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Stress and Brain Damage

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Many of us face situations that are difficult to handle and at times the situation goes beyond our ability to handle. We just can't handle the pressure. Anything that poses a threat to our well-being can be termed as stress. A few instances of stress can be good (positive stress or eustress) and keep us going; in fact certain amount of stress is good. However when stress becomes too difficult to handle then it begins to damage our well-being. Over time, stress damages most cognitive functions, memory and motor skills. Disrupted sleep and depression are other fallouts.

Human body responds to stressors (events that provoke stress) by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. Stress works and affects the pituitary glands located in the base of the brain. Pituitary gland is attached to the hypothalamus. While experiencing stress, the hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol and adrenaline (hormones) and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones increase the heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism.

This causes natural reactions called stress response. Reactions include:

  • Blood vessels open wider and allow more blood to flow to large muscle groups, thus alerting our muscles.

  • Pupils dilate to improve vision.

  • The liver releases stored glucose to increase the body's energy.

  • Sweat is produced to cool the body.

  • All these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment.

Flight and fight response

The approach with which we respond to a challenge may also be a type of stress. When we are faced with a threat our body activates resources that work quickly to protect us, we either fight it out or get away from it as fast as we can. This is termed as the fight or flight response. In such a situation, part of our response is physiological and thus it affects our physical state.

The sympathetic nervous system in our body activates the fight or flight response when we face a stressful event. This in turn triggers:

  • Higher heart rate

  • High alerts

  • Heightened muscle preparedness

  • Sweating, etc

All these factors help us protect ourselves in a dangerous or challenging situation.
When we are in a fight or flight response all our non-essential body functions like immune system, digestive system, etc slow down and concentration is focused on blood flow, rapid breathing, muscle use, etc. Stress leads to the following changes in the physical body:

  • Rise in blood pressure

  • Palpitation

  • Increased heart rate/pulse

  • Rapid breathing

  • Slowed digestion

  • Poor immune system

  • Tense/tight muscles

  • Lack of sleep

Understanding stress and brain

Human brain is built to deal with stress for about 30 seconds. Any kind of long term stress can affect the brain and a person has no control over it. Stress damages almost all kinds of cognition. It can damage memory and affect motor skills too. Long term stress can disrupt the immune response and people tend to feel sick more often. Depression and lack of sleep become the order of the day.

The chemical release

  • Stress is the resultant of various chemical responses that evolve to help a person survive.

  • Brain releases various chemicals while also sending nerve signals into the body through the spinal cord. The limbic system (also called as emotional brain) of the brain responds through the autonomic nervous system of the body. These signals activate the pituitary and adrenal glands.

  • These glands then release a combination of chemicals into the bloodstream.

  • The adrenal glands release a chemical called cortisol (brain damaging chemical).

  • These chemicals heighten the awareness by bringing about various physical changes in the body.

  • The body becomes alert as the sympathetic nervous system equips the body to handle the situation.

  • Parasympathetic nervous system gets into action to calm the body.

  • The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work simultaneously to produce a chemical equilibrium in the body (homeostasis).

  • Too much stress affects the tissues of the pituitary glands which are a part of the brain. This in turn will send incorrect signals to the internal organs of the body. The human body can't differentiate between physical threat and psychological threat and reacts in the same way to both situations.

How stress affects the brain

  • Cortisol released while under stress is a major threat to the brain.

  • It can damage the brain cells.

  • It can break down the cells in the hippocampus which controls the episodic memory.

  • It can lead to premature aging of the brain.

  • It can increase the rate of depression thus reducing the feel good hormone in the brain.

Large amounts of cortisol creates hormonal imbalance thereby placing the body in a catabolic state. And the damage continues long after the stress trigger is removed. Cortisol also impairs the blood sugar maintenance system in the body. This results in mood swings, memory lapses and learning impairment. The brain-blood barrier becomes increasingly permeable thereby exposing the brain to potentially harmful chemicals and toxins in the blood.

Ways to combat stress

Various nutrients can reduce potentially harmful effects of cortisol. Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, zinc, fish oil, alpha-lipoic acid, gingko biloba and Vitamin E are among a few. Plant-based fats are ideal for the brain; virgin olive oil, avocados and seeds. Don't skimp on the complex carbohydrates and fiber. Keep yourself well hydrated. Go for magnesium-rich foods to combat anxiety and depression; pumpkin seeds, peanuts, fish, quinoa and amaranth.

  • If we can allow incidents to pass as they should, accept bygones as bygones, we will be saving our brain from plenty of unwanted stress.
  • Thirty minutes of any physical activity everyday can help combat stress. Exercise for at least 5 days a week.

  • Eat a healthy and nutritious diet. Include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Say no to smoking and alcohol.

  • Sleep well, at least 6-8 hours of sleep every night.

  • Limit caffeine intake.

  • Meditation, yoga.

  • Make time for relaxation and fun.

  • Learn to communicate assertively.

Listen to music or opt for massage or aromatherapy to give you some calming moments. Give yourself a breather once in a way from a hectic routine. Getting better organized might go a long way in avoiding sudden rush and confusions. Be better planned.

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