At The Care Group, we love taking care of our patients. We also love when our patients can take care of themselves – after all, that’s the point of functional medicine.
Many people in our community are concerned about how to support their minds as they age. To address this, we spent the summer delivering you information specific to brain health including: the most toxic foods, the healthiest foods, and ways to exercise.
Today, we round out the series by discussing stress and how it impacts your cognitive function. If you enjoyed this content or want to give feedback, drop us a comment on Instagram or Facebook.
Ongoing stress or trauma is not good for your brain. A study of more than 500 healthy older adults in New York City found that those with the highest levels of perceived stress were the most likely to develop cognitive impairment. Another study, at an Alzheimer’s disease research center, found that highly stressful events were associated with the progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.
Before you get your stomach in a knot, worrying that the stress in your life will cause dementia, take a deep breath. There are plenty of ways you can help your body respond to stress in a healthier way and support lifelong brain health.
What is Stress?
Stress is a vague concept that can refer to emotional trauma, psychological worry, or even physical strain on the body. The common thread among these various forms of “stress” is the way the body responds.
The body’s first response to stress is to release the hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline triggers a “fight or flight” response, which mobilizes the body to escape danger. Blood pressure rises, the skin flushes, and the heart races. The effect is rapid, brief, and resolves on its own.
The body’s second response to stress is to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol triggers more delayed effects in the body, which can include inflammation, weight gain, and even cognitive decline.
The Cortisol Connection
Cortisol is normally released on a circadian rhythm, such that the levels increase in the morning and bottom out in the middle of the night. People who experience chronic stress often experience disruptions in their daily cortisol patterns.
A study of middle-aged adults in the United States showed that healthy cortisol patterns were associated with better cognitive function. The same holds true for older adults, who experience worsening memory with increasing daily cortisol levels.
3 Ways to Reduce Stress
It is one thing to know that stress is bad for your brain. It is a completely different thing to figure out how to effectively manage and minimize stress. Here are 3 approaches you might consider—starting today.
#1 – Try a Meditation App
Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases. Meditation might be intimidating or outright unappealing to some. It used to be that you needed to attend a meditation class or purchase a meditation CD to learn how to meditate. Now it is as simple as downloading an app.
Several companies have taken advantage of technology to bring you easy ways to learn to meditate in the privacy of your own home. One app to consider is called Headspace. Headspace allows you to choose the length of time you want to commit to meditation each day (as little as 10 minutes) and guides you through simple meditations.
#2 – Take a Class
Some people benefit most from the community of taking a class. Community rec centers or yoga centers offer a variety of classes to choose from. If you enjoy movement, consider a class in tai qi or qi gong. Yoga offers a balanced combination of physical exercise and mental relaxation.
#3 – Do Something You Love
The simple act of doing something you find enjoyable will naturally relieve stress. What you love is unique to you. Maybe you love walking alone on the trails. Maybe you love reading a book in the shade. Maybe it is journaling, gardening, or getting a massage.
Think about the times you were happiest in your life. What were you doing? What activities can bring you back to the feelings you experienced then?
Relieving stress, living in the moment, and feeling peace with your life does not always happen automatically. You may need to take intentional and proactive steps. Knowing that stress has an adverse effect on brain health should be a motivation for you to take steps in the direction of finding your own sense of calm.
For a complete guide on how to take care of your brain, download the pdf below.
About the Author: Dr. Gerard Guillory, MD is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and has published two books on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In 1985, he opened The Care Group, PC. Today, his clinic is a Primary Care facility that is a hybrid of functional and traditional medicine treating patients with digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, and other conditions. You can learn more about Dr. Guillory here.