Stress: What It Can Do to You & What You Can Do About It

I recently read a study on the effects of stress and the link between stress, cortisol and many health ailments. We’ve all heard that stress affects us negatively, but what are some of the specifics? I’ve gathered some of the information I found to share with you in the hopes that you may learn to de-stress your lives (as I need to do) and live longer, healthier and happier days.

Understanding Stress and its Effects

Chronic over-secretion of stress hormones adversely affects brain function, especially memory. Too much cortisol can prevent the brain from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories. The renowned brain researcher, Robert M. Sapolsky, has shown that sustained stress can damage the hippocampus, the part of the limbic brain which is central to learning and memory. The culprits are “glucocorticoids,” a class of steroid hormones secreted from the adrenal glands during stress. They are more commonly known as corticosteroids or cortisol.

During a perceived threat, the adrenal glands immediately release adrenalin. If the threat is severe or still persists after a couple of minutes, the adrenals then release cortisol. Once in the brain cortisol remains much longer than adrenalin, where it continues to affect brain cells. When levels of cortisol rise to a certain level, several areas of the brain – especially the hippocampus – tell the hypothalamus to turn off the cortisol-producing mechanism. The hippocampus, however, is the area most damaged by cortisol. In his book Brain Longevity, Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., describes how older people often have lost 20-25% of the cells in their hippocampus, so it cannot provide proper feedback to the hypothalamus, so cortisol continues to be secreted. This, in turn, causes more damage to the hippocampus, and even more cortisol production. Thus, a Catch-22 “degenerative cascade” begins, which can be very difficult to stop.

Shrinking Hippocampus, Memory Loss, and Alzheimer’s-Study

Using magnetic resonance imaging, Mayo Clinic researchers found that specific changes in the hippocampus were linked to changes in behavior associated with aging and Alzheimer’s disease. “When certain parts of the hippocampus shrink or deteriorate, specific, related memory abilities are affected,” says neurologist Ronald C. Petersen, the principal author of the study. Furthermore, individuals with a shrunken hippocampus tend to progress more rapidly towards Alzheimer’s.

“In earlier studies we were able to show that the volume of the hippocampus could help diagnose early Alzheimer’s disease or help predict which patients may develop Alzheimer’s disease in the future. Now we can look specifically at which part or parts of the hippocampus are affected and match that with particular memory functions which are impaired in that particular patient,” says Dr. Petersen. Elizabeth Gould, Researcher at Princeton University, notes that “levels of stress hormones rise with aging, and are very likely to be responsible for the decline in neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons). The good news, though, is that the aging brain doesn’t appear to lose the ability to generate new neurons,” when you relieve the stress.

High Levels of Cortisol also Effect:

Collagen: In laboratory rats, cortisol-induced collagen loss in the skin is ten times greater than in any other tissue.

Gastric and Renal Secretion: Cortisol stimulates gastric-acid secretion.

Immune System: Cortisol suppresses the immune response. It is known in the medical world as the “mute button.”

Bone Metabolism: Cortisol reduces bone formation, favoring long-term development of osteoporosis.

Additional Effects:

  • Increases blood pressureby increasing the sensitivity of the vasculature to epinephrine and norepinephrine.
  • Shuts down the reproductive system, resulting in an increased chance of miscarriage and (in some cases) temporary infertility. Fertility returns after cortisol levels return to normal.

What You Can Do

Learn to conquer your stress. You fight a cold. You bandage a cut. You get rid of a headache. The point is if something impacts you negatively, you do something about it. Stressing brings about a negative impact, so do something about it. Don’t allow stress to build.  Don’t allow stress to steal your joy. When you feel stress coming on, push it away. Resist it. Fight back. Use whatever tools or stress relief tips that work for you, but do not let stress take control of you.

Studies show that 10 to 20 minutes of quiet reflection or meditation a day can bring relief from stress and increase your tolerance of the dynamic situations around you. There are many more tips and techniques that can help you overcome your stress. Thousands of websites are dedicated to the topic as well as community support resources. Here are some additional tips:

Self-Help Stress Relief Tips:

  • Eat right and exercise
  • Set realistic goals
  • Handle important tasks first and eliminate unessential tasks
  • Take a break and meditate to slow down “mind-racing”
  • Reduce the urge to be “perfect”
  • Reduce criticism of yourself and others
  • Don’t stress when expectations are not met
  • Manage your anger
  • Push away negativity of any kind
  • Give yourself “me” time
  • Choose to keep quiet when you feel a negative reaction
  • Silence your phone at night
  • Utilize relaxation techniques; Yoga, Meditation, Breathing, etc.
  • Laugh and smile more often
  • Remember you can only change yourself

The human brain is a mysterious and wonderful thing. We learn more about it every day. New discoveries allow us to gain the knowledge we need to make conscious decisions and changes to better our lives. “Being in control of your life and having realistic expectations about your day-to-day challenges are the keys to stress management, which is perhaps the most important ingredient to living a happy, healthy and rewarding life.” -Marilu Henner



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