Aging gracefully is part genetics and how well you take care of yourself through the years. Anti-aging researchers now have a better understanding of just how important stress is in relation to how youthful you’ll stay as you get older. That’s why I want to tell you about some new findings about how chronic stress can affect your brain. Here’s what we’ve learned…
Control Stress to Protect Memory, Prevent Mental Disorders
“Senior moment” memory glitches are common to everyone over 40. They usually are a result of rushing, anxiety, or just being tired. They’re most often temporary and nothing to be concerned about. Yet, these little memory glitches can give you a glimpse of what effect uncontrolled stress can have on your brain.
Imagine having memory lapses on a larger scale that lasted longer than a few moments? Think of the impact they would have on how you lived your life. Yet, this is the real threat that chronic, uncontrolled stress presents not only to your brain but to your overall health.
Memory loss is just part of the damaging brain effects that high stress levels can create. New research out of Germany’s Ruhr Universitat Bochum (RUB) has found that chronic stress can actually cause permanent brain damage and result in a number of mental disorders.
They found that chronic stress activates your immune cells in such a way that it can cause permanent damage to brain cells called microglia. Normally, these brain cells repair the connection between nerve cells in the brain and help stimulate their growth.
But, under chronic stress, these brain cells can behave just the opposite. They can start to damage nerve cells and create inflammation which starts a destruction process in cells. Some examples of mental disorders that can be brought on by chronic stress are anxiety, mood swings, depression, and even schizophrenia.
Other recent studies out of the State University of New York have also shown that stress negatively affects mental functions. They found that the stress hormone cortisol directly impacts your brain’s prefrontal cortex, or PFC for short. This area of your brain controls “executive functions” like working memory and decision making. It also affects your emotions.
This area of your brain also needs adequate amounts of a protein, glutamate, to be able to do its work. High cortisol (stress) levels reduces the amount of glutamate that is available for the PFC to use. With chronic stress, glutamate can stay suppressed and PFC function slows way down. As a result, memory suffers as does the ability to make decisions quickly and to just think clearly.
I know this sounds concerning. I mean, we all have stress right? The last thing we need to add more stress to our lives is knowing we’re also damaging our brains from our stress levels. But, the real impact of these findings are two-fold:
1. Not everyone will suffer permanent brain damage and resultant mental disorders from chronic stress.
2. Even if you have chronic stress, there are ways you can fight its negative effects.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Brain
The first thing you can do is dial down the stress in your life. Get to the heart of what’s causing your stress and then take steps to resolve it. Second, take steps to counter the negative effects of stress. Here are some things you can do:
1. Exercise. At least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day can help normalize stress hormones.
2. Omit refined sugar. Every molecule of refined sugar you eat increases stress cortisol levels, especially as you get older. It does this by first raising insulin levels. So, to help reduce your body’s stress response from spiking blood sugar/insulin levels, stick to vegetables, low sugar fruits (apricots, berries, plums, cranberries, etc), low-sugar dairy (harder cheeses). Limit alcohol which is metabolized as sugar and, in excess, damages brain cells.
3. Increase protein. Most people over the age of 50 are deficient in protein. It’s not only needed for muscle strength and skin tone but to keep blood sugar levels normal and brain function stable. Proteins boost necessary brain chemicals norepinephrine and dopamine which keep your brain (and the rest of you) energized and alert. Your brain’s neurons (nerve cells) also communicate messages with each other via enzymes and hormones which are all created through protein. Eat at least 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight to be sure you’re getting enough.
4. Nutrition. Be sure you get enough of the vitamins and nutrients that fuel your brain cells. These include antioxidants like Vitamin C, E, alpha lipoic acid and acetyl carnitine, but also the “sunshine vitamin”, Vitamin D3 and the energy B vitamins. These nutrients help keep your brain functioning correctly.
5. Sleep. Sleep is your brain’s caretaker. It helps your brain recharge itself and is the time when your brain clears its cellular debris. Without enough sleep, your brain function slows down. You can test this yourself by staying up all night and seeing how well you function the next day. Your speech and word finding ability becomes impaired, your short term memory doesn’t work so well, and your coordination skills are also off.
Stress is inevitable in life, especially as you get older. But it doesn’t have to negatively impact your memory and brain function. By taking proactive steps everyday, you can prevent stress from causing permanent damage to your brain and your overall health.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Mental Disorders Due To Permanent Stress? http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141121082907.htm
How Repeated Stress Affects Memory, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120307132202.htm