How stress affects the brain

Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress

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6 Ways Stress Affects Your Brain

The brain is a fascinating and complex organ. It’s the primary control center for our whole body, and it can be affected by stress in many different ways. Stress itself is an important part of life – it helps us prepare for danger or respond to emergencies. But when we’re constantly stressed out, that’s when our brain starts to pay the price. This blog post will explore how stress affects your brain, both positively and negatively, so you can develop strategies to reduce your brain’s vulnerability to its harmful effects.

For starters, it is important to understand how our body processes stress. In the simplest terms, stress is basically the “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat. This activates the amygdala, or “fear center” of the brain, and causes a cascade of events. These include the production of the stress hormone cortisol, an increase in glucose levels, increased heart rate, and an increase in blood flow to the muscles in the arms and legs. After the threat has passed, then the body will eventually return to normal. 

In the case of chronic stress, however, the fear center of the brain is constantly activated, meaning that the body is in a constant state of stress. Cortisol levels are also constantly elevated, which can eventually start to cause problems with digestion, sleeping, and the immune system. Not only that, but when one part of the brain is constantly engaged, it is postulated that the other parts of the brain may not have enough energy to carry out their own functions properly. As a result, here are six ways that stress can affect the brain: 

Impairs Memory

One effect of chronic stress that researchers have observed is memory impairment.   Specifically, it has been noted that people who are stressed tend to be more forgetful and less likely to remember specific information. Researchers believe that even minor stress, such as being late to work, can cause you to forget simple things like where your keys are. One study performed on older rats even noted that high levels of cortisol caused short-term memory declines. According to Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “The basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode”. 

Changes the Brain’s Structure

Your brain is composed of both gray matter and white matter. Gray matter is used for decision-making and problem-solving, while white matter is used to connect regions of the brain and communicate information. It has been noted that during times of chronic stress, the myelin sheaths that make up white matter become overproduced, while less gray matter is produced. When this happens, there can be an imbalance in gray and white matter. In some cases, this results in permanent changes to the brain’s structure. 

More Susceptible to Mental Illness

An imbalance between white and gray matter can also play a role in the development of mental illness. The theory is that having excess myelin in certain areas of the brain interferes with the timing and balance of communication. It was also noted that chronic stress can negatively alter hippocampal function. The hippocampus is involved in memory, specifically spatial memory, memory consolidation, and memory transfer. 

Stress Kills Brain Cells

It has been suggested by researchers that chronic stress can even kill new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is one of only two locations where neurons are produced. Despite the fact that the formation of new neurons does not seem to be affected, research shows that new neurons produced during periods of stress are more likely to die within a week.  

Stress Shrinks the Brain

While the overall volume of the brain tends to remain about the same, it has been found that chronic stress in otherwise healthy individuals can cause areas of the brain associated with emotions, metabolism, and memory to shrink. Chronic stress also made people more likely to experience brain shrinkage when exposed to intense stressors. This means that people under constant stress may find it harder to deal with future stress. 

Improves Cognitive Function

Stress is not all bad for your brain. In fact, moderate stress can actually improve brain performance by strengthening the connection between neurons in the brain. This helps to improve memory and attention span in order to make you more productive overall. This is why some people tend to perform “better under pressure”.

Dr. Kashouty, a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), practices general neurology with fellowship trained specialization in clinical neurophysiology. Dr. Kashouty finds the form and function of the nerves and muscles the most interesting part of neurology, which is what led him to specialize in neurophysiology with more emphasis on neuromuscular conditions. He treats all neurological diseases, but his main focus is to treat and manage headaches, movement disorders and neuromuscular diseases. 

How stress affects our brain, or why it is bad to be nervous for a long time

We face stress every day due to deadlines at work, family problems, information noise and other factors. But we are far from always aware of how dangerous it is to health. Stress increases the risk of developing serious diseases and harms all body systems. The brain and cognitive abilities suffer the most: memory, attention, decision-making and planning, logical thinking. Together with Adrian Landry, Director of Educational Content at the Novakid online English school, we are looking into how stress affects cognitive functions and what can help you cope with it.


