Understanding How Stress Affects Your Brain

Dr. Doni looks at the ways that continued stress affects your brain, manifesting in four main areas: Mood, energy, focus, and sleep.

Continued stress affects your brain in detrimental ways, especially in four main areas: Focus, energy, mood, and sleep.

Feeling Triggered

You just finished a long day working from home. Sitting in the space that has now become your office, you turn your computer off, you let out an audible sigh as you turn to get up and allow your “office” to become your home, taking over your sanctuary. Your head hangs low, unconsciously weighed down by the heaviness of the day – you’ve just heard from a friend whose father passed away, and a colleague who lost their job, all because of the pandemic, and you think to yourself, “I wonder how long I can keep this up.”

Your feet slowly follow behind your head, as if towing invisible cement blocks. Opening the door to your home office, your ears are immediately greeted with high-pitched shrieks. The hairs on your arm and neck immediately stand up as if you’ve just dragged your nails across a chalkboard. The kids come spilling around the corner at full speed, your daughter crying hysterically while her brother frantically exclaims, “IT’S NOT MY FAULT!”

You look around the exposed land mine of dirty laundry sporadically spread across the hallway. The dog begins barking from all the excitement, competing with the kids for loudest howl. You are scrambling to try to clean up, your work to-do list still burdening your mind. You look at the clock and shift to cooking dinner. Thinking to yourself the sooner you can get to dinner, means the sooner the kids get to bedtime, and maybe then you can take a moment for yourself. A wave of guilt rushes over you before your thought is even complete.

Your partner walks into the kitchen and says, “Oh, dinner isn’t ready yet?”

The Flashback

Ready or not, a fiery rage explodes from your mouth. Words are tumbling out of your mouth faster than you can process what you’re even saying, increasing in decibel and spewing out before you get a chance to know what you’re saying. Suddenly you’re 6 years old again and standing in your kitchen. You look up to see your parents fighting. And just as quickly as the memory flashed in, you find yourself back into your reality and staring back at your partner. Ducking for cover, they begin to slink away, leaving the echo of your harsh words piled up like shells at your feet. An uncomfortable constriction envelopes your throat and your eyes well up with tears that slowly cascade down your cheeks.

You’re feeling overwhelmed, embarrassed, and confused about what just happened. You know it was an overreaction, but why did it happen?

The Brain & Stress

By design, our brain is set up to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. While that definition of flight-or-fight has long since evolved from our more primal instincts that we share with our ancestors, that basic impulse to protect ourselves is both instinctive and unconscious.

When your body recognizes a situation as a “threat,” it will then go into high-alert, prioritizing all its resources to that exact moment. Functions that are not deemed necessary for immediate survival, such as digestion, are then put on hold. So when your body is reminded of this trauma, your body acts as if that event is happening all over again, even if in reality it’s not.

In the Trenches

To feel triggered is to have a reminder of a past trauma. This can cause a person to feel overwhelmed with sadness, anxiety, anger, or panic. It has the potential to cause vivid flashbacks and force someone to relive a traumatic event and are a result of post-traumatic stress (PTSD). These triggers can also be more subtle, like in the example above.

The exact formation of these triggers is complex and unique to each individual and their experiences, however what is universal is that our brain utilizes our senses to bookmark and store information on the event so that it is easier to recall. In other words, our brain seeks to optimize our ability to recount situations deemed as a threat more quickly by ingraining sensory stimulation – i.e. a smell, a sound, a phrase, a song, the feel of something, the sight or something, etc. – so that it can adapt faster the next time it happens.

That’s right, our brains adapt and evolve as a direct response to our stressors. So in the moment of stress, we respond both to the current stress and to the past stress, at the same time. This is how stress affects our brain directly.

The Biology of Stress

You’ve heard me say this before, but stress is actually necessary and critical to push us to be the best versions of ourselves and is the chemical process that we can thank for our survival. It powers the “fight-or-flight” response that allows us to respond and adapt quickly on our feet.

The tricky part, especially in the busy world we live in, is that stress has to be met with an equal amount of stress recovery. During the stress recovery phase, adrenaline and cortisol are able to return to levels that allow for repair, digestion, and sleep.

Having an awareness for your body and mind’s ability to both respond to and process stressors makes a difference in how you feel. The ways stress affects you, in terms of symptoms and health issues, is unique to you as an individual based on your history of stress exposure, as well as your genetics.

The Amygdala Effect

We all have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and optical nerves about where our temples sit. The amygdala is essentially the “fear center” of your brain. I’ll refer to it as your brain’s security alarm system. Its responsibility is to detect fear and prepare your body and mind for an emergency response.

