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Stress and brain health

May 7, 2010
Nikki Carrion MA co-owner; FitXpress LLC

May is Older Americans Month, and in order to age strong and live long. We must strive to keep our mind sharp. With this in mind, this months column discusses how daily stressors can affect our brain. Having the ability to manage stress effectively is a pivotal component in terms of both physical and mental health. Brain cells are either in the growth mode or in the threat-distress mode, in which case they are protecting themselves from imminent danger. Stress is shown to have a negative impact on our brain's health (Jensen, 2006), and our brain cells cannot grow/reproduce when they are in a state of stress (e.g. running from a dog, having a heated argument). During stressful situations, or when our body is in distress, neurons are unable to communicate properly with other cells. Simply said, stress damages the neuron/brain networks similar to the way a cut damages the skin.

Neuronal dendrites (the branch-like extensions that carry information into the neurons of the brain) are compromised by up to 30% when the brain is exposed to high levels of stress, and chronic/constant stress can lead to actual death of neurons. We can all agree that a certain amount of stress is inevitable, but chronic/constant stress must be controlled in an effort to avoid accelerating disease processes and causing damage to the brain cells.

Researchers suggest there are a number of things we do in an effort to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of stress (e.g. exercise, relaxation). In addition, a strong support system (e.g. friends and family members) is said to be beneficial. Also encouraged; letting go of things beyond our control, volunteering our services to others, practicing intentional breathing patterns and eating a balanced, nutritious diet.

Physical activity is a highly effective means of managing the stressors of daily life. Such efforts serve to create positive /happy hormones while stimulating a specific protein that helps brain cells multiply and function effectively. The surgeon general recommends we accumulate at least 30 minutes a day of cardio-type physical activity, with one of the best activities being a brisk walk. There are a host of mental benefits associated with being physically active including improved mood, elevated stress threshold, increased delivery of oxygen to brain cells and better balance of the hormones and chemicals within the brain that help us to manage stressors. Regular physical activity also serves to improve sleep patterns, which has also been shown to aid in dealing with all types of stress. Falling asleep is easiest when the body and mind are relaxed. In order to relax a wandering mind when the body is physically exhausted try the distraction technique. This is the simple act of lying still, eyes closed, and focusing on the processes of the body (e.g. breath or beats of the heart) rather than thoughts that are cluttering the mind. It usually takes a few tries before the technique is mastered, but it's well worth the effort. Give it a try, you'll be pleasantly surprised. If you have a question or would like to provide input in terms of a future topic for the Words of Wellness column, visit and sign our guest book (bottom of the homepage). We would love to hear from you!

Until next time. Age Strong, Live Long & Walk ON!



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