Stress comes in many different forms and degrees of intensity. And while short bursts of mild to moderate stress is good for our health (e.g. learning, responsible calorie restriction, and moderate levels of exercise), prolonged and excessive stress can have a profoundly negative impact on our health. If not properly addressed, this excessive stress can lead to changes in our brain structure & function, causing common conditions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia and substance abuse.
Stress seriously messes with our ability to ‘bring home the bacon’
Cortisol (the stress hormone), concentrates in the brain – specifically in the hippocampus. This is the area of the brain that is recognised for its role in learning, memory and adding emotional context to events. Because this area of the brain is always ‘rewiring’ itself to create and save memories, it is highly vulnerable to damage by excessive amounts of cortisol. This can lead to the mental deficits seen in stress disorders. Stress can also damage our prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is the area of the brain responsible for stable emotions and executive function.
Stress can therefore have a dramatic effect on our cognitive control. It can hinder our:
• attentional control and working memory
• reasoning, problem solving and planning
• cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control
Considering that most of our week (and life!) is spent working, this can mean that we are significantly hindered for the majority of the time. We feel completely overwhelmed and unable to cope at work. Then, when we get home and no longer have an outlet for our stress, this feeling is quickly replaced with other issues such as anxiety, depression, insomnia and substance abuse. These conditions then effect our ability to get to sleep and to stay asleep. This lack of sleep feeds into our stress cycle making things much worse for us the next day. And then again the next night…
If we don’t like our brain – we can change it!
The good news is that rather than the actual stressor being the deciding factor in our health, it is our response to it that determines the outcome. Because ‘stress’ is an unavoidable fact of life, our best defence is to continually work on building our psychological resilience (our mental and emotional strength). It is now known that we can positively or negatively influence the structure and the function of our brain. The more adaptable we become to the stresses in our life – the better we will cope and the healthier we will be!
There are many lifestyle changes we can make to promote a healthy brain. Some examples of these changes are: engaging in regular moderate physical activity (especially out in nature); eating a healthy diet; and seeking social support. Additionally, there are two important supplements we can take to increase our mental and emotional resilience to stress: Magnesium and B-group vitamins.
If we take magnesium it’s like giving our stressed brain ‘a hug’. Not only can it calm our brain, but it may also reduce tension in our body (it’s a muscle relaxant). Magnesium has also been shown to support positive brain changes by significantly increasing a substance called Brain derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) in the Hippocampus and PFC.
A study performed in 2011 on: The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress 1 showed a significant reduction in workplace depression, tension, fatigue and confusion when taking this cost-effective supplement. This is because this group of vitamins is required for our brain to ‘fire on all cylinders’ – ensuring our neurotransmitters and receptors are functioning optimally. These vitamins are also necessary to provide us with energy to cope under stress, and like magnesium they may also assist with supporting positive brain changes.
Source: Lisa Fitzgibbon, Naturopath & Medical Herbalist
1 Stough C, et al. The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress. Hum Psychopharmacol. 2011 Oct;26(7):470-6