We all have some sort of stress in our lives. Your stress can be short lived or long term, it can be constant and chronic, or acute and intense. Whatever kind of stress you are experiencing, it has an effect on brain resilience.
Wouldn’t it be nice to understand how to improve brain resilience and decrease the negative effects of stress on the brain? Wouldn’t it be great to bring more balance between your work focused activities and heart/joy focused events? Do you ever become forgetful because you’ve been over-working with long hours at your job? Why do you think that is happening?
What is stress? Where does it come from?
Stress is the feeling of pressure or strain. There is good stress, which occurs in small amounts and can be beneficial as a motivator. Negative stress can have a major impact on health. This kind of stress can be caused by a crisis in life, a major life event, daily annoyances and minor hassles. Our environment is so powerful that it can completely override our genetics. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on the environment in which you surround yourself.
All of brain development comes about for survival. All mal-adaptations, comes from the intent to survive. In the beginning of evolution, the fight or flight response (stress response) only occurred when we were about to be eaten by an animal. Today, it should only occur when a car is coming down the road as we cross the street or some other life threatening event is before us. These days, we can feel that state of adrenaline rushing through our bodies if small non-life threatening events occur, like we are late to an appointment.
The adaptation syndrome in stress causes a decreased resistance to stress and increase in the release of glutococoritcoids. These are steroids that the body naturally produces and decrease dendritic spines, which are necessary for learning and memory.
How much can I really change my brain?
Research has shown the amazing resilience of the brain. We thought that the neuroplasticity of the brain stopped in our youth and it became more rigid as we got older. Now we are recognizing that we can create new synaptic pathways throughout our lives, even over night.Therefore, the good news is that all of this is reversible!! To accomplish this, we need to feel less stress…
Ways to reduce and remove the stressors include:
- Decrease the stress is by increasing control and predictability. If you have a certain experience, re-assess the situation and change the way that you are viewing it to a more positive light.
- Reduce or eliminate the stressor. One of the most effective ways, is to focus on changing the emotional reaction. A helpful tool in achieving a more normalized and neutral emotional reaction is through a technique called Neuro-Emotional Technique (NET) that I offer for my patients. NET reduces or eliminates the synaptic connections between current events and past traumas so that they are not causing an accumulation disorder. (When you experience an event that is repeated often through life, the reaction increases regardless of the current event stress.) NET is also helpful for triggers that have occurred for any reason.
- Take supplements that nourish and calm the adrenal glands so that they are able to recover faster and easier during stressful times.
- Avoiding sugar and other stimulants like caffeine, can also be helpful.
More strategies to decrease stress, and therefore, increase brain resilience:
- Physical Exericse
- Healthy Diet
- Staying hydrated. The brain is mostly water, around 70%, which is why dehydration impairs focus, memory and mood.
- Supportive relationships
- Increasing body awareness,
- Vacations. Using time away to disconnect from social media and phone use, in general.
- Self-care with alone time
- Regular sleep of 8 hours or more
- Goal-setting that reflects life purpose and increases fulfillment.
- Embracing self-discovery.
As needed, I utilize these tools within my patient appointments. After practicing and developing these skills, they become tools that are readily available to use when difficult moments arise.
Is sleep really that important for the health of my brain?
YES! The number one impact on the brain’s resilience and ability to form and store memories is sleep. For 18 years I’ve been telling my patients that they need to get at least 8 hours of sleep every night for multiple reasons and now I can add avoiding early onset dementia to the list.
Memory increases after 8 hrs of sleep and decreases dramatically in times of sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep also creates an increase in remembering negative events exponentially more than positive events. This is one of the reasons why sleep loss is linked to depression. The reason behind this is that your brain is replaying memories as you sleep at a speed of 8x the actual occurrence because there is no distraction. To create the synaptic pathways for memory, the brain needs to process and replay things at neuro speed during sleep.
Does it matter if I take medication to help me sleep?
Sleep aides (such as ambien), change sleep structure but can be helpful if you can still get to stage 4 REM sleep. Non-pharmacological sleep aides have been shown to be much more helpful to get to stage 4 sleep. Naps are also shown to be effective, and most impactful if around 2 pm. No wonder Europeans who take siestas are so happy and healthy!
How does sleep effect brain function? What about caffeine?
Sleep loss creates less clearing of amyloid protein (associated with dementia). This is the reason behind the neuro-protective effects of sleep. There is evidence that a low dose of caffeine (between 100-200 mg, which is equivalent to 1-2 cups of coffee/day) can help to reduce Alzheimer’s if it is in conjunction with exercise. BUT, sleep is exponentially more important than caffeine to produce this effect. Without sleep, you will sustain damage to your brain function. Without caffeine, no symptoms occur. The research on caffeine does show that it clears the protein clumps, which are associated with causing Alzheimer’s.
Does exercise help brain function, too?
The second most impactful habit for brain resilience is exercise! Exercise enhances BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Facor), aka brain fertilizer. It enhances neuron communication and survival, protects against brain injury and improves learning. Wow, those are great reasons to exercise regularly (another promotion I’ve been doing for the last 18 years).
Are there any positive effects with the aging brain?
I’ve saved the best news for last… some functions improve with age! Language skills and emotional intelligence become stronger as we age. This is why the term “wise elders” is used. Our vocabulary increases and we become more skilled conversationalists. Most importantly, we increase our ability to control negative emotions and therefore have more emotional stability.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is another extremely useful tool for stress resilience and a more productive brain. I discuss this in my next blog!