Welcome to installment 4/6 in my brain health series! This series is inspired by 'The Alzheimer's Solution' by Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherazi. In my first post, I explained that lifestyle choices can prevent up to 90% of Alzheimer's cases. For the 10% of cases that can't be prevented due to very strong genetic risk (such as in those that carry the APOE4 gene), lifestyle changes can delay presentation or progression of the disease by up to 15 years. There are 5 main lifestyle tenets for optimizing brain health that I am covering over the course of this blog series. They include nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep and regularly engaging in complex cognitive activities. The focus of this post is stress management and its impact on brain health.
Just like there is acute inflammation (which is generally helpful) and chronic inflammation (which is harmful), there is also acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is part of our fundamental survival system. The well known 'fight or flight' response not only helps save us if we are under attack by a bear, but also gives us the motivation to prepare for a big presentation we may have to give at work. The key with acute stress is that there are longer periods of calm in between moments of stress. Chronic stress isn't always bad either if it's driven by purpose or time, like when finishing a graduate degree program. But when there is no short-term, definitive end in sight stress starts to take a toll on brain health. Cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone, is elevated during times of stress. Persistently elevated cortisol is linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s and shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is the memory center of the brain. Chronic stress causes chronic inflammation in the brain which in turn leads to structural damage and impairment in the brain's ability to clear harmful waste products.
Uncontrolled and persistent stress can lead to:
- Shrinking of the brain
- Increased oxidative by-products
- Depression and anxiety
- Increased beta-amyloid
- Decreased new cell growth and impaired neuro-plasticity
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Disruption of healthy lifestyle behaviors
Stress management, as you can see, is very important to preventing this structural damage. When is the last time you felt calm? Would you say you leave yourself time everyday to relax? The goal should be to engage in activities everyday that interest you and provide you a sense of calm. These activities may be different for everybody. Though meditation has profound health benefits, this might not be your best source of stress management if it feels like a chore and you don't get up from a session feeling more relaxed.
Here are a few ideas to better manage your stress:
- Listen to music. Music has a direct affect on our cortisol levels. In fact, a few studies have found that people who listen to music during surgery had lower cortisol levels and also required less anesthesia.
- Organize your external environment. This can help you process new information more efficiently. Making your bed and organizing your desk can help you organize your thoughts as well.
- Cultivate healthy relationships to reduce cortisol levels and release oxytocin, a hormone associated with a reduced stress response. This is the same feel good hormone that's released with breastfeeding, hugging and orgasm.
- Set yourself up to live a purpose driven life. The Okinawans in Japan, a group known for their longevity, even have a term for this called 'ikigayi'. What makes you excited to get up in the morning? Figure that out and work to create a life for yourself that revolves around that excitement.
- Regularly practice sitting meditation. More research is needed here, but research suggests that meditation is a powerful tool for cognitive health. It appears meditation helps us maintain brain volume as we age, especially in the attention centers. It induces theta waves, which confer states of relaxed wakefulness. This state of mind is commonly referred to as ‘being in the zone’ or 'flow state'. Any amount of meditation is helpful, even a 3-minute session if that’s all you can fit in, though you should try to work your way up to 20-30 min/day.
- Try walking meditation. Pick a particular path in a safe area and walk back and forth or in a predetermined pattern rather than walking aimlessly as this removes the problem solving component (which is what you want to ease relaxation).
- Reguarly practice deep cleansing breaths.
- Spend more time in nature.
- Include periods of quiet in your day, ideally without any technology.
- Include adaptogens in your diet. Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body adapt to stress. I love the adaptogen coffee mix by Four Sigmatic and Moon Juice Power Dust.
Which of these activities interest you? For me running and spending time in nature provide the greatest sense of calm. There are also some things you should work toward decreasing to help rid your life of chronic stress. Of course some are easier said than done, but you should work toward decreasing:
- Situations that make you stressed out
- Relationships that make you stressed out
- Not giving yourself time to relax each day
- Constant distractions caused by cell phones, computers and television
- A living space with nowhere quiet or calm to retreat to
Free your mind and the rest will follow! Next up in the brain health series: sleeping and brain health. Stay tuned!