This common feature of daily life shrinks your brain
June 24th, 2016 by NHI
By now just about everybody knows that being chronically over-stressed is generally bad for your health. That goes for brain health, too – perhaps even more than for cardiovascular health, where stress has been a focus of concern for decades.
Researchers have now found that stress can damage your brain in ways that make you more liable to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other problems that can wipe out your memory. Keep reading for these new discoveries. . .
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The problem originates in the body’s physiological stress response, according to scientists at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto. Stress alters the function of your metabolic processes (the chemical reactions in your organs), makes your heart and arteries over-reactive, and inflames your immune system.
The sum total of those reactions is the atrophy (shrinkage) of the brain’s hippocampus, a brain area central for maintaining memory. Chronic stress also stunts activity in the prefrontal cortex, which contains the neurons that keep your thoughts organized, maintain your attention span, help you plan ahead and keep your personality intact.
Overstimulating the Wrong Part of the Brain
In lab tests, the Baycrest researchers found that stress over-stimulates the amygdala, a part of the brain that is linked to your emotions and anxious feelings.1 The scientists note that this produces a “see-saw” effect – as amygdala activity goes up, the cortex and hippocampal involvement goes down.
This leads to “structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia,” says researcher Dr. Linda Mah.
It’s a kind of use-it-or-lose-it situation. Swamped with the emotional anxiety of stress, the rational parts of your brain retreat and shut down. As your emotional centers take over, you lose function in the neurons that can adequately maintain your memories and reasoning powers.
A System for Relaxing
A key way to offset the brain-damaging effect of stress is to incorporate mindfulness – with techniques like meditation – into your daily life.
Research at the Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh shows that mindfulness can help the brain by reducing the amount of interleukin-6 circulating in the body. Interleukin-6 is a protein that regulates immune cells and affects the function of brain cells.2 It is considered a “biomarker” of inflammation – the more of it your body produces, the higher your level of harmful immune reactions which can damage neurons and other cells.
“We’ve now seen that mindfulness meditation training can reduce inflammatory biomarkers in several initial studies, and (our) new work sheds light into what mindfulness training is doing to the brain to produce these inflammatory health benefits,” says researcher David Creswell, Ph.D., who’s with Carnegie Mellon.
According to Dr, Creswell, mindfulness meditation may help improve your
“… stress resilience (and boost) your brain’s ability to help you manage stress.”
Brief Meditation Yields Big Results
Dr. Creswell’s research shows that meditating to offset stress doesn’t have to be very time consuming. About 25 minutes a day can produce significant results.3
Research he performed at Carnegie Mellon found that less than half an hour daily of breathing exercises and meditation produces important benefits and can improve your physiological response to the anxious moments that we all frequently encounter.
If you want to learn how to practice mindfulness techniques, many local health practitioners offer short courses in the practice. Yoga can also help you ease stress with meditative poses.
And take heart – researchers believe that even if your hippocampus has already begun to shrink, you can probably reverse some of this loss. All you may need are a few calm, deep breaths and an inner, self-directed, meditative focus.
By the way, I practice what I preach. I’ve been meditating daily since 1976. I think I’d be six feet under already if it weren’t for this practice.