The long term effect of stress and how it changes your brain
You would have to be living on another planet over the last two years to have avoided stress. Bushfires, pandemic, lockdowns and day to day life have taken a huge toll on mental health.
Exposure to acute and chronic stress is an inevitable part of modern life. Stress and mood disorders are the most common conditions I see in clinic, with people experiencing a range of physical, psychological and behavioural responses to stress. A person may present with positive coping and adaptation abilities through to impaired resilience and negative symptoms. Today, we are seeing chronic states of stress resulting in an increase in anxiety and/or depression.
Mental health data confirms stress and mood disorders are on the rise:
- 25% of Australian adults report high levels of anxiety and/or depression, with 14.3% of New Zealand adults experiencing depression and 6.1%, anxiety disorders.
- 4.3 million Australians received mental health related prescriptions in 2018-19 with a $9.9 billion spend on Australian mental health services in 2017-18.
- 46.1% have a diagnosis of depression or anxiety.
Today’s life demands are often challenging and require intense physical and psychological efforts in order to be sustained. There is a constant feeling of ‘Overwhelm’, and if you perceive this stimulus/stress to be too intense, then these you may experience increased inflammation, metabolic disturbance, elevated autoimmune activity, energy deficits, and a myriad of other symptoms.
Understanding the Science of Stress and it’s Relationship to Neuroplasticity
Ongoing stress can affect the structure and function of different areas of the brain, as it is designed to reshape and rewire itself in response to different experiences, thoughts and emotions. These neuroplastic responses can have both positive and negative impacts on the brain.
- The hippocampus (involved in memory, learning and emotion) can shrink in size due to retracted dendrites of the neurons and synaptic aberrations, exacerbating emotional responses such as sadness or worry.
- Neuroplastic remodelling has been shown in regions involved in anxiety and mood states, such as the amygdala (involved in fear and worry) and pre-frontal cortex.
- Low levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) have been found in mood and stress disorders. BDNF is involved in memory and cognition and exerts protective activity against the effects of stress.
- Put simply, your hippocampus shrinks under stress, this alters your ability to respond to stress over time, your BDNF decreases which is responsible for memory and learning and your amygdala grows so you feel more stress, fear and worry.
Stress responses can disrupt neurotransmitter and hormonal activity while also driving hypothalamic-pituitary (HPA) axis dysfunction, influencing neuroplastic outcomes. For example, during chronic or prolonged stress states the HPA axis mediates cortisol release which, in excess amounts, has a propensity to concentrate in the hippocampus, exerting neurotoxic and maladaptive effects in the brain. This can impact on the cellular energy required for effective neuroplasticity and inflammatory responses known to induce proinflammatory cytokine.
Natural Solutions to Relieve, Restore and Rebuild Mental Wellbeing
By ensuring adequate protective (i.e. neurotrophic) factors, using targeted herbs, nutrition and lifestyle tools, we can offset maladaptive brain plasticity and promote beneficial plasticity (i.e. neurogenesis).
We offer holistic tools and strategies that are easy to implement and can be tailored to an individual’s stress, anxiety or mood states, focusing on three core areas:
- Relieve symptoms using targeted herbal formulas for stress, anxiety and mood symptoms and support neurotrophic pathways, addressing underlying factors (i.e. inflammation) that help a healthy stress response.
- Restore a healthy stress response using core nutrients including magnesium combinations and B vitamins for stress adaptation, mood, sleep, healthy neurotransmitter synthesis and energy production. Our gut and brain are interconnected via a two-way communication system known as the ‘gut-brain axis’. Targeting vagal nerve responsiveness and a healthy gut microbiota with specific probiotic strains can restore a healthy microbiota gut-brain axis and modulate stress response.
- Rebuild resilience by assessing drivers and lifestyle factors including diet, social support, therapy, exercise, sleep quality..
Do you need help with a plan to re-wire your brain, decrease feelings of overwhelm and get back to feeling like you again?
Cindi Young is a leading Gold Coast/Mullumbimby Naturopath with over 20 years experience helping people live happier, healthier lives with a special interest in hormone, preconception health, fertility and weight loss programs. Available by appointment for online, or face to face appointments at The Cycle of Life, Robina, Gold Coast, QLD and Mullum Integrative Health in Mullumbimby, NSW. Book your appointment today.