Thoughts on Better Aging

This is Your Brain on Cortisol

December 15th, 2016

In excess, the stress hormone cortisol can be damaging to brain health.

Whether you are feeling stressed about your job, your marriage, your kids, your body image, or even the world as a whole, stress can have a damaging effect on your body. When you experience stress, your body responds by releasing hormones designed to trigger the fight or flight response. While adrenaline and norepinephrine dissipate quickly, the stress hormone cortisol lingers. And as it lingers, it ages the body like nothing else.

Cortisol can have a particularly damaging impact on brain health:

Cortisol kills brain cells: Excess cortisol leads to excess glutamate, a neurotransmitter that creates free radicals in the brain. These free radicals can punch holes in cell walls, literally killing brain cells.

Cortisol slows brain cell production: Normally, a protein called BDNF is at work every day helping to stimulate brain cell production. Cortisol interferes with BDNF production, resulting in fewer new brain cells being created. Low BDNF is associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Cortisol shrinks the brain: Cortisol can stop the generation of neurons, which leads to measureable shrinkage in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. This negatively affects learning, memory, emotional regulation, decision making, and impulse control.

In addition to these direct effects of cortisol, the stress response in general can take a major toll on brain health:

Stress depletes critical brain chemicals: By depleting neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, stress can lead to depression and make you more prone to addictive behavior such as abusing alcohol, drugs, caffeine, sugar, or binge eating. Low serotonin is also associated with anxiety and irritability, while low dopamine is associated with lethargy and lack of motivation.

Stress wears down the brain’s defenses: The brain is surrounded by a semi-permeable barrier that allows nutrients in while keeping harmful substances like pathogens, heavy metals, chemicals, and toxins out. Stress weakens this barrier, making it more permeable so dangerous substances can get in. A weakened blood-brain barrier is associated with brain cancer and brain infections. Stress can also cause the brain’s own immune cells to release proteins that cause inflammation in the brain. These proteins are called cytokines. Cytokines have been linked to anxiety, memory loss, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.

Stress accelerates brain aging: When any cell divides, it passes on its genes to the new cells via chromosomes. Chromosomes are protected against damage by telomeres attached to their tips. With each division of the cell, telomeres shorten. Eventually, they get so short the cell cannot divide anymore and the cell dies. Stress can cause telomeres to shorten faster, so that cells die sooner and the brain ages at an accelerated rate.

How to Protect Your Brain Health

At first, all this negative information about the impact of stress and cortisol on the brain may seem like just another thing to stress about. But there’s some good news. There are steps you can take to address imbalances in cortisol, and support your overall brain health. Change your diet to incorporate more antioxidants and nutrients that can fight free radicals and inflammation. You can also take advantage of treatments designed to support adrenal gland function, and compensate for too much cortisol production. Please contact Renew Youth™ today for personalized information.

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