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Stress: Expert on how it affects your health over time

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Chronic stress, induced by long working hours or emotional suffering, has detrimental effects on the structure of the brain, modifying its overall function. In addition to causing symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and muscle pain, it can also cause long-term effects.The repercussions of stress start with a series of interactions between glands in the brain and the kidney. This set of influences is known as the hypothalamus pituitary axis (HPA). When the brain detects a stressful situation, doxycycline in your system the HPA is instantly activated, releasing a hormone called cortisol, which primes the body for action. In 2018, a team of researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Centre, investigated the effects of high cortisol on the brain’s structure. The study’s senior author, doctor Sudha Seshadri, told what they found.

Shrinking brain

When levels of cortisol rise, electric signals in the hippocampus – the area of the brain associated with learning, memories and stress control – deteriorates. 

This loss of the synaptic connections between neurons causes shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates behaviours such as concentration, decision-making and social interaction. 

Speaking of the study, doctor Seshadri said: “It included more than 2,000 participants, who underwent brain MRIs, cognitive assessment and had their cortisol measured. 

“We found that people with higher levels of cortisol in the morning, which is raised by stress, was associated with lower brain volume, particularly frontal grey matter, affecting word memory and visual perception.”

“We are not completely sure why, but the effects were much stronger in women, than in men. With the same amount of elevation in cortisol the effect was greater on the brain of women.”

Remembering things

The loss of the synaptic connections in the brain also leads to fewer new brain cells being made in the hippocampus, which affects memory. 

As high cortisol levels further perturb the neural circuits, this sets the stage for more severe neurological complications including depression and Alzheimer’s. 

Doctor Seshadri explained: “There are different ways in which stress can affect our memory. The most transient effect is on attention. When you’re stressed, you don’t encode as well.

“It’s not so much acute stress which has an effect [on brain volume], we believe it’s rather an effect of long stress; the longer the exposure to stress, the greater the effect.”

Blood pressure

As the adrenal glands release cortisol, two other hormones; epinephrine and norepinephrine, enter the bloodstream. 

Chronic stress causes these hormones to rise, prompting the body to constantly be at the ready for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.

However, as epinephrine reaches the heart, the vital organ starts to pump more blood, thereby raising blood pressure and overtime heightening the risk of hypertension. 

High cholesterol 

People who exercise regularly and take medication for high cholesterol could see their efforts sabotaged by stress.

Stress is one of the most significant cholesterol factors, yet it remains one of the most overlooked.

Cortisol can cause the endothelium – inner lining of blood vessels – to not function properly.

Scientists have identified this as an early stage in triggering the build up of cholesterol plaque in the arteries, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

Stress management

The most powerful weapons to combat stress are physical activity and a healthy diet. 

Exercise and meditation, which involves breathing deeply and being aware and focused on surroundings can decrease stress.

Aerobic exercises can also increase the size of the hippocampus, which has been shown to improve memory.

While unhealthy eating patterns can send stress levels skyrocketing, herbal teas and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can significantly fend off stress.

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