One of the most important functions of your body is its ability to respond to and deal with stress. There are two types of stress: acute and chronic. Acute stress comes and goes quickly, and your body pumps out adrenaline and cortisol to respond to the shift. When cortisol and adrenaline are released
- your heart rate increases
- your glucose availability for muscle contractions is stimulated
- your brain acuity is amplified
These two hormones suppress bodily symptoms that your body deems unnecessary in responding to the stressor. The “rest and digest” functions are not needed, and so the bodily resources that are used in digestion and reproduction are temporarily reallocated. Once you can respond to the stress trigger, and the danger is avoided, the body resets and returns to its parasympathetic state.
Chronic stress also signals the adrenal glands; however, the effects of chronic stress affect the body and the brain very differently. Chronic stress describes a constant strain on the body, although relatively low in levels.
There is pressure for the adrenal gland to respond to the stressor and dysregulate cortisol production consistently over an extended period of time.
After some time, the cortisol imbalance brought about by chronic stress increases your risk of developing chronic cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
1. Stress Can Lead to Brain Damage
Elevated cortisol levels that remain high for extended periods are linked to beta-amyloid plaque formation, problems with cognition, and structural damage to the hippocampus. Individuals who experience chronic stress are also more susceptible to memory loss because chronic stress prompts the adrenal glands to distribute enough cortisol to match the demands of stress. When this occurs long-term, the system can crumble.
The adrenals either start producing less cortisol, or the target cells stop responding to cortisol and ignore cortisol’s signal.
Think about, for example, a mosquito buzzing in your ear. Initially, you might try and kill the mosquito or shoo at it to try and get it to go away. You respond to it. But eventually, you get tired, and you give up. You put on headphones, or you just decide to ignore the mosquito’s buzzing. In the body, this is what we refer to as resistance. Cortisol tries to get the attention of your cells, but in instances of chronic stress, the cells stop paying attention to cortisol. What happens in this case is that instead of prompting a healthy immune response and dealing with the inflammation, the immune system breaks down and the inflammation intensifies, which ultimately ruins brain cell health. Inflammation is a key risk factor in the development of AD and cognitive impairment. Initially, stress and the production of cortisol can enhance neuron activity and cognition; however, over an extended period of time, cortisol diminishes neural plasticity, which can ultimately lead to inhibited brain function.
Individuals who experience chronic stress also tend to have dysregulated cortisol production during waking hours.
This means that their bodies do not produce sufficient levels of energy in the morning when it is needed, leaving them fatigued. Moreover, because of the imbalance, they may experience cortisol spikes during bedtime or in the middle of the night, meaning that they either have trouble getting to sleep, or they wake up with anxiety symptoms.
2. Stress and Adrenal Support
If you are under high levels of chronic stress, or you have toxicity, autoimmunity, or inflammation you should seek help from a functional medicine practitioner who can help you support your adrenal system. In order to prompt healthy responses to stress, work with your doctor to
- Find a treatment plan focused on nutrition to give the body sufficient support
- Learn stress management skills including meditation or yoga to improve your stress response and cognition
- Find the underlying sources such as infection or imbalances that have led to your chronic stress
Developing a treatment plan that addresses these three elements will help you get back on track with your health and may even help you reverse already existing damage caused by chronic stress.