We often hear how chronic stress affects our circulatory and digestive systems, but until fairly recently, we haven’t really known how long-term stress affects our brains. But recently, neuroscientists from the University of California, Berkley, have discovered that chronic stress causes long-term changes in both the function and structure of the brain.
In this blog post, we’re going to look at the different ways chronic stress can negatively impact the health of your brain, and how you can protect your brain from the damaging effects of chronic stress.
Chronic Stress Changes Your White Matter
Our brain’s gray matter gets all of the attention. Sure, as brain areas go it’s pretty important seeing as it’s behind all of our thinking, computing and decision-making.
But our gray matter is only half of the powerful puzzle that is our brain. The other half is called “white matter,” which is comprised of axons that form a neural network that allows the different regions of our brain to communicate. Think of the white matter of your brain as the Internet – it’s how information gets spread almost instantaneously.
But in order for the brain to work optimally, there has to be the right amount of gray matter and the right amount of white matter. But the UC Berkeley researchers found that prolonged stress results in an excess of white matter and excess wiring, which can impede the gray matter’s ability to think, process information and remember.
Cortisol Leads to Cell Malfunction
Cortisol is one of the stress hormones our body secretes as part of our “fight or flight” response. We have known cortisol has the ability to wreak havoc on our overall health, but now researchers have found what it does to our poor brains.
Without getting too technical about it, I’ll simply say that stem cells within the brain typically mature into neurons, and only neurons. But under chronic stress, these stem cells can also turn into another type of cell called an oligodendrocyte, which produces the myelin that sheaths nerve cells.
While this sheath is necessary for nerve cells, too many oligodendrocytes can pose a problem in the brain, eventually leading to cognitive problems.
Stress Creates Free Radicals That Kill Brain Cells
It turns out Cortisol does a lot more harm than cause stem cells to turn into something they’re not supposed to turn into. Cortisol also creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate. This is bad, because glutamate creates free radicals that then attack brain cells.
Stress also tends to get us to make bad lifestyle habits like eating poorly, drinking alcohol and smoking, which then create even more free radicals in our body to attack our brain cells.
Stress Begets More Stress
Stress causes a part of our brain called the amygdala to get bigger. The amygdala is the brain’s fear center, it is where we perceive fear and anxiety. When this area gets bigger, we have more likelihood to feel fear and anxiety, which stresses us out. Stress, in no uncertain terms then, causes a vicious cycle.
Stress Halts the production of New Brain Cells
Every day some of your brain cells die, but every day new cells are born. This is the cycle of cell life and death. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that’s integral in the production of new brain cells. But cortisol halts the production of BDNF, thereby halting the production of new brain cells. Low levels of BDNF have been associated with cognitive diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Chronic Stress Shrinks Your Brain
Cortisol not only can shrink the Hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that stores memories, it can also shrink the prefrontal cortex, which can negatively impact our ability to make decisions.
5 Ways to Combat the Effects of Stress on Your Brain
Here are a few simple but effective strategies you can use to protect your brain from the effects of chronic stress:
1. Get Those Antioxidants
Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich foods like berries, dark chocolate and green tea to fight those free radicals.
2. Boost Your BDNF
Remember, your BDNF proteins play a critical role in the health and replication of your brain cells. Increase your levels of BDNF by getting daily exercise. You don’t have to overdo it – gentle exercise like walking, yoga and tai chi are excellent BDNF boosters.
Meditation is a great stress reliever. But in addition to calming us, meditation can keep your brain young by keeping telomeres (those protective caps on the end of chromosomes) long. Our telomeres protect our genetic coding, so it is thought the longer the better and more youthful we are!
4. Get Plenty of Sleep
It is during sleep that our brains consolidate memories, repair themselves, and grow new brain cells and neural connections. Try and get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
5. Educate Yourself
Far too many Americans expect at some point that their brain will give out. I mean, developing dementia and Alzheimer’s is just a natural part of aging, right?
There is simply no reason why your brain should experience problems remembering or thinking. Generally, it is poor diet and bad lifestyle choices that lead to the cognitive decline many older people face.
But you can reverse this decline and prevent it from happening in the first place! In his guide The Unbreakable Brain, one doctor lays out the exact protocol he used to reverse his patients’ Alzheimer’s. Follow his exact blueprint to make your brain completely unbreakable – Click here for all the details.