by: Carolanne Wright
May 07, 2015
The next time you feel yourself becoming tense, pause and consider that stress is one of the leading causes of poor health, both mental and physical. Research has shown that when we experience undue pressure and strain in our lives, it actually clouds thinking to such a degree that we become much less efficient and are more likely to make harmful choices. We can easily find ourselves in a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.
Muddled thinking and poor memory aren’t the only problem with chronic stress — our health suffers too. In fact, experts in the field are convinced that stress is the number one cause of illness and disease. Keep in mind that stress can masquerade in a variety of disguises, from irritability to sadness — as well as anger. The bottom line is that if we don’t get a handle on our day-to-day experience of stress, our health will eventually deteriorate.
Your brain on stress
When we come up against a stressful circumstance, whether seemingly mild irritation at slow traffic or a more substantial event, such as the loss of a loved one, our body sets into motion a set of reactions that help us cope with the perceived danger. Two stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisone — play an important role when we are under threat. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, while sensory perceptions sharpen in anticipation of either fighting or fleeing. This is hardwired into our biology from the days when we often faced physical danger. The problem in our sedentary digital age is that the fight or flight mechanism is seldom turned off.
Unfortunately, relentless stress damages our brain and makes it increasingly difficult to think clearly. Daniela Kaufer, UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology, found that chronic stress, along with the release of cortisol, produces more myelin-producing cells and fewer neurons than normal. The findings are explained in Psychology Today:
“[T]he researchers found that chronic stress made stem cells in the hippocampus mature into another type of glial cell called an oligodendrocyte, which produces the myelin that sheaths nerve cells. The finding suggests a key role for oligodendrocytes in long-term and perhaps permanent changes in the brain that could set the stage for later mental problems. Chronic stress decreases the number of stem cells that mature into neurons and might provide an explanation for how chronic stress also affects learning and memory.”
Kaufer and her team also discovered that the hippocampus region of the brain — which regulates memory and emotions — shrinks under extended periods of acute stress.
Fortunately, brain structure is not set in stone. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to reshape its composition and forge new, more positive neural connections.
Change your habits, rewire your brain
Christopher Bergland, a world-class endurance athlete and author, believes that we can substantially improve our brainpower by reducing cortisol levels. He suggests the following simple daily habits:
Mindfulness practices and loving-kindness meditation
Cultivating close-knit relationships
Laughter and levity
Listening to music that you love
You can learn more about the specific benefits of each practice in Bergland’s article, “Cortisol: Why ‘The Stress Hormone’ Is Public Enemy No. 1.”
Lastly, he offers some final food for thought:
“Mindset, behavior, and chronic stress are never fixed. The power of neuroplasticity makes it possible to change brain structure and function throughout your lifespan. You can consciously make daily choices of mindset and behavior that will improve the structure and connectivity of your brain.”
About the author:
Carolanne believes if we want to see change in the world, we need to be the change. As a nutritionist, wellness coach and natural foods chef, she has encouraged others to embrace a healthy lifestyle of green living for over 13 years. Through her website www.Thrive-Living.net she looks forward to connecting with other like-minded people who share a similar vision.