Adrian Landry

Director of Educational Content, Novakid Online School of English

Short-term stress

Short-term stress triggers the fight-or-flight response in the body. Its mechanism was formed a very long time ago - back in those prehistoric times, when a person had to literally escape from predators. Today, the cause of stress is usually not saber-toothed tigers, but traffic jams or conflicts with others. But the reaction works automatically. nine0009

The fight-or-flight mechanism in the brain triggers the amygdala, or amygdala, a region of the nervous tissue responsible for detecting threats and feeling anger and fear. Under stress, the amygdala enlarges and commands the body to adapt to the encounter with danger. A person's heart rate increases, digestive processes slow down, the skin turns pale - blood leaves the skin so that in the event of a battle there is no massive blood loss. In addition, visual acuity and hearing are reduced, and attention becomes tunnel-focused exclusively on the source of stress. nine0009

It is commonly believed that short-term stress increases our cognitive abilities. Once in a stressful situation, a person makes every effort to get out of it and, as a result, becomes more collected and concentrated. This is true, but only if the stress is directly related to a specific problem.

Let's say you have to pass a driver's license test. If you're only worried about your test results in the run-up to the tests, but otherwise you're doing well in life, short-term stress really activates your memory and concentration. However, if it’s not the exam itself that makes you nervous, but, say, the prospect of layoffs at work, it will be extremely difficult for you to focus on driving. nine0009

Scientist Dan Ariely in his book Positive Irrationality. How to capitalize on your illogical actions” describes an experiment his team conducted in India. A group of subjects were asked to play a few simple children's puzzle games. Certain bonuses were offered for the victory. The amount of remuneration ranged from modest amounts to very solid ones - equal to the participant's salary for several months. It turned out that the higher the amounts were at stake, the worse the subjects coped with the tasks. The prospect of a small win did not make people nervous or affect their level of concentration. But the chance to hit the big jackpot brought the body into a stressful state and worsened cognitive abilities. nine0009

The fact is that short-term stress turns off the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for cognitive abilities. Namely, for memory, planning, logical thinking, the ability to find solutions and set goals. In ordinary life, the prefrontal cortex allows us to function normally, work and learn. But with the “fight or flight” reaction, the need for these abilities in the body simply disappears - work with a specific threat comes to the fore. At this moment, we need cognitive functions in a minimal amount: only those that will help to cope with the source of stress. nine0009

Chronic stress

If the brain can get at least some benefit from a short-term stressful situation, then long-term stress literally destroys it.

Stress increases the production of cortisol. Long-term excess of the concentration of this hormone negatively affects the hippocampus. This part of the brain is responsible for the perception of information, memory and neurogenesis - the formation of new neurons. The hippocampus plays the role of a data processing center: it distributes information between short-term and long-term memory, makes decisions about what knowledge to keep and what not. Under the influence of cortisol, the hippocampus is gradually destroyed. As a result, a person's memory worsens: at first it becomes more difficult to memorize new things, and then to remember already known ones. A decrease in the number of neurons and a slowdown in neurogenesis reduce the ability to learn and master new skills. nine0009

Chronic stress and increased production of cortisol also destroy dendritic junctions, through which information is transmitted between neurons. The number and quality of dendrites also affect our memory capacity and processing speed. The fewer of them, the worse and slower we begin to think. Even simple decisions are difficult for a person: what to wear, what dish to cook for dinner, and so on.

Blame it on the amygdala we talked about earlier. Under chronic stress, it is always in an excited state and sees danger or threat everywhere - even if there are no objective reasons for this. But even worse, the amygdala tries its best to "pull the blanket" over itself and makes us constantly afraid and think about the source of stress. As a result, it becomes more and more difficult to switch to everyday activities. nine0009

Finally, prolonged stress destroys the prefrontal cortex, which is directly responsible for cognitive abilities. In a normal state, its nerve connections are reliably protected by the myelin sheath. It not only protects, but also participates in a chain reaction between neurons at the moments when we think or make decisions. Cortisol thins the myelin sheath and deprives neurons of protection. It becomes more difficult for the brain to get to the necessary information and formulate a command for this or that action. nine0009

Can stress be beneficial?

