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Your Brain on Stress

Is your sleep restless?  Have you been feeling irritable, forgetting things and feeling overwhelmed or isolated? This may be due to high stress levels. The stress response can be positive in small doses, providing extra burst of energy or focus in situations such as public speaking or participating in a competitive sport, but continuous stress actually starts to change your brain.

Chronic stress can affect the cellular structure of the brain and how it functions, down to the genetic level. Your stress response is controlled by a network of neurons and glands known as the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis. When your brain detects a stressful situation, your HPA axis is activated and causes the release of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps to prime your body for action, but high levels over time can wreak havoc on your brain. Experiencing chronic stress will increase the activity level in the amygdala (your brains “fear centre”), as well as resulting in deterioration of signaling in the Hippocampus (your brains “learning centre”).

The Hippocampus also controls your HPA axis; therefore, as it deteriorates so will your ability to manage your stress levels. Along with these changes, chronic high cortisol levels can result in actual brain shrinkage, the loss of synaptic connections between neurons and fewer new brain cells being produced in the Hippocampus. All of these changes result in memory, learning and social challenges as well as setting the stage for more serious mental health concerns such as mood disorders[1] and eventually Alzheimer’s disease[2].

There are steps you can take to prevent these changes from occurring. Talk to your healthcare professional about hormone testing options to determine your current cortisol levels and check out these seven tips to help you manage stress.

If you have other techniques you use to manage your stress levels, we would love to hear about them on Facebook.



1.  McEwen, B. Mood disorders and allostatic load. Biological Psychiatry. 2003. 54:3(200 – 207). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3223(03)00177-X

2. Jeong Y. et. al. Chronic stress accelerates learning and memory impairments and increases amyloid deposition in APPV717I-CT100 transgenic mice, an Alzheimer’s disease model. FASEB Journal. 2006. https://doi.org/10.1096/fj.05-4265fje