Brain Health and Stress
Stress is a given. Everyone faces stress. It is not the stress that impacts our brain health, however, it is how we handle the stress that affects us. Cortisol is our stress hormone. When we are under stress of any kind (whether psychological or physical) this hormone rises to assist us through the stressful times. However, if our stress becomes prolonged and our cortisol remains elevated for extended periods of time, we may experience emotional and cognitive changes. These changes could include difficulty sleeping, difficulty thinking and remembering, increased weight around the waist, and insulin resistance. Increased cortisol is beneficial for our brain and health short term making us more hyper-vigilant. However, prolonged elevated cortisol could result in decreased cortisol production to protect our neurons (brain cells). Reduced production may end up causing severe fatigue and emotional fragility, higher susceptibility to inflammation, and decreased thyroid function.
If the stress you are experiencing is physical the first step to gaining control over your stress and brain health is to uncover the underlying physical stressor(s). Physical stressors could be caused by infection, inflammation, recent surgery, toxic exposure, nutritional deficiency, or a hormone imbalance. If the stressor is not apparent, testing could help you and your physician uncover the root cause of your stress. Once the cause has been identified, you can begin to resolve the problem.
If the stress you are experiencing is psychological, then it will be important to honestly assess what is causing the emotional stress. Learning stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness therapy, meditation, relaxation, breathing, tai chi or yoga, all help signal our brains that we are okay and are coping. Working hard to maintain a positive attitude in the midst of adversities, time pressures and over-commitments goes a long way in keeping us de-stressed and ultimately healthier. These techniques-as they calm us- will send signals through the HPA axis (hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis) that will modulate and help normalize our cortisol levels.
The good news is, that as we age, we can improve our brain health by lowering our stress. As we gain control over our stress, our cortisol patterns will normalize. Once this happens, signals are sent to our brain normalizing other hormones. Cortisol plays a key role in identifying stressors that need to be resolved. The key to managing stress is – balance. Don’t let stress become a normal part of your day. Maintain a healthy balance and a healthy brain by taking control and managing your stress.
Liz Tuttle, MD
Columbus Wellness Medicine, LLC
3807 Attucks Dr. Powell, OH 43065