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5 Ways Your Brain is Shrinking and What to Do About it

Doctor explains how stress affects the brain and how to reduce stress levels. 

It's widely known that chronic stress can cause major health issues like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and more. But did you know that stress can also shrink your brain? According to Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies, "Scientists have long believed that we only use a small percentage of our brain power. However, recent research has shown that this may not be the case. In fact, we may be using more of our brains than we realize. The problem is that when we experience stress, it can shrink our brains. This shrinkage can lead to problems with memory and concentration." She adds, " Stress can also cause the formation of new 'stress' neurons, which can further impair cognitive function. Therefore, it is important to take care of our brain by reducing stress levels." Mitchell explains to Eat This, Not That! Health, five ways stress shrinks your brain and what to do about it.  Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


How Stress Shrinks Your Brain

Man stressed while working on laptop

Dr. Mitchell says, "When we think of stress, we often think of the physical effects it has on our bodies – an increased heart rate, tightening of the chest, and shortness of breath. But did you know that stress can also shrink your brain? Research has shown that chronic stress can lead to the shrinking of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning. In fact, studies have shown that people who experience chronic stress have a smaller hippocampus than those who don't. Stress can also cause changes in other parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and self-control. So not only does stress make it harder to remember things and make good decisions, but it also literally shrinks your brain. So next time you're feeling overwhelmed, take a step back and relax – your brain will thank you for it!"


Can You Reverse the Effects of Stress Shrinking the Brain?

Doctor examines MRI scan of head, neck and brain of patient

Dr. Mitchell states, "Stress is a physical response that occurs when we feel threatened. The body releases hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare us to either fight or flee the situation. This 'fight-or-flight' response is a helpful adaptation that has served us well throughout evolution. However, in modern times, we are often exposed to chronic stressors, such as traffic jams and financial worries, which can lead to the activation of the stress response on a daily basis. Research has shown that chronic stress can have a negative impact on brain structure and function. For example, chronic stress has been shown to shrink the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory and learning. However, it is important to note that the brain is a highly adaptive organ, and it is possible to reverse the effects of stress with certain interventions, such as mindfulness meditation and exercise. Therefore, although chronic stress can have negative consequences on brain health, it is not an irreversible condition. In the 21st century, it seems like we are constantly under pressure. Whether it's work, family, or financial stress, it can all take a toll on our mental health. One of the ways that stress manifests itself is by shrinking the size of our brains. Recently, however, scientists have discovered that it may be possible to reverse the effects of stress-related brain shrinkage. In a recent study, researchers found that participants who underwent eight weeks of mindfulness training showed significant increases in brain volume in regions associated with memory and learning. The participants also reported feeling less stressed and more resilient in the face of challenges. This study provides compelling evidence that mindfulness can have a positive impact on brain health. If you're looking to reduce stress and protect your brain health, mindfulness may be a good option for you. There are many ways to get started with mindfulness, such as attending a meditation class or downloading a mindfulness app. By making mindfulness a part of your daily routine, you can help to reduce stress and improve your overall well being."


How to Prevent Stress From Shrinking Your Brain

Senior tourist couple travellers hiking in nature, walking and talking.

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Stress is a common experience that can have negative consequences on our brain health. When we feel stressed, our body releases hormones like cortisol which can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Over time, chronic stress can lead to a decrease in the size of the hippocampus, and this shrinkage has been linked to problems with memory, concentration, and mood. Thankfully, there are things we can do to prevent stress from damaging our brains. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress levels, and it also helps to protect the hippocampus from shrinkage. Additionally, spending time with friends and family can help to reduce stress, as can relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing. By taking steps to reduce our stress levels, we can help to protect our brains from shrinkage."


Stress Increases Levels of Cortisol, a Hormone that is Toxic to the Brain

woman on couch at home, stressed

Dr. Mitchell reminds us, "Stress can take a toll on your body and your mind. When you're stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that's designed to help you deal with stressful situations. In small doses, cortisol is beneficial. It can help you to focus and to be alert. However, when cortisol levels are constantly high, it can be toxic to the brain. High levels of cortisol have been linked to memory problems, anxiety, and depression. So why does stress increase levels of cortisol? It's believed that cortisol helps to prepare the body for "fight or flight." When you're stressed, your body is essentially getting ready for an emergency. Your heart rate increases, adrenaline is released, and blood is diverted away from non-essential functions like digestion. This response is helpful if you're in real danger, but it's not so helpful if you're just trying to get through a busy day at work. Over time, constant exposure to stress can lead to high levels of cortisol in the body, which can be damaging to the brain. If you're dealing with a lot of stress in your life, it's important to find ways to manage it. Exercise, relaxation techniques, and counseling can all help to reduce stress levels."


