by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Here are the topics covered in this article:
- What stress does to your brain function
- Steps to curb stress and clear your mind
You’re in the grocery store hurrying through the aisles after work and someone calls your name. You know this person from somewhere, but her name escapes you. You feel embarrassed and distracted while talking to her because you’re racking your brain trying to remember where you know her from and what her name is, but it doesn’t come. This seems to happen a lot these days. Is something going on? Why isn’t your thinking as crisp as it used to be?
Believe me, I know symptoms associated with memory and cognition are very scary because you worry that something serious is wrong. For most women, these symptoms are generally not caused by some horrible disease. Believe it or not, the most common cause for changes in brain function is stress. Stress is a very real drain on the brain at any age and it’s good to know there are some practical ways to keep yourself mentally sharp when you’re feeling stressed.
Chronic unmitigated stress leads to sustained high levels of glucocorticoids, which over time can lead to cellular damage in the hippocampus, where learning and memory of new information are transferred to long-term memory. This damage in turn can interfere with the feedback loop that tells the brain when to “turn off” the stress response, fueling the cycle further.
Your brain on stress
Most of my patients aren’t surprised when I tell them that some stress is an integral part of life. Moderate or periodic stress actually helps us to learn and create new memories. But when stress is chronic, the adrenal glands (our stress responders) secrete stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol too frequently. These hormones, known as glucocorticoids, are essential for healthy function, especially in the face of danger. But when we lead a life of unrelenting stress, we may enter a state referred to as cortisol dominance, which can affect brain function in powerful ways, especially when it comes to memory, attention, and learning.
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Chronic stress from your job, family trauma, a major life event, a difficult relationship, or some other stressor can have the following effects on your brain:
- Cellular changes in the hippocampus, the part of the brain central to learning and memory.
- Slowed or halted neuron production.
- Diminished ability to clean up free radicals and inflammation, which can lead to accelerated brain aging.
- Disruptions in the production of neurotransmitters that help regulate our moods and cognitive function, leaving us grumpy, depressed, or forgetful.
Chronic stress can bring about a sustained stress loop, where the stress leads to increased corticosteroid release, which can damage the hippocampus (and inhibit our immune function). A damaged hippocampus leads to less regulation of cortisol and the unchecked cortisol leads to further damage to the hippocampus (see diagram). The good news is that we can interrupt and reset this cycle by the choices we make in our lives.