One of your body’s most powerful adaptations is its response to stress.  Whether your body is faced with acute stress or long-term stress, your nervous system has evolved to improve your chances of survival and optimal functioning.  

Acute stress, like narrowly avoiding an accident, evokes a drastic response to improve reaction time.  In that moment, your adrenal glands release large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol. As a result your heart rate surges to improve blood flow, delivering oxygen and glucose to tissues such as the brain and muscles.  Your body’s resources are directed to systems that are involved in immediate survival and away from systems that are required for long-term survival. Temporarily, “rest, digest and reproduce” processes are unnecessary, but optimally once the threat is averted, your nervous system resets and rebounds back to parasympathetic mode.  

On the other hand, chronic stress puts demands on the adrenal glands as well, however the physiological results are much different. The state of chronic stress that most people face today is a low-grade but sustained pressure out on the body.  Adrenal glands are taxed with responding to a consistent perception of threat (like trying to pay the bills or manage busy schedules) which can lead to dysregulation of stress response over time.

When your stress response is overworked, tissue damage occurs.  Consider what might happen in your body if resources are consistently diverted away from rest, digest and reproduce processes.  Poor sleep, insufficient digestion and dysregulated hormone production are all conditions that wreak havoc on the body and are seen associated with virtually every chronic disease today.  

Moreover, while cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone in the short-term, it becomes a driver of inflammation if it’s circulating at constantly low-levels over time.    Eventually, these factors put your body at risk for chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Stress Devastates the Brain

Chronically elevated cortisol is correlated to beta amyloid plaque formation, poor cognition, memory loss and structural damage to the hippocampal region of the brain.  

At the initiation of a stress response, the adrenal glands are usually able to produce enough cortisol to respond to the immediate threat. Although, if your perception of stress sticks around, this process begins to lose effectiveness. As cortisol floods the system, the pituitary and hypothalamus glands signal the adrenals to downregulate production of cortisol.  This is a negative feedback loop.

As cortisol circulates, driving up inflammation, another process occurs.  Inflammatory molecules damage the hormone receptors on the membrane of your cells.  This means that even though cortisol is circulating, it is not effectively signalling your cells to respond to the message it needs to convey.

In the body, this is called resistance, most often seen in insulin resistance and diabetes.  Cells that cortisol should target cannot receive its signal. So instead cortisol reducing inflammation and triggering a healthy immune response, the immune system becomes impaired, and inflammation soars.

This is where your brain cells become vulnerable!

Inflammation is one of the primary drivers of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive decline. In addition to high-jacking the immune system, cortisol directly impact neurons.  In early stages of stress, cortisol can boosts neuron activity and brain function, but over time, cortisol decreases neuronal plasticity resulting in diminished brain function.  

Decrease Stress, Increase Brain Function

Follow these 5 recommendations to decrease your stress response and boost protect the brain.  

  1. Being a meditation or yoga routine. Studies have linked mindfulness to better stress response and improved brain function.
  2. Deal with chronic pain. Pain and stress are deeply intertwined and experiencing chronic physical pain depletes stress resilience.  
  3. Eat Clean.  An anti-inflammatory diet can reduce the vicious cycle of stress and inflammation while nourishing the brain with critical nutrients.
  4. Get Outside – Spending time in nature has been shown to improve the ability to regulate stress.  While any kind of exercise is healthy, getting your heart-rate up outside gives you a bigger “bang for your buck”

Sleep – Poor sleep is an independent risk factor for cognitive decline, but it also depletes our ability to cope with stress.