These past few months of isolation have had an impact on us all. Stress has touched each of us in varying ways. I find it is helpful to understand what happens and why and how this affects our thinking, our mood and behaviour.

So let me share some information with you …..

Stress is an unavoidable part of modern life. There are two main kinds of stress — acute stress and chronic stress — and not all stress is bad for you.

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. But chronic stress — the kind most of us face day in, day out can have long term effects.

Chronic stress makes you more vulnerable to everything from cancer to the common cold. When stress becomes chronic, it changes your brain’s function and even its structure down to the level of your DNA, interesting fact. Chronic stress increases the stress hormone cortisol and affects many brain functions. Before we look at the many ways chronic stress affects your brain, we need to talk a little bit about stress hormones.

Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are stress hormones produced as needed by your body in moments of extreme excitement. They help you think and move fast in an emergency, in the right situation, they can save your life. They don’t linger in the body, dissipating as quickly as they were created. Do you recall an incident that affected you recently in this way?

Cortisol, on the other hand, streams through your system all day long, and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Excess cortisol leads to a host of health problems including weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Chronic stress takes a toll on adrenal glands and can leave you feeling exhausted and wired but tired and eventually to burn out.

Other effects on your body are weight gain, mood swings, poor sleep, short attention span, and poor memory are common signs of stress due to elevated cortisol.

Chronic Stress and the Effects on your Brain

While stress and cortisol take a toll on your body, they take an equally high toll on your brain. Some of these brain-related stress symptoms will be obvious to you, like memory problems, anxiety, and worry. But most of these effects of stress on your brain are “behind the scenes.” You don’t notice they’re happening but you will notice the side effects … eventually.

Here are some ways Chronic Stress impacts your Brain health

* Creates free radicals that kill brain cells. Cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate creates free radicals — unattached oxygen molecules — that attack brain cells much in the same way that oxygen attacks metal, causing it to rust. Free radicals actually punch holes in the brain cell walls, causing them to rupture and die.

* Memory problems may be one of the first signs of stress you’ll notice.  Misplaced keys and forgotten appointments have you scrambling, further adding to your stress.If you find all this stress is making you more emotional too, there’s a physiological reason for this. Studies show that when you’re stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen. Have you been bought to tears and wondered why? Stress has this affect on you.

* Stress creates a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety and  builds up in an area of your brain called the amygdala. This is your brain’s 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.

* Stress halts the production of 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) is a protein that’s integral in keeping existing brain cells healthy and stimulating new brain cell formation. It can be thought of as fertilizer for the brain. BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. But cortisol halts the production of BDNF resulting in fewer new brain cells being formed. Lowered levels of BDNF are associated with brain-related conditions including depression, OCD, schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

* Stress depletes critical brain chemicals causing depression. Your brain cells communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters. Chronic stress reduces levels of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed and more prone to addictions.

Serotonin is called the “happy molecule.” It plays a large role in mood, learning, appetite control, and sleep. Women low in serotonin are prone to depression, anxiety, and binge eating. Men, on the other hand, are more prone to alcoholism, ADHD, and impulse control disorders.

Dopamine is the “motivation molecule. ”It’s in charge of your pleasure-reward system. It’s in charge of your pleasure-reward system. Too little dopamine can leave you unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic, and depressed. People low in this brain chemical often use caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and illicit drugs to temporarily boost their dopamine levels. Serotonin-based depression is accompanied by anxiety and irritability, while dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment of life.

* Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times — exams, job interviews, and public speaking come to mind. This is actually a survival mechanism. If you’re faced with a life and death situation, instinct and training overwhelm rational thought and reasoning. This might keep you from being eaten by a tiger, but in modern life this is rarely helpful. Stress impairs your memory and affects your decisions. It negatively impacts every cognitive function.

* Chronic stress shrinks your brain.Cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, 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.  Stress also shrinks the prefrontal cortex. This negatively affects decision making, working memory, and control of impulsive behavior.

* 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 brain’s gatekeeper. This semi-permeable filter protects your brain from harmful substances while letting needed nutrients in. Stress makes the blood-brain barrier more permeable, in effect making it leaky and allows pathogens, heavy metals, chemicals and other toxins to enter the brain.

* Chronic stress contributes to brain inflammation and depression. A little-known fact is that the brain has its own immune system. Special immune cells called microglia protect the brain and spinal cord from infections and toxins. Chronic stress contributes to brain inflammation and depression. Unfortunately, a microglial cell has no on or off switch, so once it is activated, it creates inflammation until it dies. Chronic stress is one of the factors that increases the risk of activating your microglia, thus producing brain inflammation. It’s generally believed that depression is caused by serotonin deficiency, but there’s a growing body of evidence that brain inflammation is the root cause of depression instead.

Have you felt angry, impatient, suffered with insomnia, trouble concentrating, forgetful, racing thoughts, trouble making decisions, feeling overwhelmed, irritable, increased smoking, drinking, drug use, impulse buying, have experienced excessive worrying and fear?  These can be the side effects of chronic stress. Minimizing stress and protecting your brain against its effects is easier than you might think.

Here are some simple tips to stop stress in its tracks and overcome its harmful effects on your brain.

  • Stop free radical damage by 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 doesn’t have to be strenuous. Walking is excellent. So are exercises with strong mind-body orientations like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong.
  • Start a daily meditation practice. Meditation not only reduces stress, it’s a proven way to keep your brain young by keeping telomeres long. Meditation is also the best tool for learning how to master your thoughts. Stress does not come from events in your life as much as it comes from your thoughts— your automatic negative reactions and cognitive distortions — about these events.
  • Taking an adaptogenic herbal remedy. Adaptogens increase your resilience to stress while supporting overall health. They promote balance between feeling energetic and feeling calm. Types of adaptogens include Siberian Ginseng, Astragalus, Rhodiola, Schisandra, Shatavari and Withania.

Chronic stress may seem to be an unavoidable part of life, taking these proactive steps will definitely reduce its wear and tear on your brain, come and see me and have a personalized herbal tonic made up for you, to assist and calm your nervous system, your body will be grateful.