Stress effect on brain is threatening

Stress is everywhere. I often hear the phrase, “two things are certain in life: death and taxes”, but I think that should undergo a modern makeover to include stress.

Stress and sleep

Sonia Chartier

15 June 2016

Perhaps you have heard that song by “Twenty one pilots” on the radio, whose catchy lyrics chant, “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days, When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.”

It is true that stress has automatically has a negative connotation and that is because of the serious effects it can have on our health….

There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” stress, but the effects of stress can be beneficial or negative depending on the duration of such state. In other words, acute (sudden) and short-lived burst of stress serves an evolutionary purpose—it is a warning signal that tells that to avoid something (in evolutionary speak, that something may have been life threatening).

So, while short duration stress has its benefits, the problem lies with chronic (longstanding) stress. It is well known that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function. These findings might explain why young people who are exposed to chronic stress early in life are prone to mental problems such as anxiety and mood disorders later in life, as well as learning difficulties.

How stress affect or damage our brain? 

Stress changes the way our brain behaves (i.e. how the cells of the brain communicate with each other). In turn, this affects the type and the quantity of certain hormones (e.g. cortisol), which can create a biochemical soup of disaster in the long run.

For a long time, it has been postulated that stress-related illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can trigger changes in brain structure, as well as the size and connectivity of the amygdala—if you remember from last month’s blog on ADD/ADHD, the amygdalae are involved in emotion and anxiety.

Chronic stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol, which can generate more overproduction of unwanted cells, and less neurons (the “action” cells of the brain). Neurons are responsible for the brain’s higher functions, such as thinking, computing, and decision-making.

Another affected part of the brain is known as the “hippocampus”, which acts like a relay station in memory and emotion.  Chronic stress has been known to shrink it under extended periods of stress, which may play in big role in conditions such as schizophrenia, autism, depression, suicide, ADHD and PTSD.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of chronic stress are variable and nonspecific. People deal with stress in different forms—some repress, others express, others spend too much, and so on. Physically, it is not uncommon to feel very fatigued throughout the day, or even be irritable.

Signs of depression may be present in some people; especially in those who don’t know how to manage stressful situations, and those who may feel “trapped”. It is also not uncommon to feel restless, and anxious during the night, which can lead to sleep problems. These people may exhibit symptoms typical of inflammatory bowel syndrome (anxiety is a big factor). Others may have reactivation of other chronic and autoimmune disorders.

What can be done to prevent stress effect on brain

  • From both evidence and experience, regular exercise (3-4 times a week, for at least 30 minutes) is perhaps the best way to reduce stress. If you don’t have the time, make the time, you will thank yourself later!
  • Mindfulness meditation may be another way to reduce stress and lower cortisol. Lifestyle choices that reduce stress and lower cortisol can improve brain structure and connectivity.
  • Some drugless therapies available may include acupuncture, massage therapy and psychological counselling. Do not be embarrassed or ashamed to seek extra help. Registered psychotherapists and counsellors are there to help you—there’s no judgement!
  • There is also a large number of traditional and home remedies using medicinal plants—some of which have been extensively studied and thus, have been shown to be safe and effective (e.g. rhodiola, valerian, passion flower, etc.).

Speak with your physician to address any major health concerns, and for a well-rounded approach (body-mind) you may want to consult with a licensed naturopathic doctor for additional advice.

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