Gaining Control Over Your Stressed Brain
Completely frantic and beside herself, a young mother of two came to see me for fatigue. Once she sat down with me, the floodgates opened and she admitted to being completely burnt out, exhausted from juggling her daily routines along with her obligations to her family, and unable to get a hold of her emotions. She was having trouble keeping calm with her kids, sleeping, and remembering little details about her day. After spending a great deal of time listening to her, not only did I prescribe her some supplements to help her manage the stress and fatigue she was overwhelmed by, but we agreed she needed to come up with a plan where she could carve in some self-healing time. After two weeks, she came back with a huge smile on her face and a great sense of calm. She was so relieved by the turn around in her memory and fatigue and how much her mood had improved. She got herself back to where she always remembered herself being the happiest.
Experiencing stress at times is not necessarily a bad thing. We all need a bit of adrenalin to get us going, to motivate us in completing a task. For some of us, this small burst drives us to success. It is a different story when life stressors become overwhelming. Issues at home, financial strains, dealing with loss, or a state of affairs that’s beyond our control can all lead to the accumulation of cortisol to take over our nervous system and impact our overall health.
The worst type of life stress is one that we feel we either have no ability to influence or control, or when we believe we cannot influence our sense of well-being and safety. Even as a healthcare expert, I have been in this situation many times. I have experienced many of the most common stressful life events, including moments of such extreme stress where I could not remember where I was going or what I was doing. I would misplace my keys and find cereal I placed in the refrigerator instead of the pantry. I would find myself driving to places I had been to countless times before, and all of a sudden not realize where I was going. The stress became so intense that it affected my ability to think clearly. I recall where my memory declined so much that I truly became full of fear. At this point the stress was toxic, and was giving me what I call Cortisol Brain.
Studies have shown that women struggle with stress more than men. Millennials and Generation Xers are reporting a great deal of stress, and those who struggle with their identity and face discrimination and social biases are afflicted by an enormous amount of stress.
Our Brains Under Stress
When stress occurs the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, sends a signal to the hypothalamus, the command center of our brain. A signal is then sent to the adrenal glands to activate the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. Once activated, a series of hormones is released to create the stress response. As we all know, cortisol is our greatest stress managing hormone. Cortisol serves its purpose in a healthy, natural way by helping metabolize glucose, controlling blood pressure and, of course, aiding in our “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Over periods of chronic stress, the fight, flight or freeze response cannot turn off. This causes a downward spiral in your health, leading to anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, heart disease, digestive issues, and memory impairment. In terms of the health of our brains, studies show that under chronic stress and elevated cortisol the volume of our brain decreases in size. In other words, our brains actually shrink! We may not even realize the progression of this physical toll on our bodies and brain health. However, there are solutions.
What Can We Do to Manage Stress and Protect Our Cognitive Health?
Although most stressful events are more than likely out of our control, we do have the strength and capability of grasping control of our mental and cognitive health. There are many supplements that are supported by research that have been shown to be extremely helpful in the health of our brains and managing stress.
Let’s take a look at some for cognitive health. When it comes to anti-aging from a cognitive perspective, I not only take these myself, but recommend them to my patients.
Turmeric. This is one of my favorite spices and supplements to take. I tell my patients that if they are going to take only one supplement, take turmeric. There are thousands of replicated studies on turmeric. It has received a great deal of credit for its many benefits and is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. The main active constituent in turmeric, curcumin, is highly recognized for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antihyperlipidemic, antimicrobial, and anti-tumor activities. The effect of curcumin on the brain is that it increases a hormone called Brain Derived Growth Factor, which helps improve memory and is beneficial in neurodegenerative diseases.
Ashwagandha. “The scripture of longevity,” the supplement Ashwagandha, is another one that I take daily. I especially love Ashwagandha because it is not only beneficial for cognitive health, but it is an adaptogen which balances cortisol and helps our bodies adapt to stress. It balances the activity of the adrenal glands and the thyroid. It further provides benefits to the immune system, improves memory, boosts stamina, and alleviates anxiety. The effects of Ashwagandha improve many aspects of our health.
L-theanine. An amino acid found in green tea, L-theanine, has been shown to be useful for both anxiety and memory. Randomized, controlled trials and cross-over studies have presented evidence that l-theanine is beneficial in reducing anxiety and in improving memory and attention. Furthermore, it decreases high levels of cortisol associated with stress.
I prescribe teas frequently in my practice. They’re safe and easy to take for children, adolescents and adults. They are especially useful for people who are very sensitive when they take medications or herbal medicine. I advise my patients who use teas to start off with one bag in a cup of water and then slowly increase it to as many as three bags until they feel relief. Some great teas are lemon balm, passionflower, gotu kola, and rose tea, all of which wonderfully help ease anxiety and stress.
Everything I mentioned so far are all great ways to address an imbalance in cortisol to preserve our cognitive health when faced with stressful situations. I tell my patients that you can take as many pills as you want, whether it’s pharmaceutical or natural, but you have to work on your lifestyle. Practicing stress management daily is key to living a healthy life, physically and mentally. Incorporating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet along with daily exercise are the foundation. As most of you know, exercise can be more if not equally effective as anti-anxiety pills. It’s important to take the time to just quiet the brain through meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or even listening to relaxing music or a podcast. There is an art that I am obsessed with lately called niksen. It is an art practiced in the Dutch culture that simply involves nothing. It is the art of doing nothing. In our culture, it is highly underrated, but all humans need quiet, down-time to de-stress!
Laughter is another natural way to alleviate stress and release those feel good hormones. A hearty laugh lowers blood pressure and is equivalent to 15 minutes of physical activity! Next time you’re feeling stressed, have a laugh or do niksen.
Dr. Veena Verma-Dzik, ND, FIAMA Naturopathic Doctor for Insight Counseling is board-certified and a certified medical acupuncturist who is highly experienced in treating acute and chronic health conditions. Dr. Verma received her doctorate from the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine. Some of her specialties include women’s health, ADD/ADHD, GI conditions, MTHFR, Lyme disease and co-infections, mood imbalances, allergies, fatigue, and hormonal imbalances. Each patient she sees receives personalized, individual care involving research-based treatments and therapies from her own clinical experience and success. The therapies she prescribes include herbal medicine, nutritional therapeutics, homeopathic medicine, low dose immunotherapy, and acupuncture. When it comes to diagnosing, Dr. Verma uses in-depth functional laboratory testing and analysis and takes the time to listen to her patients.