It is believed that life without stress does not exist, and this is true. Normally, during the day, 80% of the time a person should be in a state of calm, 20% should feel a sense of joy and happiness, another 20% should feel stress. The study of scientists from the University of Georgia, conducted as part of the Human Connectome Project, is devoted to the positive effect of moderate stress on the brain.

1200 young people took part in the experiment. They filled out a questionnaire in which they assessed their level of stress and tension. After that, they were offered to take tests to assess cognitive abilities. It turned out that those participants who periodically experienced mild stress in everyday life coped best with the tasks. Those who almost never faced stressful situations had worse results. nine0009

Thus, it can be assumed that a moderate level of stress in everyday life makes us more resistant to severe stressful situations and experiences. However, it is important to understand that we are talking only about mild short-term stress, which is not capable of seriously harming the brain.

How to reduce stress?

  • Moderate physical activity. Sweating in the gym for several hours a day is not at all necessary. An excellent alternative would be swimming, yoga and even ordinary walks. nine0009

  • Nutrition. Avoiding fast carbohydrates and foods with a high glycemic index will help reduce stress levels. This includes sweets, pastries, soda, and favorite fast food. Such products provoke jumps in blood sugar, which additionally stimulate the brain and bring it into a state of overexcitation.

  • Learning new things. Foreign languages ​​are great here. Although studying under stress seems like something difficult and not very productive, it is a great opportunity to switch the brain. Regularity in classes can be one of the steps to establishing a routine and daily routine. Finally, learning foreign languages ​​stimulates neurogenesis, which means that it can at least partially compensate the brain for neurons lost due to chronic stress. nine0009

  • Self-monitoring. Stress factors, such as problems at work or information noise, will not disappear on their own. However, we can change our attitude towards them, learn to negotiate with ourselves and turn off the involuntary inclusion of the “fight or flight” reaction. This can be achieved with the help of breathing practices, physical activity, meditation, normalization of the daily routine and diet.

Alexandra Smarakova




How does stress affect the brain?

Back in 2020, alarming publications began to appear about the worldwide epidemic of stress. At that time we thought that we were going through a period of high turbulence, but we knew that sooner or later it would pass and the life of most of us would return to its former or almost former course. Two years later, we can say that the pandemic has been replaced by a period of global change, and the level of stress has only increased. And in this situation, you need to adapt, be effective at work and at school, take care of loved ones, take care of children, devote time to your health, appearance, home and hobbies. All of these tasks require intellectual effort in one way or another in a situation where the effect of stress on the brain is significant. nine0077

In this article, we will look at the key aspects of the effect of stress on the brain, as well as give recommendations on what to do in this situation and how to support the nervous system and brain under the circumstances.

How does stress affect the brain?

The influence of stress and stress hormones on the brain occurs throughout life, and we are forced to look for ways to adapt to stressful loads of any level, but our body is far from always able to go through this adaptation painlessly. Studies have shown 1 , the brain is a key organ of the stress response because it determines what is threatening and therefore potentially stressful, as well as physiological and behavioral responses, which can be either adaptive or destructive. Stress includes a two-way communication between the brain and the cardiovascular, immune and other systems through nervous and endocrine mechanisms 2 . In addition to the fight-or-flight response to acute stress, there are events in everyday life that cause a kind of chronic stress and, over time, lead to wear and tear on the body (allostatic load 3 ). However, stress-related hormones protect the body in the short term and promote adaptation (allostasis). The brain is a target of stress, and the hippocampus was the first area of ​​the brain other than the hypothalamus to be recognized as a target for glucocorticoids.