Stress Impairs the Function of Neurons and Reduces their Ability to Communicate with Each Other

Human brain on a dark blue background

"It is a well-known fact that stress can have a negative impact on our health," says Dr. Mitchell. "But did you know that it can also impair the function of neurons and reduce their ability to communicate with each other? In addition, stress can shrink the brain.So how does this happen? When we are under stress, our bodies release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol affects the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Chronic stress can lead to a shrinkage of the hippocampus. In addition, cortisol inhibits the release of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that help neurons communicate with each other. This can lead to a decrease in communication between neurons and an overall reduction in brain function. So why does this happen? The body releases cortisol in response to stress as part of the fight-or-flight response. This is an evolutionary mechanism that helps us deal with acute stressors such as predators or danger. However, modern-day stressors such as work deadlines or financial worries are not life-threatening, yet our bodies still respond in the same way. As a result, we are constantly bombarded with cortisol, which can lead to the negative effects on brain function described above."


Stress Damages the Structure of the Hippocampus, Making it Smaller and Less Effective

Worried woman at home alone

According to Dr. Mitchell, "When someone experiences chronic stress, the structure of their hippocampus changes. The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotion. When it's damaged, it's smaller and less effective. One reason this happens is that chronic stress increases levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body deal with stress, but too much of it can be harmful. It can damage the hippocampus by interfering with the way new memories are formed and how existing memories are accessed. Additionally, cortisol can kill neurons and cause inflammation. Over time, this can lead to shrinkage of the hippocampus. Stress also damages the structure of the hippocampus by causing oxidative damage. This happens when cells are exposed to too much oxygen, which causes them to produce free radicals. These free radicals damage DNA, proteins, and cell membranes. This damage can lead to inflammation and cell death, both of which contribute to hippocampal shrinkage. When the hippocampus is damaged, it's less effective at performing its functions. This can lead to problems with memory, learning, and emotion. It can also increase the risk for conditions like depression and Alzheimer's disease. Therefore, it's important to find ways to manage stress in order to protect the hippocampus from damage."


Stress Disrupts the Production of New Brain Cells in the Hippocampus

risk of alzheimers

Dr. Mitchell shares, "The hippocampus is a small, curved structure located deep within the brain. This area is responsible for memory formation and navigation. The hippocampus is also one of the few areas of the brain where new neurons are constantly being generated. However, this process can be disrupted by stress. When you experience chronic stress, your body produces high levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has a number of negative effects on the brain, including reducing the number of new neurons produced in the hippocampus. In fact, studies have shown that chronic stress can shrink the hippocampus by as much as 10%. Furthermore, cortisol also interferes with the neurotransmitters that are necessary for healthy brain function. As a result, chronic stress can lead to problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making. If you want to protect your brain from the damaging effects of stress, it's important to find ways to manage your stress levels. Exercise, relaxation techniques, and therapy can all help to reduce stress and keep your brain healthy."


Stress Increases the Risk of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Age-Related Degenerative Diseases


Dr. Mitchell emphasizes, "It's not an exaggeration to say that stress can shrink your brain. Stress increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other age-related degenerative diseases. A recent study found that people who reported feeling more stressed had smaller hippocampus – an area of the brain important for memory and learning. In fact, the shrinkage was equivalent to one to two years of hippocampal aging. So why does stress shrink your brain? When you're stressed, your body releases cortisol – a hormone that helps you cope with stressful situations. Cortisol is essential in small doses, but too much of it can be harmful. High levels of cortisol have been linked to shrinkage of the hippocampus as well as other areas of the brain. Stress also causes inflammation, which can damage brain cells and lead to cognitive decline. Fortunately, there are things you can do to manage stress and protect your brain health. Exercise, meditation, and spending time in nature are all excellent ways to reduce stress. So if you want to keep your mind sharp as you age, make sure to manage your stress levels." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather