Think about the last time you felt a burst of stress. Maybe it was when you were preparing a big presentation for work, or while you were getting a root canal done. When we feel stressed, our body releases the stress hormone called cortisol. In small doses, cortisol is a powerful hormone. It helps regulate your blood pressure and blood sugar, can heighten memory, and even lower your sensitivity to pain. However, if stress maintains for prolonged periods, your brain can literally shrink and ultimately lead to life-changing, degenerative diseases. Fortunately, research has shown that with new healthier behaviors, you may reverse the shrinkage and the effects of stress on the body.
The Effects of Stress on the Body
Small bursts of stress are easily managed by your body. But think about any long-term, high stress events you may have experienced. Perhaps you’ve taken care of a gravely ill parent, or have an all-consuming, highly demanding job. These examples would be considered chronic stress, and could result in long-term changes in the brain.
During short bursts of stress, cortisol plays a crucial part in our fight-or-flight response, and lets our bodies know we are in danger. Our fight-or-flight response was originally intended to protect us from brief encounters with life-threatening predators or enemies. Although we may be safer now from these evolutionary threats, many of us still live in a constant state of fight-or-flight, or chronic stress. Our bodies are not meant to endure stress for such long periods of time. Consequently there are a wide range of symptoms. Chronic stress commonly manifests as irritability, fatigue, headache, difficultly sleeping, and digestive issues.
How Does Stress Shrink Your Brain?
Your brain consists of two types of matter: white and gray. White matter takes up 60% of the brain, which processes and sends signals up and down the spine. Gray matter, the other 40%, includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perception (seeing and hearing), memory, emotions, and speech.
Although both have important functions, only gray brain matter shrinks when we are under stress. When your body is in a constant state of stress, your adrenal glands will release unhealthy amounts of cortisol. Too much cortisol will cause the gray matter in your brain to shrink. This shrinkage is largely found in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Both of these brain structures work together to aid in learning, and produce our emotions, thoughts, personality, and behavior.
Is it Reversible? How Can You Protect Yourself?
It is possible to reverse gray matter brain shrinkage. Because the brain is so flexible, it is able to change and rebuild damaged areas when you practice new behaviors. Here are some examples of healthy, stress-reducing activities than can help reverse shrinkage of the brain.
Even in very moderate amounts, exercise does a lot for the body. Blood pressure and blood flow increase throughout the body, including the brain. More blood flow means more energy and oxygen, making your brain perform better. Just moving 20 minutes a day has been proven to provide a wealth of health benefits.
“You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk—all of those things come in the first 20 minutes of being active…you can always do more. But the science shows that if you just do anything, even stand in place 20 minutes, you will be healthier.” – Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times
Although many think of meditation as a practice in relaxation, it has been proven that it provides cognitive and psychological benefits as well. In a study performed by Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, eight weeks of meditation created measurable differences in the brain. An average of 27 minutes a day resulted in increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, which is responsible for long term memory. In addition, they saw a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, which is active during stress and anxiety, and accounts for emotions, especially fear.
Ideally, we should all be getting between seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Not enough sleep will cause your body to release more stress hormones, like cortisol. With that being said, sleep deprivation reduces your ability to perform at your best. Experts suggest creating a healthy sleep habit routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, avoid caffeine after noon, and create a sleep environment that is welcoming and relaxing.
Change is Possible
It has been scientifically proven that stress will rewire and shrink your brain. The good news is that in most cases, the damage is reversible. With a conscious effort being placed on whole body wellness, you can ultimately heal your brain. Moderate exercise, getting a good night’s sleep, and a little meditation can go a long way. If you need help getting on track, there are alternative solutions, such as hemp extract in Natural Recovery Greens, to help strengthen your brain.