.

Humans are designed to have a stress response to actual threats.  That heightened feeling of awareness, rapid heart beat, dilated pupils- the sympathetic nervous system has a very important role in readying us to fight, run, pounce, or hide.  The response is driven by a hormone called cortisol, and in short bursts of activity, stress response exercises are actually good for us.

The problem is, we live under chronically stressful conditions- or even more ambiguously, perceived stressful conditions.  Chances are if you feel stressed, your cortisol levels are probably elevated.  Prolonged increased levels of cortisol can have a very negative effects on humans.  Chronically high cortisol exposure compromises our immune system, causes weight gain, and can lead to memory loss.

While normal cortisol levels have no adverse effects on the hippocampus, excess cortisol overwhelms the hippocampus and actually causes atrophy and memory loss. (The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis).  The realization of memory loss can be stressful in itself, leading to increased feelings of anxiety and elevated cortisol levels- thus fueling the cycle of cortisol production and further memory loss.

In addition to all the other risk factors for cognitive decline including nutrition, genetics, environmental exposure, and cumulative head trauma, stress seems to be a largely minimized contributor to tissue damage.  Per Frank Forencich at Exuberant Animal:

People think that stress is just some occasional pressure, a bad day. Until we take this seriously, we’re not going to make any progress. Our entire hyper-active culture needs to take a deep breath, calm down and start living like nature intended.

We have a culture of unprecedented anxiety and depression. Our brains are on heightened alert, and our bodies actually feel the fatigue of prolonged readiness… like there’s a predator always waiting just outside the door.  This constant feeling of doom, of grasping for external measures to dampen the discomfort, takes a toll on the brain. Increased cortisol and adrenal fatigue, compounded by an inability to gauge real threats from perceived ones, is a pervasive problem. Stress is a big deal.  And it doesn’t have to be.

Check out this flow from Dr. Frank.  It’s sound, reasonable advice.  It’s amazing how much of our brain health is within our control (not inevitable!) and really not all that hard to improve.

The next time you’re feeling stress, determine if your life is really in danger.  Are you being chased or pursued as a predator’s dinner?  If not, make the decision to lower your stress response.

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One comment

  1. Thank you Sue for highlighting what I believe is likely one of, if not the, major contributor to memory loss and a some other health related issues. The increase in blood pressure associated with stress may also cause physical damage with blood vessels. The attached slide show is really well done – great find and share 🙂

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