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How Stress can kill off brain cells

We know that prolonged stress can have a deleterious affect on our bodies and our health.

We know also, that prolonged stress has a very damaging effect on our brain causing actual cell death and making it harder for us to lay down new memories.

We all experience stress to a greater or lesser extent in our daily lives.

Can you remember a time when you felt severely stressed or under extreme pressure?

Can you remember what it felt like and the effect it had on your thinking?

Many people describe this situation as if they are in a brain-fog. Their thinking is muddled and clouded. It becomes incredibly hard to think straight. Our ability to problem solve, to think logically and to make decisions is severely compromised.

That’s why so may decisions made in the heat of the moment may turn out to be wrong ones, and ones we may come to regret.

So how does stress kill off our brain cells?

You may be familiar with the “fight or flight” syndrome.

If we are about to be run over by a large truck, take an exam, or be mugged our body prepares us to either run away extremely fast or stand and fight.

Our adrenal glands release adrenaline into our blood stream which causes our heart rate to go up; more sugar is released into the blood stream to provide energy to the muscles, our breathing rate increases and our blood pressure goes up. At the same time, cortisol is also released and this helps to maintain the higher level of blood sugar and elevated blood pressure until the danger has passed.

Not all stress is bad. Some stress can be good for us; it heightens our awareness, makes our mind sharper and encourages us to think more creatively. We work harder to meet a deadline.

The problem arises when the level of cortisol remains elevated.

Too much cortisol over a period of time dampens down our immune system so we become more susceptible to illness and disease and it affects our brains by causing brain cell death especially particularly in the area called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the brain important for memory.

Stress can lead to depression.

Excessive cortisol can also thought to have an effect on our serotonin levels and contribute to depression developing.

Stress inhibits new brain cell formation.

Every day our brains produce new brain cells again primarily in the hippocampal area but excess cortisol will have a negative effect on this, inhibiting new brain cell formation.

So the bottom line is that severe prolonged stress will

  • Have a negative effect on our learning and memory
  • Make us more susceptible to developing depression
  • Reduce our ability to grow new brain cells

All of which contributes to poorer brain performance.

Tips to help reduce stress:

Taking time out every day just for yourself. Start with 10 minutes and find a quiet place where there are no distractions or interruptions such as the phone, the kids, or the computer.

And just concentrate on being “in the moment” being aware of your breathing, your thoughts and try to quieten down the mind chatter.

Meditation is an excellent way to relieve stress. People who meditate regularly will tell you they find their mind is much clearer and more focussed.

Yoga and Tai Chi achieve the same results as meditation.

If you are aware of the stress you are experiencing is coming from your work situation or family difficulties, finding a counsellor or course to help teach stress management may be of help. Talking to someone else may help you to think through your problem and find a solution.

Find something else to distract you from your stress. Go for a walk, do some exercise, listen to some of your favourite music.

Stress can be managed. It’s a question of working out what works best for you.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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