What Stress Does To Your Brain
Posted on 25th October 2018 at 13:12
Building a career, a business, a family. Coping with everyday pressures and ocassional adversities- they all take their toll on our body. New research has been published recently which shows exactly what stress does to our brains.
We all have an inner threshold of how much we can take before it impairs our judgement, productivity and function. This new research has also found that it actually can alter the structure of our brains.
Your brain releases stress hormones, like cortisol, which then fire up excessive cell-signaling cytokines which alter your physiology. Simply explained, cytokines are small proteins that are important in cell signaling. Their release has an effect on the behavior of cells around them. When they are released, suddenly your ability to regulate your behavior and emotions is compromised. Your ability to pay attention is compromised, your memory, learning, peace, happiness are all compromised.
Cortisol is one of the body's key stress hormones, best known for its role in our "flight or fight" instincts. When we are stressed and on high alert, the adrenal glands produce more cortisol. The hormone then goes to work shutting down various bodily functions that might get in the way of survival. Excessive stress often causes us to withdraw in order to self-soothe, to try to cope, our bodies try to slow things down and remove further stimulus since we’re already overloaded.
Once the crisis has passed, cortisol levels should drop, and the body systems should return to normal. But if your alarm button stays pressed, the body can continue to malfunction, leading to anxiety, depression, heart disease, headaches, weight gain, trouble sleeping, and, of course, memory and concentration problems.
The brain is especially vulnerable, say experts, because of all of the nutrients it needs to function optimally.
"The brain is a very hungry organ," said Keith Foley, who directs scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association. "It requires an outsized amount of nutrients and oxygen to keep it healthy and functioning properly. So, when the body needs those resources to deal with stress, there's less to go around to the brain."
"If you have higher cortisol you're probably stressed out and likely to have more difficulty on cognitive tasks" said Foley.
High levels of cortisol were associated with more damage to the parts of the brain that move information throughout the brain (corona radiata) and between the two hemispheres of the brain (corpus callosum).
In addition, the brains of people with higher cortisol levels had smaller cerebrums, the two hemispheres of the brain responsible for thought, emotions, speech and muscle functions, the study found.
The average total cerebral brain volume in people with high levels of cortisol was 88.5 of the total brain volume, compared to 88.7 in people with normal levels of cortisol.
"I was surprised you would be able to see such a large change in brain structure with high cortisol levels compared to moderate levels of cortisol," said Foley. "If you're seeing structural brain changes in midlife, you can imagine what is happening by the time you get old enough to develop dementia."
Interestingly, the effects of high cortisol on cerebral brain volume appeared to only affect women, not men.
"Estrogen can increase cortisol," said Dr. Richard Isaacson, who directs the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, "and about 40% of the women in the study's high cortisol group were on hormone replacement." Isaacson was not involved in the study.
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