Your Brain on Stress

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Your Brain on Stress
Chronic stress not only emotionally and functionally affects the brain, it can also directly physically affect this most important organ. Research has shown that stress not only can increase the incidence of such simple effects as “moodiness,” “brain fog,” or irritability, but it can also eventually progress to the development of such physical impairments as full-blown memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. Each of these conditions involves a degree of mental deterioration characterized by damage to and death of nerve cells in the brain. And it has been estimated that as many as 30 to 50 percent of adults in industrialized countries suffer from these conditions (compared to the 65 to 90 percent of adults in industrialized countries who suffer from enough chronic stress to result in any detrimental health condition—not just “psychological” or “brain-related” conditions).

The changes in mood that accompany periods of heightened stress also lead to reduced energy levels, feelings of fatigue, irritability, inability to concentrate, and feelings of depression—all of which are related to the same class of brain chemicals, the neurotransmitters. Most notable (and scary), perhaps, are the findings that chronic stress can lead to actual physical changes in the arrangement of the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. In other words, we’re talking now about stress changing both the function and the structure of your brain. No wonder your brain doesn’t work the way it is supposed to!

People suffering from depression typically have disrupted biochemical balance, with imbalances in hormones, such as cortisol/testosterone, and in brain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The people who are under the highest levels of stress also tend to be the ones who succumb to periods of moderate depression. Part of the reason for this may be that during periods of heightened stress, the brain becomes accustomed to the heightened arousal signals of high cortisol levels, and when the stressor is removed (or reduced), the brain is unable to function effectively. Animal studies have shown, for example, that the brains of rats exposed to repeated stresses eventually become resistant to specific pleasure pathways; therefore, higher and higher levels of the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins) were needed to induce a response. It has also been known for more than twenty years that patients given high doses of synthetic cortisol-like drugs (such as corticosteroids to treat autoimmune diseases) also tend to develop memory problems and signs of clinical depression.

The relationship between stress and brain function typically exhibits a two-phase effect, wherein short-term stress appears to actually enhance cognitive function, while chronic stress disrupts many aspects of brain neurochemistry (leaving people feeling frazzled, fatigued, and foggy). Researchers theorize that it works something like this: Acute (temporary) stress causes an increase in blood flow, oxygen, and glucose to the muscles (for activation of the fight-or-flight response) and also to the brain (sharpening mental faculties so you can “solve” the problem of escaping from the stress). Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can impair concentration and ability to think, so the increased supply of glucose should, at least transiently, increase brainpower. And it does; studies of people exposed to short-term stressors show that they have an enhanced memory capacity and ability for problem solving. Unfortunately, the brain-boosting effects of stress are short-lived (lasting less than thirty minutes), because then the body becomes awash in cortisol. Prolonged exposure of brain cells (neurons) to cortisol reduces their ability to take up glucose (their only fuel source) and—here’s the really scary part—actually causes them to shrink in size!

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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