When you’re startled, upset, or triggered, the amygdala will sound the alarm to release an army of naturally occurring chemicals in your body as a response. Adrenaline and cortisol flood through the body with weapons drawn, preparing for that fight-or-flight. Your palms begin to sweat or shake, heart palpitations quicken and deepen, eventually feeling like they are thumping outside of your skeletal frame. Breathing might become more shallow and rapid. Our body’s way of taking in more oxygen preparing for a physical exertion if necessary. These stress hormones may also cause other sensations like a quiver of your voice, constriction in the throat or tightness in your neck and jaw.

When this happens you know you are in the grip of the Amygdala Effect, a prehistoric set of psychological responses. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but it’s not designed to be. It’s designed to put us in motion, to stimulate and prepare us for action.

The HPA Hand-Off

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis kicks into action. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal cortex all work together as a “stress response system.” Its job is to regulate hormones, and in particular: Cortisol. It does so by rapidly increasing glucose levels, speeding the heart rate and increasing the blood flow to the muscles in our limbs. After the danger has passed, the system works to return hormone levels to normal.

All Aboard the Cortisol Express

Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. It works with parts of the brain to control your mood, motivation and fear. Your brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland know when your blood contains the right level of cortisol, if it’s too low or high your brain will adjust the amount of the hormones it makes. The receptors for cortisol are in most cells of your body which means that cortisol affects us in a variety of ways:

  • Managing how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
  • Influences  inflammation levels
  • Regulates blood pressure
  • Manages digestion
  • Affects blood sugar (glucose)
  • Controls your sleep/wake cycle
  • Shifts your focus and memory
  • Influences your mood and neurotransmitters (messengers in the nervous system)
  • Affects other hormones in the body, such as thyroid, estrogen and testosterone
  • Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restore balance afterwards

These needs and uses of cortisol vary based on the time of day and also how your body has been affected by stress. So when testing for imbalances, you should be testing these levels multiple times a day (morning, mid-day, evening and bedtime).

When stress continues, the receptors in the hypothalamus stop responding to the level of cortisol in your body, and when that occurs, cortisol can stay too high, or become depleted. That’s when the responses that were healthy in the moment of stress end up causing health issues. Blood sugar levels fluctuate, digestion of food is less effective, and the cells and bacteria in the digestive tract become less healthy. Inflammation increases and infections become more common. Mood, energy, focus and sleep become disrupted due to imbalanced neurotransmitters.

How to Tell if Your Neurotransmitters are Imbalanced

neurotransmitters list, mental focus, anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication, SSRIs, withdrawal symptoms

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that are made within your body from amino acids and work within your brain and nervous system. They are categorized as either inhibitory or excitatory based on the signal they send through your nerves. I find it helps to think of them as calming or stimulating to you and your body. Serotonin and GABA, for example, are calming neurotransmitters. Adrenaline (which acts as a neurotransmitter), dopamine and glutamate are all stimulating. Optimally there is a balance of calming and stimulating neurotransmitters.

Their job is to transmit signals from the nerve cells to target cells, which may be in muscles, glands or other nerves. The nervous system needs neurotransmitters to regulate many necessary functions, including:

  • heart rate
  • breathing
  • sleep cycles
  • digestion
  • mood
  • concentration
  • appetite
  • muscle movement
  • energy level

Stress is the most critical element in determining if our neurotransmitters are in balance. This is because our bodies are designed to modify the production of neurotransmitters whenever we are exposed to any kind of stress. Genetics also play a role in how quickly your body becomes depleted in neurotransmitters, especially when exposed to stress.

Imbalanced neurotransmitters, can have detrimental long-term health effects to your brain, manifesting in four main areas. I use the anagram “M.E.F.S.” to help my patients remember them: Mood, Energy, Focus, and Sleep.

Mood

Persistently high levels of stress are known to cause depression and anxiety and become a recurrent condition. Did you know that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.? It affects 40 million adults in the United states aged 18 and older. Most often we think of as low serotonin as being the main cause of anxiety and depression. However, this is not the case. Mood is affected by all of the neurotransmitters, and by cortisol directly. Instead of guessing about the cause of mood issues, and prescribing as SSRI or benzodiazepine (which are the most commonly prescribed drugs for these conditions), I find it to be exponentially more effective to:

  1. First test the neurotransmitter and cortisol levels so we know exactly how stress is affecting your levels.
  2. Then I also look at genetics, such as MTHFR, and how your genes influence methylation. Methylation is how your body uses B vitamins to make and break down neurotransmitters.

