Chronic Stress- A Silent Killer Of Brain Cells
In this busy competitive ‘lonely’ world, the incidence of chronic stress too has seen an incline. Chronic stress can be defined as the response to emotional pressure built in within an individual for a prolonged period of time where the individual feels he or she has little or no control over one self. The resultant of prolonged stress may lead to brain damage and thus mental ill health. Chronic stress induces the endocrine system of the body to release the stress hormones called cortisol which when elevated interfere with learning and memory, reduce immunity and bone density and further lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.
Research studies done on animals have indicated that, stress damages the hippocampus of the brain. The hippocampus is one of the most sensitive and malleable regions of the brain. This is the area which is involved in learning and memory, while stress leads to associated memory defects. The death or degeneration of hippocampal cells of brains is caused due to action of glucocorticoids on excitatory amino acids leading to cell death. The effects were confirmed from magnetic resonance imaging of humans too which showed reduction in volume of the hippocampus in Vietnamese combatants and individuals with child hood abuse falling under the category of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Further neuropsychological testing with Vietnamese combatants showed that along with decrease in hippocampal volume there was a correlation with deficit in verbal memory. Thus, these studies are clear indicators that chronic traumatic stress has visible long term damaging effects on the structure and function of the brain.
Stress is a condition of the mind body interaction and a factor which relates to the expression of disease. One has to keep in mind that it is not just dramatic stressful events in life which exert a toll on the body, but also continued daily life activities which are stressful leading to sleep deprivation and health damaging behaviours. One of the ways that stress hormones modulate function within the brain is by changing the structure of neurons in the hippocampus. Evidence suggest that chronic stress leads to aggression which in turn reflect in failed relationships both in the personal and professional life.
Impact of Stress on the Brain
- Death in brain cells – Cortisol works by releasing free radicals from glutamate which in turn attacks the cell walls of the brain cells leading to rupture and death.
- Over sensitive, Emotional and Forgetful – Evidence shows that chronic stress leads to a decrease in the factual capacity of the brain and enhances the emotional region. Stress reduces memory leading to forgetfulness.
- Fear and Anxiety – Stress increases the ‘fear center’ or amygdale in size and activity making one very anxious and fearful
- No development of new brain cells – There is no development of new brain cells and stress just leads to losing existing brain cells too. When the number of brain cells are lower it can lead to brain related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and severe depression.
- Depletion of chemicals in Brain – It is very important to have a proper balance in the chemicals found in the brain as it works as neurotransmitters. Prolonged stress causes a reduction in the chemicals dopamine and serotonin which work as neurotransmitters. With the depletion of these chemicals it could lead to depression and an individual being more prone to addictions. Anxiety, Irritability and lethargy are some of the effects caused by a decrease in dopamine and serotonin.
- Greater Risk of mental illnesses – One of the contributing factors of mental illnesses is stress. As stress changes the structure and function of the brain, one is predisposed to a higher risk of mental illnesses. Panic disorders, bipolar disorder and alcoholism could be mainly due to chronic stress.
- Poor Decision Maker – As the brain capacity shrinks due to stress, it can leave you a poor thinker and decision maker. Thus one will have a tough time in taking correct decisions and it can affect professional life too. Cognitive functions are impaired due to stress.
- Premature ageing of the brain – Chronic stress leads to shrinkage of the brain as well as premature aging at a cellular level. Thus, the end result of this is premature cell suicide of the brain.
- Weak Blood Brain Barrier – Stress causes the blood brain barrier of the brain to become more permeable and this could leak toxins and infections into the brain. This could lead to serious conditions such as brain tumours and brain infections.
Thus it is very clear that chronic stress is a negative force which needs to be wiped off to achieve a healthy mind and soul.
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