In stressful situations, as well as the physical effects, you may also feel the mental effects of stress. You may feel fear or dread and you may feel like you want to escape. You may have trouble concentrating or may find it hard to string a sentence together. Once the stressful situation passes, you may feel exhausted. This is all very normal when stress occurs only occasionally.
The occasional stressful situation is not bad for you. In fact, the adrenaline rush that comes with a stressful situation can boost performance and make a person feel more energised. However, the body is not designed to withstand stress for long periods of time, nor is our mental state.
Chronic Stress is Toxic to the Brain
The fast pace of modern lifestyles combined with the added pressures bought on by the pandemic means that for many people, stress has switched from being occasional to being chronic, with no off switch insight. Chronic stress is a health hazard; it comes with an increased risk of poor physical and mental health.
When it comes to physical health, it is well documented that chronic stress increases the risk of a whole host of problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
It is also well established that chronic stress can lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. The link between stress and mental health problems involves increased inflammation, changes to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and epigenetic changes.
There is absolutely no doubt that prolonged high levels of cortisol are damaging to the brain. This toxicity can be spotted by looking at the size of the brain using brain scans.
A high level of stress shrinks the overall size of the brain and also shrinks an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, an area that is responsible for memory and learning. Chronic stress also increases the size of an area called the amygdala, which makes the brain more receptive to stress. The upshot of this is alarming, to say the least: chronically increased cortisol sets the brain up to become more predisposed to be in a constant state of stress.
Stress, Inflammation and Neurotransmitters
Increased inflammation is one of the mechanisms whereby chronic stress is toxic to the brain. Chronic stress triggers ongoing inflammation in the body. Normally, the blood-brain barrier protects the brain from circulating toxins. But under chronic stress, the blood-brain barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain, where they wreak havoc.
Chronic stress changes the chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters) which are responsible for cognition and mood, including serotonin, dopamine and GABA. Serotonin is the 'happy' neurotransmitter. From a brain chemistry perspective, low serotonin is the main neurotransmitter imbalance associated with depression. People who suffer from depression often respond to medicines that increase the amount of serotonin.
Lowered levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine may also be important in depression. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for reward and pleasure. People with depression often feel reduced motivation and pleasure, and this is likely due to lowered levels of dopamine. Another neurotransmitter called GABA is lowered in those who suffer from depression. GABA has a calming role in the brain.
Stress and Epigenetics
New insights from the study of epigenetics is starting to uncover how stress is linked to poor mental health.
Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviours and environment can cause changes in the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence. Epigenetics acts like a switch, turning genes on or off which affect how your body reads your DNA sequence. Epigenetics can also impact health. Epigenetic changes occur throughout our lives due to factors such as stress, exercise, diet, alcohol and aging.
Chronic stress can impact our genes via epigenetic changes that increase the rate of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
An interesting new study on epigenetics highlights the importance of switching off from stress. Researchers took DNA samples from a group of paramedical students at two points in time, before and after a stressful event. The results confirmed previous studies in that stress influenced epigenetics, and this, in turn, led to increased rates of distress, anxiety, and depression.
It's well known that a strong sense of social support and community belonging is protective against mental health problems. In this study, the researchers confirmed that students who had high levels of social support or community belonging, showed lower levels of stress-induced mental health problems, compared to those who didn't have strong social support.
The new and unique aspect of this research was that for the first time, it was shown that those who had the strongest social support and sense of community belonging, also had much fewer epigenetic changes in their genes.
The upshot of this research is that it proves the importance of switching off from stress. Whether it's from connecting with your loved ones or community, getting some exercise, or taking a yoga class, it is hugely beneficial for both your physical and mental health and now we know why. Epigenetics!
Focus on Reducing your Chronic Stress
As we know, it is the effects of chronic, rather than occasional stress that are concerning. With the current global health, the crisis comes increased fear, social isolation, and of course chronic stress. This is an extra layer of stress that is not going away any time soon. It is very important to take steps to manage one's stress to support your long term physical and mental health.
Head to our blog Three Ways to Reduce Stress That Are Proven by Science for tips on how to manage stress. In addition, try the new Serene Saffron supplement for additional support. Serene Saffron contains an exceptional combination of extracts that are proven in clinical studies to reduce cortisol and boost serotonin. Serene Saffron is designed to steer the body towards inner balance, for a greater sense of wellbeing. Formulated by Neuroscientist Dr. Amanda Wiggins, Serene Saffron is an effective, convenient and natural way to support yourself through life's ongoing challenges.
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Dr. Amanda Wiggins
Xtend-Life Research Scientist
Dr. Amanda Wiggins works with Xtend-Life as the Chief Research Scientist, where she can use her passion for science, research and nutrition.