Then we can use clinical nutrition and amino acid therapy to get the levels back to where you need them to be to feel well.

Energy

Fatigue is one of the most common symptom patients report, and it has many potential causes which relate back to stress exposure. These causes can be nutrient deficiencies, low thyroid function, imbalanced blood sugar levels, and lack of sleep. Neurotransmitters also affect energy levels. If dopamine and adrenaline levels are low, for example, it’s likely your energy level will also be lower. If, on the other hand, dopamine and adrenaline levels are higher, you’re probably feel more energized, or in some cases “wired.” At the same time, low serotonin can results in low motivation.

Focus

Brain fog and memory issues are quite common, especially when exposed to stress and when neurotransmitters are out of balance. I find that dopamine is directly related to the speed of how your brain is functioning. When dopamine is low, your brain power will decrease. When dopamine is high, it will seem that everyone else is moving too slowly.

As an example, attention deficit disorder (ADD) is often attributed to low adrenaline levels, and people are given medications to increase adrenaline. But I often find that people who report high distractability have high dopamine and adrenaline, along with low serotonin and cortisol. That’s why it is so important to measure your neurotransmitter levels. That way we can know exactly what is happening in your nervous system – and which nutrients and herbs would help you most.

Sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep – or not – is often related to stress. Benzodiazepines are being prescribed more than ever for insomnia, to support GABA and calm the nervous system. However, benzodiazepines are highly addictive and should not be used long term. There is an alternative though. By checking your neurotransmitter levels, in a simple urine panel done at home, we can identify the imbalance disrupting your sleep.

In some cases, it is high adrenaline levels, especially in those people with COMT gene SNPs. This makes sense, because their bodies process adrenaline more slowly. For others, it is low serotonin and GABA, our “buffer” to stress. Still others have high cortisol at night, or a combination of all three of these possibilities. All of this can be resolved using amino acid therapy to support the neurotransmitters that are low, combined with nutrients and herbs to decrease the high adrenaline and/or cortisol.

The 4 Ways Stress Affects Your Brain

When stress becomes chronic, that means the system is firing “on and off” alerts all of the time. As a result the same hormones that are so important to your survival response then become detrimental to your overall health and longevity. This constant state of vigilance manifests as:

1. Imbalanced Neurotransmitters

Since we know it is impossible to be alive without encountering some form of stress, that means that all of us are at risk of developing a neurotransmitter imbalance at some point in our lives. That’s why I suggest checking your neurotransmitter levels as part of your annual assessment of your health.

2. Gut Health Disrupted

Stress essentially turns off digestion, decreasing our ability to digest food and absorb the nutrients we need for optimal functioning. Intestinal cells are not replaced efficiently and leaky gut develops. Serotonin production, which mainly occurs in the gut, decreases. The immune system – the majority of which is located in the intestines – reacts to undigested food leaky across the intestinal lining, causing inflammation that can travel throughout the body and across the blood brain barrier to the nervous system. Healthy gut bacteria decrease in numbers and diversity, allowing less healthy bacteria to overgrow and produce toxins which then travel to the nervous system, causing further damage. This is referred to as the gut-brain-microbiome axis.

3. Hormones Malfunction

Insulin function decreases, causing an increase in blood sugar levels, along the lines of metabolic syndrome and diabetes, which are highly associated with neurodegeneration and dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Thyroid function is also affected by stress, and low thyroid function can cause low mood, low energy, decreased memory and increased risk of dementia. Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are all disrupted by stress, and they all influence the nervous system and neurotransmitters.

4. Immune System Shifted

When the immune system shifts, it can lead to susceptibly to infections, such as viruses and lyme, which affect the nervous system. Depending on your genetic tendencies, the immune system can shift to creating allergies, high histamine, and/or autoimmunity, all of which can cause pain as well as changes in mood, energy, focus and sleep.

Essentially, if you experience fatigue, anxiety, depression, brain fog, migraines, trouble sleeping, decreased memory, and/or neuropathy, you can figure it was caused by stress and the effect it has on these 4 systems.

When you hear all this medical jargon and break down the functions of neurotransmitters and the brain, I know it can feel overwhelming. It may even seem like this mysterious, invisible, and untouchable problem because how can we affect our nervous system and our brain? But just as stressors affect our brain, if we can learn to recognize patterns and our own genetics we can turn those stressors into tools for us to shape our brain in a positive way moving forward.

