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From Toxic to Thriving : Examining Stress's Effects on the Brain

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Here’s the story you aren’t hearing


By Austin Perlmutter, MD

 


KEY POINTS

  • Stress promotes inflammation, damage to neuroplasticity, lower serotonin levels and physical and functional changes in the brain

  • Stress is essential for optimal brain function

  • There are effective ways to reduce the effects of negative stress on your brain

Stress… everyone knows it’s bad for our health. And sure, it’s a big risk factor for heart disease, blood pressure and certainly our mental health. But when it comes to stress and brain health, most people tend to miss some of the most important facts. Here are 3 key things to know about the link between brain wellness and stress that you’re probably not hearing about (as well as some of my favorite strategies to mitigate stress)


1. Stress promotes inflammation, damage to neuroplasticity, lower serotonin levels and physical and functional changes in the brain

Chronic psychological stress is by itself an unpleasant event. Yet the effects of activation of stress pathways in the brain are far more impactful than simply revving up the HPA axis. For example, stress may suppress the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin through its effects on key enzyme pathways in the brain. Chronic stress also seems to suppress neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (in part by lowering levels of the protein BDNF). It’s been linked to higher levels of chronic inflammation, as well as changes in brain structure and function (see Brain Wash for more on this).


2. Stress is essential for optimal brain function

Why would we want stress in our lives? It turns out that a bit of psychological stress is actually imperative for good brain health. To understand this seeming paradox, realize that stress is really just our body experiencing pressure. While too much or too intense of pressure on our brains can be damaging, we need some pressure to allow our brains to stretch, learn and grow. There’s even a name for positive stress, it’s called “eustress.” Some great examples of eustress include going on a date, taking on a new project, traveling, practicing public speaking (I realize this one is tough!), or learning a new skill.

3. There are effective ways to reduce the effects of negative stress on your brain

When it comes to decreasing the bad and augmenting the good, it’s important to note that there may not be any way to fully remove negative stress from your life. As much as articles talk about meditating until we’re completely placid, that’s not reality for those juggling difficult and stressful financial, health, family and other issues. Those who are having significant life impacts from stress will likely benefit most from seeking professional help. With this said, most people benefit from stress mitigation. Some great ways to mitigate negative stressors include

· Exercise (even a short walk)

· Spending time in nature

· Calling or spending time with a loved one or close friend

· Trying breathwork, meditation or other mindful practices

· Invest in immersive self-care (listen to music, take a bath)



Want FREE access to more life-changing science from Dr. Perlmutter?> Click HERE



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Well said to help our mental imagery and self-help in a positive way! What you've said makes it clear that the brain is just like our muscles in needing just the right amount of exercise to grow stronger and more efficient. But that excessive effort in any part of the body is also likely to do harm, so we'd better pay close attention as we train. Train, don't strain!

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