Posted on Thu, 8 Oct 09
While many people feel they must maintain their stressful lives it is important to consider the long-term effects of chronic stress, one of the most important of which is arguably the gradual destruction of our brain. The wear and tear of chronic stress over time is known to insidiously destroy vital brain structures and impair our cognitive function (1). This brain melt down may eventually lead to the development of depression and dementia including Alzheimer's disease later in life (2).
The ravages of stress
Over time chronic stress results in the death of nerves cells in areas of the brain involved in cognitive functions such as memory and learning (known as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex). Chronic stress also increases the size of the area of the brain responsible for the feelings of fear (the amygdala) (3). Although these changes occur they do not mean the brain cannot respond to treatment or lifestyle change, the human brain has a remarkable ability to adapt, change and even grow new nerve cells.
Protect your brain
Fortunately there are a number of practical ways to cope better with stress. Regular practice of yoga and meditation has been shown to be effective as has deep breathing exercises (4-6). An important part of a holistic strategy for stress reduction is a healthy diet. A traditional Mediterranean diet is a rich source of several nutrients that support a healthy nervous system and recent reports suggest this diet can improve stress coping ability and reduce the risk of depression and dementia (7-10).
In particular the traditional Mediterranean diet seems to offer protection through a higher intake of healthy fats from olive oil, nuts and fish. A study found that people with higher intakes of omega-3 fats from fish have bigger brains, specifically the areas normally reduced in size with chronic stress. This observed relationship may be the result of a protective effect of omega-3 fatty acids against the destruction of nerve cells (11).
Like the footprints we leave when walking across sand, chronic stress so to leaves marks in our brain. Adopting regular stress coping strategies may help leave a lesser imprint, and even wash away the tracks.
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2. Millerd DB etal. Aging, stress and the hippocampus. Ageing Res Rev. 2005 May;4(2):123-40.
3. McEwen BS. Protection and damage from acute and chronic stress: allostasis and allostatic overload and relevance to the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1032:1-7.
4. Brown RP, Gerbarg PL. Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Aug;1172:54-62.
5. Rubia K. The neurobiology of Meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders. Biol Psychol. 2009 Sep;82(1):1-11.
6. Bushell WC. Longevity: potential life span and health span enhancement through practice of the basic yoga meditation regimen. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Aug;1172:20-7.
7. Sánchez-Villegas A et al. Mediterranean diet and depression. Public Health Nutr.
8. García-Prieto MD, et al. Cortisol secretary pattern and glucocorticoid feedback sensitivity in women from a Mediterranean area: relationship with anthropometric characteristics, dietary intake and plasma fatty acid profile.Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2007 Feb;66(2):185-91.
9. Sánchez-Villegas A, Delgado-Rodríguez M, Alonso A, et al. Association of the Mediterranean Dietary Pattern With the Incidence of Depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(10):1090-1098.
10. Sofi F, Cesari F, Abbate R,et al. Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. BMJ 2008;337:a1344
11. Conklin SM, Gianaros PJ, Brown SM, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbic gray matter volume in healthy adults. Neurosci Lett. 2007 Jun 29;421(3):209-12.