As daunting as this may seem, I’m here to tell you all of this is changeable and fixable!

I know this because I’ve helped thousands of people rebalance their neurotransmitters and get their brain back.

4 Ways to Change How Stress Affects Your Brain

OK, so it’s not an easy quick-fix. It takes time and patience, but these are the four ways that we can begin that process, and it really all begins with self-care. Self-Care for me stands for: Clean eating, Adequate Sleep, Reducing Stress, Exercise.

1. Clean Eating

Food and nutrition are one of the most effective ways you can take charge of your health journey and balancing your neurotransmitters. By doing a food sensitivity panel, I can help you fine tune your clean eating and eliminate the foods that are most inflammatory to your nervous system. Avoiding foods that don’t work well with your body helps to heal leaky gut and leaky brain. After vetting many different tests, these are are two that I recommend in my practice (and which you can do on your own from home):

  1. ImmunoLab checks for 96 of the most common foods
  2. U.S. Biotek 48 food panel

Determining which foods might be a problem allows us to be sure that we’re addressing the right thing. Without this guidance, we’re just guessing. It’s really difficult to get good results this way. Take the panel – it’s easy, and it tells us so much.

Fasting (for days at a time) or “intermittent fasting” (overnight) both stimulate something called autophagy. Our body has a built-in ability to get rid of damaged proteins and cells, and to replace them with new healthy cells. Having too much or too little autophagy increases risk of cancer as well as dementia, which having just the right amount helps to prevent aging.

2. Adequate Sleep

This is vital for all of us, inadequate quantity and quality of sleep has proven short-term and long-term effects.

In fact, sleep is the key for our brain to form memories and actively clean-up house. It’s during our deep sleep that our brain signals to activate our glymphatic system. The glymphatic system is our brain’s process of eliminating damaged cells out through the lymph to make room for new ones, think of it as the brain’s self-cleaning process. This is incredibly important because a build up of damaged cells negatively affects brain function and memory.

Those of you who have struggled with sleep know that restoration of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms may be easier to obtain than one would think! Just as your brain uses all five senses to interpret stress, you can use the five senses to improve your sleep. From there, I help patients to find out how stress has affected their cortisol and neurotransmitter levels, as well as gut health, to help them get back to sleeping well.

3. Reduce Stress

Mindfulness, Meditation, Stress, cortisol, stress hormone, serotonin, dopamine, neurotransmitters, mood, telomeresMindfulness has been proven to be an incredible technique to employ when a conflict or stress arises. It allows you to override the conditioned nervous system with conscious awareness and change how your brain and body responds. Instead of attacking or recoiling (and later justifying our reactions), we can learn to stay present, participate in regulating our own nervous system, and eventually, develop new, more free and helpful ways of interacting.

Not only that, but meditation and mindfulness have actually been shown to help your brain to develop new neural pathways, something called neuroplasticity. Neurons can change, and the pathways of thoughts and emotions can be remapped.

There are variety of ways to incorporate mindfulness practice into your life. This could be sitting and practicing breathing in silence increasing the time as you progress in your meditation practice. If that’s not for you, journaling is also an incredible release that allows you to tune into yourself and also help to create inner awareness and peace. Spending time in nature is another form of mindfulness shown to help your brain heal.

Practicing mindfulness demands a willingness to stay present, to let our thoughts go, and to use our breath to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Like any skill, it takes practice.

4. Exercise

Exercise has well established benefits against chronic stress. Adding movement to your daily routine also manages insulin and blood sugar levels. Did I mention working out also increases the production of new brain cells by increasing autophagy? If that’s not enough to turn your head, exercise also has the added benefits boosting your mood, cognitive function, and physical health. Consider adding just 20 minutes of moment to your daily routine. Perhaps 10 or 15 minutes of core strengthening or a walk outside? I promise it will exponentially improve your mind and body.

NEXT STEPS: Three Strategies for You

A lot of times people are led to believe that when they are diagnosed with mental health issues or neurodegenerative changes, that there are no options to reverse the reverse or eliminate their symptoms. I hear it all the time. Patients feel hopeless and have never been told that their brain can heal. Meanwhile, I have observed that with the right support, our nervous system and brain can recover from stress. Neurotransmitters can be rebalanced. Mood, energy, focus, memory and sleep can be restored.

If you’re displaying symptoms in any of the M.E.F.S categories, then one of the first things to do would be to check your neurotransmitter levels. We do this with a urine test, which is included in my Adrenal Recovery program (more on the program below).

