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?
We 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.
How stress affects your brain
Most women aren't surprised when to learn 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.
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.
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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.
Limiting stress can restore healthy memory
In today's world nearly everyone is dealing with stress on a daily basis, but fortunately, you can minimize its effects on your brain — and body — by supporting yourself holistically. Take a look below to see how you can incorporate brain-healthy changes into your life.
Feed your brain. Brain function is the first to falter when you're out of fuel. Eating something nutritious three to five times a day will help keep your blood sugar even, steadily fueling your brain, and improving your capacity for learning, remembering, and paying attention.
We suggest well-balanced, plant-rich meals and snacks, being careful to include some protein every time you eat. Because we can't always eat a perfect diet, supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin can make a tremendous difference for a brain under stress. Here's a list of key nutrients that support structural, regulatory, and restorative properties in the brain:
- B complex
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
All of these nutrients are available in precise doses in our Essential Nutrients formulation, which is part of our Adrenal Health Program.
Exercise reasonably. Exercise has been shown in laboratory experiments to stimulate the birth of new nerve cells. To be sure exercise doesn't become a source of stress, experiment with different types and try to find 2-3 forms of exercise you enjoy. Rotate them to prevent boredom or feeling “stuck.” Practice breathing through your nose as you exercise to re-engage your parasympathetic nervous system — your built-in “chill out” mechanism.
Sleep. Sleep is essential for good brain function. Strive for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. If getting to sleep is difficult for you, consider the healing benefits of passionflower, chamomile, and valerian root. These herbs are all part of our formulation, Serinisol, which can gently dissolve stress and help you sleep peacefully.
Explore herbal support. There are many herbs that can help lower the impact of stress on our bodies and brains. Astragalus root, rhodiola, cordyceps, and Siberian ginseng are herbs that can protect the body from physical stress and they're all in our product, Adaptisol.
Uncover the roots of your stress. This may seem the most challenging step of all. Consider keeping a journal or an ongoing list of things that cause you stress. Is it too little sleep? Not enough time alone? A draining job or difficult relationship? Write these down as they come to you, and then look over your notes later to see if there are ways to change at least some of the stressors in your life! When you begin to contemplate your sources of stress, you can often learn how to distinguish between things you cannot change and those you can, and, from there, become able to work toward solutions. For situations that feel out of your control, consider talking with a counselor, or trying the Emotional Freedom Technique, the Hoffman Process, or The Work by Byron Katie. We've seen tremendous results with all of these approaches.
Good or bad, we just can't stop the stress in our lives. But we can learn to respond to it in new ways and protect our body and mind from it. You don't have to fear the worst when you feel forgetful or confused. Keeping your body, mind, and spirit healthy includes taking steps to address stress and restore balance and resilience to your adrenal glands. This kind of self-care will bring health on every level.
1 Strauch, B. 2010. The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, xvii–xviii. NY: Viking.
“[T]he most recent science shows that serious deficits in important brain functions — ones we care most about — do not occur until our late seventies and, in many cases, far beyond.”
2 The Franklin Institute On-line. 2004. The human brain. URL: http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/stress.html (accessed 01.13.2011).
3 McEwen, B. 2007. Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: Central role of the brain. Physiol. Rev., 87 (93), 873–904. URL: http://physrev.physiology.org/content/87/3/873.long (accessed 01.21.2011).
McEwen, B. 2006. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: Central role of the brain. Dialogues Clin. Neurosci., 8 (4), 367–381. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17290796 (accessed 01.20.2011).
Alexander, J. 2005. Chapter 13. Environmental Inputs. Trauma. In Textbook of Functional Medicine, ed. D. Jones & S. Quinn, 145. Gig Harbor, WA: Institute for Functional Medicine.
“Related to an aspect of cognitive functioning is the hippocampus, which is involved in verbal and contextual memory. The hippocampus is rich in cortisol receptors, and normally participates in a feedback loop controlling release of CRH from the hypothalamus. Persistently elevated levels of cortisol are toxic to hippocampal neurons, and lead to neuronal atrophy or death and loss of memory.”
The Franklin Institute On-line. 2004.
4 Strauch, B. 2010. 137.
5 Perlmutter, D., & Colman, C. 2004. The Better Brain Book, 133. NY: Riverhead Books.
6 Perlmutter, D., & Colman, C. 2004. 133.
7 Chang, C., et al. 2009. Essential fatty acids and human brain. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20329590 (accessed 09.27.2010).
Perlmutter, D., & Colman, C. 2004. 62, 64–65.
“The most important nutrient for your brain is fat….” “Healthy well-functioning brains contain high amounts of DHA….” “Eating a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids is a good first step toward increasing your level of DHA.”
8 Strauch, B. 2010. 126.
Middletown, L., et al., 2010. Physical activity over the life course and its association with cognitive performance and impairment in old age. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20609030.
Reference for illustration
a Alexander, J. 2005.
McEwen, B. 2007.
Wyss, J., et al. 2002. The limbic system. In Conn, P. M. (ed). Neuroscience in Medicine, 369–387. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.