When we think about stress, most of us think about the kids, the bills, the elderly parents, or the job. Although these can be considered stressors, the perception of that stressor is what creates the stress response in the body. There are three basic categories of stress (Good, Tolerable, and Toxic) and how long you have been under stress can determine whether or not it is perceived as toxic. Let me give you an example of each.
Good: Preparing for a vacation or birthday party. This could be a good stressor, short term, no need to go into fight or flight.
Tolerable: Driving to work. Your perception of this stressor determines if you choose to use the time wisely and listen to an audio book or you devolve into a road rage machine!
Toxic: This stressor could be acute or chronic, it could be moving, losing a loved one, a break-up, or even a tolerable stressor that continues for a long period of time. Toxic stressors create a physiological change in the body; specifically your brain and your hormones.
The Brain Under Chronic, Toxic Stress?
- The hippocampus shrinks
- The pre-frontal cortex shrinks
The hippocampus is an area of the brain where we store memories and the pre-frontal cortex is where we rationalize data, assess our environment and make decisions. This shrinking of essential parts of the brain can be the reason why we can be really irrational and forgetful when we are stressed. Those we know with anxiety may have difficulty in school or in their jobs, and this is why! Remember poor focus is a result of anxiety or stress, we must address the cause, the earlier the better. It’s not just adults that can be affected by stress, but teens and children as well. Many times adults dismiss the idea that children can have stress, but by definition, your stress is their stress. Stress hormones are passed on in mother’s milk and family stress is felt by everyone. School bullies or peer presssure can also be contributors. By age 15 chronic stress can result in a dysfunctional pre-frontal cortex. This can cause:
- Decreased ability to concentrate and focus
- Weakened impulse control; reckless behavior, irritability, and impaired decision making
Fortunately children respond quickly to lifestyle changes and herbal remedies, and often require no prescription medication for their anxiety and focus issues at school once the stressor is addressed.
Fight or Flight Hormones
When we are in a toxic stress response, it doesn’t only affect our brain, but also our hormones. There are three primary stress hormones: adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. One or more of these hormones interacts with every cell in the body. The reason it does that is because if we are face to face with danger, the whole body needs to jump into action. So what are some things the body might not need to perform in the face of perceived danger? Well for one, digestion, and another is sleep. Stressed out people tend to suffer frompoor digestion and insomnia. How many young people do you know that have tummy aches and are sleep challenged? How many adults?
Chronic stress can have adverse effects on our ability to break down food as well as protect us from pathogens. Elevated cortisol slows the repair of the gut lining, thereby creating a doorway for pathogens to enter the bloodstream. A 2018 study “Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology” by F. Dabhar showed that chronic stress acts as an immune suppressant, meaning you have impaired wound healing, lowered resistance to infection and cancer, and increased production of inflammatory cytokines. Pro-inflammatory cytokines perpetuate pain and inflammation in the body.
One more thing that chronic stress contributes to is hyperpermeability (another word for leaky) of the blood-brain barrier. Once thought to be a sacred, impermeable barrier protecting our brain from the toxins and trash we put in our body, the blood brain barrier becomes vulnerable. The chemicals put out by a stressed person causes adverse changes in the neuro-vascular system, making it easier for toxins from a leaky gut to make their way via the blood stream into the brain. This toxic load has been linked to neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Neuro-inflammatory conditions are a hot topic these days, but it’s often a self imposed condition that can be avoided, not an inevitability.
Lifestyle Hacks to Beat Stress
So let’s talk now about what we can do to minimize our perceived stress response, because let’s be real, we all have stress, it’s our perception of it that creates the physiological response.
- Sleep 7 ½ – 8 hours a night
- Eat a clean diet
- Get some exercise
- Get out and commune with nature
You will be excited to know that meditation increases the size of the prefrontal cortex! Reversing the damage caused by Toxic Stress. All of these things are free for the most part and are a great start to decreasing our stress response, yet we continue to avoid making them part of our lifestyle, sometimes because we don’t even have enough energy to make a positive change. So how do we get the support we need while making the lifestyle changes we want?
For some patients I recommend calming herbs or supplements to break the chronic stress response. I may also recommend support for the adrenal glands, rebooting the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals), or working on blood sugar/digestive pathways. There is no one answer as each person is unique and requires an individual course of action. Call my office to schedule an appointment if you need support managing the stress in your life and I would be happy to work with you to a happier, more relaxed life!
Dr. Virginia S. Irby D.C.,DABCO, ACN
2371 Iron Point Rd. Ste. 130
Folsom, CA 95630