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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

The Toll of Stress on Our Cognitive Health and What We Can Do About It

Oct 30, 2021 09:00PM ● By Veena Verma-Dzik
Unable to remember simple tasks, focus, sleep and having feelings of anxiety or depression? Stress will do that to us. There is a scientific reason why. Stress has a greater impact on the brain than most realize.

Cortisol, our main stress hormone, is not necessarily a bad guy. We most certainly need it to get us going, or even light that fire under us to get things done. It is most certainly needed to regulate blood pressure, blood, glucose, metabolism and our immune system. It is when we are in a state of chronic stress, that cortisol becomes a problem.

What is happening to our brains?
For most of us, the first sign of stress is when we forget the littlest things, like losing our keys, where we were that same morning or leaving the coffee on top of the car while driving. When we are under chronic stress, the structure of neurons and connections within the brain undergo changes. One of the most sensitive areas of the brain, the hippocampus, is very sensitive to stress. Not only does communication between this center of the brain and other areas become weakened, but imaging studies have shown that the volume of the hippocampus actually decreases in size as a result of chronic stress. Yes, that’s right, the brain shrinks.

Other changes that occur in this area of the brain include changes in the supportive glial cells, decreased neurogenesis, changes in fluid volume and reduced neurogenesis. Since the hippocampus is responsible for emotional regulation, memory and learning, all of these become compromised.

While our hippocampus is shrinking, the amygdala—the area of our brain that is responsible for emotions and response to fear—is increasing in size, number of neural connections and activity level. Since it is a huge component of regulating our emotions, it is no wonder that as it increases in size, we become more anxious and fearful.

To address the cognitive changes that are experienced during stress, we turn to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is the most evolved and the most sensitive to stress. Under stress, the synaptic communication between neurons becomes altered, and, as a result, our ability to rationalize and think clearly is off the table. It does not stop at the brain shrinking. The prolonged, chronic stress that we are subjected to increases pro-inflammatory cytokines and free radicals, creating a leaky blood-brain barrier—which ultimately leads to a bigger entryway to pathogens, toxins and heavy metals, leading to chronic illnesses such as dementia, MS, cancer and more.

Addressing the stress
Hope is not lost. Fortunately, there are so many things that we can do to help manage our stress, reduce cortisol and improve our cognitive health.

Ashwagandha is a favorite medicinal herb. Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb that has been used in India for centuries for enhancing endurance, youthful vigor and overall health. The active ingredients in Ashwagandha, withanolides, not only balance out cortisol levels, but also are a great anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and can mediate neurodegeneration during stress. Studies have shown that Ashwagandha is very helpful in alleviating anxiety and depression, improving mood, energy and the quality of sleep. It works wonderfully at addressing multiple concerns.

Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, is not just any plain adaptogen. This herb goes by other interesting names, such as The Incomparable One, Queen of Herbs and Liquid Yoga. It’s no wonder; Tulsi not only helps balance out the effects of chronic stress, but also produces a calming effect on the body, while at the same time enhancing memory and cognitive function. The great thing about Tulsi is that we don’t have to swallow a pill, but we can just sip on the tea during the day.

When it comes to coping with stress in a healthy manner, it is extremely vital to your health to incorporate healthy lifestyle habits on a day-to-day basis. Consuming a nutrient-rich diet is very beneficial. Getting adequate nutrition, particularly B vitamins, helps lower perceived stress and improves mood. Do not turn to comfort foods. Initially it may feel good, but in the end it will make things worse.

There are numerous studies that have proven meditation to lower cortisol, reduce inflammation and improve cardiovascular and cognitive health. Exercise provides the same benefits, along with lower reactivity to stress. While on a walk, consider listening to a good podcast or some meditations. Progressive muscle relaxation is a great way to promote relaxation and reduce stress. While lying on the floor, close the eyes, take deep breaths and tighten and relax each muscle at a time. As we all know, getting adequate, restful sleep will also help us focus and cope with stress more effectively. Rather than being reactive, these daily habits help us be more proactive.

If we are ever in a state where we are feeling too overwhelmed by stress, it’s important not to isolate ourselves. Find a friend, be social, get a pet. Seeking a professional who specializes in therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or EMDR, have been proven to be very helpful in getting through difficult times.

In a perfect, make-believe world, stress would be nonexistent. Although we cannot always control what goes on around us, we have the mindset and the capability to control how we perceive stressors and handle them in a way in which we can grow and become stronger from them.

Dr. Veena Verma-Dzik, ND, FIAMA Naturopathic Doctor for Insight Counseling, is board-certified and a certified medical acupuncturist who is highly experienced in treating acute and chronic health conditions. Some of her specialties include women’s health, ADD/ADHD, GI conditions,
MTHFR, Lyme disease and co-infections, mood imbalances, allergies, fatigue and hormonal imbalances. Connect at Insight Counseling, in Ridgefield, at 203-431-9726 and FairfieldNaturopathicHealth.com. See ad, page 19.