By Dr. Mercola
Studies have found links between acute and/or chronic stress and a wide variety of health issues, including your brain function.
Most recently, an animal study reveals that higher levels of stress hormones can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults.1 The findings indicate that how your body responds to stress may be a factor that influences how your brain ages over time. As reported by Business Standard:2
“[R]ats with high levels of the stress hormone corticosterone showed structural changes in the brain and short-term memory deficits.
Robert Sapolsky, PhD said that older animals with higher levels of stress hormones in their blood have ‘older’ frontal cortexes than animals with less stress hormones, thus, stress may act as a pacemaker of aging in this key brain region.”
Previous research3 has also linked chronic stress with working memory impairment. Other recent research suggests that stress may even speed up the onset of more serious dementia known as Alzheimer’s disease, which currently afflicts about 5.4 million Americans, including one in eight people aged 65 and over.4
Fortunately, there’s compelling research showing that your brain has great plasticity and capacity for regeneration, which you control through your diet and lifestyle choices.
Based on the findings linking dementia with chronic stress, having effective tools to address stress can be an important part of Alzheimer’s prevention, not to mention achieving and maintaining optimal health in general.
The Effects of Stress on Memory Function and the Aging Brain
As reported by the University of Iowa,5 where the featured research was done, elevated levels of cortisol affect your memory by causing a gradual loss of synapses in your prefrontal cortex.
This is the brain region associated with short-term memory. Cortisol—a stress hormone—basically has a “corrosive” effect, over time wearing down the synapses responsible for memory storage and processing:
“Short-term increases in cortisol are critical for survival. They promote coping and help us respond to life’s challenges by making us more alert and able to think on our feet.
But abnormally high or prolonged spikes in cortisol—like what happens when we are dealing with long-term stress—can lead to negative consequences that numerous bodies of research have shown to include digestion problems, anxiety, weight gain, and high blood pressure.”
The researchers suggest that you may be able to protect your future memory function by normalizing your cortisol levels. Such intervention would be particularly beneficial for those who are at high risk for elevated cortisol, such as those who are depressed or are dealing with long-term stress following a traumatic event.
Stress May Trigger Clinical Onset of Alzheimer’s
Last year, Argentinean researchers presented evidence suggesting that stress may be a trigger for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The study found that 72 percent—nearly three out of four—Alzheimer’s patients had experienced severe emotional stress during the two years preceding their diagnosis.
In the control group, only 26 percent, or one in four, had undergone major stress or grief. Most of the stresses encountered by the Alzheimer’s group involved:
- Bereavement; death of a spouse, partner, or child
- Violent experiences, such as assault or robbery
- Car accidents
- Financial problems, including “pension shock”
- Diagnosis of a family member’s severe illness
According to lead author, Dr. Edgardo Reich:6
“Stress, according to our findings, is probably a trigger for initial symptoms of dementia. Though I rule out stress as monocausal in dementia, research is solidifying the evidence that stress can trigger a degenerative process in the brain and precipitate dysfunction in the neuroendocrine and immune system. It is an observational finding and does not imply direct causality. Further studies are needed to examine these mechanisms in detail.”
Stress Wrecks Your Health in Multiple Ways
Robert Sapolsky, PhD, quoted in reference to the featured study, has spent three decades investigating the role of stress on human health. In the 2008 National Geographic special, Killer Stress, he reveals how it affects your body and brain. By understanding how stress affects your biology, you are better equipped to combat it, and mitigate its detrimental impact.
To give you a quick overview, when you’re experiencing acute stress, your body releases stress hormones (such as cortisol) that prepare your body to either fight or flee the stressful event.
Your heart rate increases, your lungs take in more oxygen, your blood flow increases, and parts of your immune system become temporarily suppressed, which reduces your inflammatory response to pathogens and other foreign invaders.
When stress becomes chronic, your immune system becomes less sensitive to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control.7 Inflammation, in turn, is a hallmark of most diseases, from diabetes to heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
It’s not so surprising then that researchers have found links between stress and ailments ranging from physical pain8 and chronic inflammation,9 to stillbirths10 and poor gut health (which is critical to maintaining mental and physical health).
Researchers have even found that stress-induced anxiety can rewire your brain in such a way as to alter your sense of smell,11 transforming normally neutral odors into objectionable ones, and, as I will discuss in further detail in a later article featuring an upcoming interview with Greg Marsh, stress is also associated with a loss of visual acuity, and by correcting it, many can eliminate their glasses or contacts.
Conquer Your Stress with Energy Psychology
While it’s virtually impossible to eliminate all stress from your life, there are tools you can use that will allow your body to effectively compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting that takes place when you’re stressed or anxious. Remember, some stress is necessary in life. In many ways it is like exercise, but like exercise, it needs to be addressed properly. My favorite tool for stress management is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). It’s an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body’s reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects.
EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineering graduate specializing in healing and self-improvement. It’s akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.12
By doing so, you reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well. For a demonstration, please see the following video featuring EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman, in which she discusses EFT for stress relief. For serious or deep-seated emotional problems, I strongly recommend seeing an experienced EFT therapist, as there is a significant art to the process that requires a high level of sophistication if serious problems are to be successfully treated.
Other Tips for Relieving Stress
Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and meditation are also important “release valves” that can help you manage your stress. Aromatherapy can also have anxiety-inhibiting effects, as can spending time in nature. In fact, so-called eco-therapy is becoming increasingly validated, with many proponents in the mental health field. Two recent articles in The Guardian13, 14 investigates how spending time in nature can “unlock a healthier mind” and promote a sense of inner peace and happiness. Oliver James writes:
“Ecotherapy encompasses a wide variety of interventions, whether they be prolonged periods in wilderness, gardening or individual therapy. They are all united by the concept that exposure to nature will improve wellbeing and healthy living…
[E]gocentricity… is often reduced by awareness of something much bigger than them, whether it be mountains, wide open plains or huge skies. The feeling that the client is the centre of the universe is called into question by the sheer scale and complexity of nature… The solitude and lack of pressure to satisfy the demands of peers and family lead to significant improvements in such self-attributes as esteem, efficacy and control.
There are many reports of clients of all ages having spiritual experiences as a result of exposure to wilderness… A heightened awareness of plants, animals and landscape leads them to ponder existence beyond themselves. The power of nature encourages a sense of higher powers and of connection both to self and to others.”
A winning combination is to exercise outdoors. Not only is exercise known to relieve stress and ease depression, it also directly benefits your physical brain. It encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by stimulating nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage. Also, during exercise, nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and directly benefits cognitive functions, including learning. For more stress-busting tips, please see my previous article, “13 Mind-Body Techniques That Can Help Ease Pain and Depression.” Clearly, stress is an inescapable part of life—it’s how you deal with it that will determine whether it will translate into health problems later on.