Stress, which sometimes seems an inevitable part of daily life, is also a source of wear and tear on both body and mind. Stress is rooted in basic survival instincts known as the "fight or flight" response, which triggers chemicals in the brain and body designed to help us manage a threatening situation.
Almost everyone is familiar with the physical symptoms of intense stress: racing heart, sweaty palms, butterfly-filled belly. But it is also possible to experience low-grade, ongoing stress without those immediate symptoms. The chemicals that the body produces are the same, however, and negatively affect the body at the cellular level.
Long-term stress, anxiety and depression have been linked with an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. In fact, some research suggests that long-term stress stimulates the growth of the proteins that might cause Alzheimer's. And that can lead to memory loss.
It also appears that the impact of stress on people's brain health is affected by other behaviors that can also harm the brain. Overeating, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes are among the informal stress management approaches people employ, but all of them increase the risk of damage to the brain in the form of a stroke.
Beat Stress for Brain Health
It is possible to reduce stress and improve brain health with 20 minutes of relaxation a day. Yoga, prayer and meditation may actually turn off the genes that are activated by stress, according to a study by researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The researchers demonstrated that eight weeks of relaxation training resulted in changes at the cellular level that countered the damaging effects of stress. The study was published online in the journal PLoS One.
Other relaxation techniques recommended by the lead researcher, Dr. Herbert Benson, include:
- Deep breathing
- Tai chi
- Qi gong
- Repetitive prayer
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Guided imagery
There are other lifestyle choices that have a twofold effect on brain health. They're both good for the brain and can help reduce stress levels:
- Be physically active at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and drink enough water
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Get enough sleep (6 to 8 hours a night)
If relaxation techniques and lifestyle changes do not help reduce stress in your life, talk to a medical professional about counseling or anti-anxiety medications.