The brain is a phenomenal organ, one that we are learning more about every day. In this post we will be shedding light on the new cutting edge research primarily focused around Stress, Anxiety and Insomnia, and how these conditions can actually affect the brain tissue.
We've all heard the term neuroplasticity, where the brain is subject to constant change. The fact that we are able to grow new nerve cells (neurons) is fascinating in itself, but how our daily lives can affect our neural structures is even more fascinating. In terms of mental health, stress is truly the silent killer. There is a direct role of rising stress levels being linked to the incidence of depression. It is important to note however that both too little stress or too much stress are both linked to negative effects on the neurobiology, which is mediated by the stress hormone cortisol. In this unpredictable world with rapidly changing demands of daily life requires flexibility to adapt and cope to function effectively. Our focus now should be about increasing and promoting neurological resilience so people can experience stress in a progressive manner.
Its all about the size of the Hippocampus! As we mentioned earlier, neuroplasticity means our brain structure is physically changing based on our demands. The hippocampus is the brain region whose role is primarily memory, learning and processing emotions. It is constantly forging new neural connections, creating and saving memories. It is also highly susceptible to damage. Therefore dysfunction can have a high impact on both memory defects and affective disorders. We now know that high levels of stress hormone cortisol can cause a trigger of glutamate (the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain), this can become neurotoxic in excess, leading to a decrease in hippocampus size. What is interesting is the Amygdala, the region mainly responsible for creating feelings of fear and stress, grows in response to the excessive glutamate levels. Stress actually causes the brain to shrink. This effect to the hippocampus also can reduce the size of the prefrontal cortex, your brain's rational thinking region. By losing neural tissue in both the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, a change in behaviour is noticed...a person loses function in the parts of the brain that tells them "everything will be ok!" leading to worry and sadness. This can then lead to increased anxiety, stress and depression.
What to do? Now that we know that high levels of stress can lead to decreased neural tissue, anxiety and depression, what can we do? Lucky for us there are incredible compounds that help to down regulate these negative effects in the brain and actually helps promote growth of new neural tissue.
GABA - this is the brain's primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA counters the excitatory action of excess glutamate and has neuroprotective properties.
Magnesium - the fourth most abundant mineral in the body boosts your brain's fertiliser chemical BDNF meaning it supports healthy growth of new neural tissue, furthermore studies have shown people who suffer from depression also have a magnesium deficiency!
B Vitamins - B vitamins are essential in the body for energy production and also have a high level of stress reduction action. B vitamins help to promote resilience in the neural tissue.
Turmeric - our herbal swiss army knife, having high potency anti-inflammatory effects turmeric is essential in the treatment of stress and depression, both of which are characterised by high levels of inflammatory chemicals in the brain.