In order to reduce the negative impact of stress on the brain, compensate for its consequences, and also support the nervous system, in addition to the obvious concern for one’s own health and informational hygiene, it is necessary to provide the brain with a sufficient amount of nutrients, micro- and macronutrients, which are consumed faster in a situation of severe or ongoing stress. and in large quantities. nine0009

What vitamins are needed for the brain?

To compensate for the effect of stress on the brain, it is necessary to take basic trace elements, these are:

  • B vitamins,
  • magnesium,
  • amino acid glycine.

This simple set, where all dietary supplements are combined with each other, is quite enough to close the basic deficits in a stressful situation and maintain cognitive functions in a normal state. nine0009

We talked about this combination in more detail in the article “How to stay in a resource in a stressful situation?”.

In this article, we will focus on innovative solutions from Evalar: the combination of Huperzine A and Phosphatidylserine. Both substances are presented in dietary supplements from the Cognivia series, which have recently appeared in the company's assortment.

Both drugs are complex solutions that can not only improve cognitive function, but also reduce the impact of stress on the brain. nine0009

Hot drink "Cognivia" contains a key active ingredient - Huperzine A. Magnesium, B vitamins, theanine and other trace elements enhance its action. As part of "Kogniviya phosphatidylserine" , which is available in capsules, in addition to phosphatidylserine, also contains coenzyme Q10 and phosphatidylcholine. Thus, the drugs perfectly complement each other and are comfortable when taken together. Just two packs, and in your diet - more than 10 nutrients necessary for the nervous system. nine0009

Huperzine A, Phosphatidylserine and Phosphatidylcholine - Common and Differences

How do Huperzine A, Phosphatidylserium and Phosphatidylcholine work? All three micronutrients target the synthesis and maintenance of adequate levels of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that affects alertness, memory, and learning 4 .

In addition to this general function, there are some differences. So, for example, Huperzine A has neuroprotective properties. It promotes the growth of neurons by stimulating the production of a protein that maintains their vitality. Prevents or reduces cell damage due to lack of oxygen. Protects against seizures.

Due to its mechanism of action, Huperzine A supports memory and erudition. Used for both short-term brain stimulation (for example, when taking exams) and for longer-term tasks (for memory impairment associated with natural aging) 5 .

Phosphatidylserine is the main phospholipid in the brain. Forms the inner layer of cell membranes, ensures the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system. Carries out the transport of nutrients into the cell, stimulates metabolic processes, promotes the activation of glucose metabolism in the brain and increases the resistance of nerve cells to ischemic damage 6 .

Phosphatidylcholine is a phospholipid that is involved in memory, metabolism, slows down the aging process of the cell. nine0009

How to take vitamins for the brain during stress?

Above was a detailed description of how stress affects the brain. If we summarize and simplify all this information, then the effect of severe stress on the brain can be described, in fact, in one phrase: cognitive decline. Someone becomes inattentive and distracted, someone suffers from memory (both short-term and long-term), someone slows down the speed of information processing - there are many options. nine0009

If you notice such manifestations in yourself, then a course intake of essential trace elements can help offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. It is enough to remember that all the drugs recommended in this article should be drunk in a course of at least a month, then you can feel a sufficient effect. However, some users reported that glycine and magnesium act on them quite quickly: from 1-4 applications. Therefore, if necessary, you can make their reception situational. B vitamins are best taken in the morning, and glycine and magnesium in the evening, shortly before bedtime. nine0009

As for the complex of two dietary supplements "Cognivia", here you should not count on such a quick effect as with magnesium or glycine. For a monthly course, you will need three packs of dietary supplement "Kogniviya" (in a sachet) and one pack of "Kogniviya phosphatidylserine" . To achieve a more pronounced effect, a course of at least three months is required.

But whatever you choose, please remember that you can take dietary supplements and drugs together only with the permission of a doctor. nine0009

1. Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: central role of the brain, Bruce S McEwen
2. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain, Bruce S McEwen
3. Stress- and allostasis-induced brain plasticity, Bruce S McEwen, Peter J Gianaros

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