Of course, more often than not many conventional practitioners prescribe highly addictive medications to treat the symptom without understanding the cause, and more specifically without understanding you.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with thousands of patients on these issues. As a result I’ve seen the shortcomings of conventional practitioners in the medical and mental health space. I’ve developed my practice so that I can be an advocate for you. As your healing companion I’m here to guide you and help you achieve your optimal health.

1. Find Your Stress Type

Read the Stress Warrior book online for FREE (click image) or get the paperback for free when you pay for shipping – at DrDoniStore.com

Stress looks different on everyone. How your body in particular responds to stress and goes to a certain pattern of cortisol and adrenaline levels is based on your genetics and your stress exposure. So these are completely unique stress patterns – different people under similar stress may even end up in an entirely different place.

This means that our approach to healing the harmful effects of sustained stress levels differs too. Two easy things for you to do straight away:

  1. Take my quick 12-question quiz: Discover Your Stress Type – coming soon. This will help us isolate how stress is affecting you in particular.
  2. Read my Stress Warrior book: Get it online here for free or I’ll send you the paperback FREE if you pay the shipping.

2. Commit to a 3-week DIY Program

neurotransmitters list, mental focus, anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication, SSRIs, withdrawal symptomsIf you are not quite ready to do a food panel, and want to start with an elimination diet of the most common food allergens, you can follow my Stress Remedy 21-day Program. It is designed to help you avoid your food allergens and heal leaky gut. It is an online, do-it-yourself program.

The meal plan it includes is gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and egg-free. It also guides you to reduce sugar and balance your blood sugar. It will help you learn a lot about your body over a 3-week period of time.

3. Apply for a Comprehensive Program

Adrenal Distress, Adrenal ImbalanceThis is the “all of the above” option… and more. Dr. Doni’s Adrenal Recovery and Wellness Program includes SEVEN private consultations with Dr. Doni, and all of the tests that you need to determine a perfectly-tuned plan of attack. In this program, we’ll do the following panels:

  • 4-timed salivary or urinary cortisol panels
  • Urinary neurotransmitter panel (serotonin, GABA, adrenaline, etc.) – this is the one I mentioned above
  • IgG and IgA food sensitivities panel for 96 foods – also the one I mentioned above

Some additional blood work may also be required (e.g. metabolic panel, thyroid, etc.), which can be done either through your doctor or through Dr. Doni’s office. This program is simply the best way to get to the bottom of your stress-related chronic health issues – and to devise a treatment plan that can 1) help you rebalance, and 2) maintain it for your entire lifetime. It’s an investment in your health and well-being that will help you for years to come.


Healing Leaky Gut with Dr. Doni WilsonTake Care of Your Brain!

I hope all this helps you see your stress differently. As always, reach out to my office if you need any guidance. A Quick Insights or Comprehensive Consultation might be the perfect starting place to determine what you need to do to address the underlying causes of your health issues – mental and physical. All this information can feel overwhelming, especially if it’s new to you.

If that’s the case, let me help you cut right through it. I offer several options for meeting with me by phone/video (or in-person). I’ll review your situation and your specific stress patterns, and provide suggestions on how best to proceed.

To stay in touch, please sign up for my Weekly Wellness Wisdom newsletter, for recent blog posts, podcast episodes, and more opportunities to learn about natural approaches to better health.

Wellness wishes to you, as always!

–Dr. Doni
16th July 2020

 

References:

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  2. Mateos-Aparicio P, Rodríguez-Moreno A. The Impact of Studying Brain Plasticity. Front. Cell. Neurosci., 27 February 2019. https://doi.org/10.3389/fncel.2019.00066
  3. Glick D, Barth S, Macleod KF. Autophagy: cellular and molecular mechanisms. J Pathol. 2010;221(1):3-12. doi:10.1002/path.2697
  4. Jessen NA, Munk AS, Lundgaard I, Nedergaard M. The Glymphatic System: A Beginner’s Guide. Neurochem Res. 2015;40(12):2583-2599. doi:10.1007/s11064-015-1581-6
  5. Martin CR, Osadchiy V, Kalani A, Mayer EA. The Brain-Gut-Microbiome Axis. Cell Mol Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2018;6(2):133-148. Published 2018 Apr 12. doi:10.1016/j.jcmgh.2018.04.003
  6. Busby E, Bold J, Fellows L, Rostami K. Mood Disorders and Gluten: It’s Not All in Your Mind! A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2018;10(11):1708. Published 2018 Nov 8. doi:10.3390/nu10111708