We all deal with stress on a regular basis, but when it gets to be too much, science says it can lead to dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s what you need to know.
If you’re feeling chronically stressed out, you’re not alone. Tension stemming from work life, relationships, money, and more has become the norm, but this mental state is directly affecting our health by weakening our immune system, causing digestive health issues, and even pointing towards cognitive decline.
So, are we all doomed? Not necessarily. Here’s how to tell when your stress levels are above normal healthy areas, and how to prevent yourself from falling prey to chronic stress.
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Chronic Stress vs. Acute Stress
There are two different kinds of stress, and they affect the body differently. Acute stress is the type of stress that many of us experience regularly from things like work demands and everyday obligations. (1) Acute stress can be helpful in small doses, as it triggers the body to release certain hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, which can be helpful when dealing with the stressful situation. (2)
When your stress response is responding appropriately, the increase in cortisol levels that are released during periods of stress go back down once that specific threat has left. (3)
Chronic stress is when your body gets stuck in a fight-or-flight response. When this happens, the stress hormone cortisol is released, causing your heart rate and breathing to speed up and your digestive system to slow down. While this system works really well when you are dealing with an actual physical threat, such as being chased by a wild animal, this does not serve us well when dealing with everyday stress.
When the stress response is chronically activated, you risk major health issues like obesity, heart disease, and cancer. (4)
Before we dive into how chronic stress impacts cognitive function, let’s take a closer look at cortisol and the role cortisol plays in our body’s stress response.
What Is Cortisol?
Often known as the “stress hormone”, cortisol plays a very important role when it comes to our body’s stress response. When you are under stress, your body releases cortisol, which increases glucose levels in the blood and puts other functions on “hold” that may not be completely necessary to fight the stressor at hand. This is where that fight-or-flight response comes in, and things like the immune and digestive systems slow down.
One of the issues with chronic cortisol exposure and stress is that after long periods of excessive cortisol exposure, you may be at a higher risk of developing many different health conditions. (5) These include:
The Mental Health Consequences of Chronic Stress
While we know that chronic stress can lead to physical health issues, it can also affect our mental health. Studies show that byproducts of stress hormones act as sedatives in the body. When you are under chronic amounts of stress over an extended period of time, it’s common to experience symptoms like low energy and even depression. (6)
In a recent study, participants engaged in cognitive testing that looked at memory, abstract reasoning, and visual perception. The results found those with higher cortisol levels had difficulty with memory and visual perception tasks – and even linked higher cortisol levels to lower brain volume. (7)
Today, chronic stress is a driving cause of Alzheimer’s disease, and can even make symptoms of this disease worse. (8) Another study looking at the connection between stress and Alzheimer’s found that participants with cognitive impairment also have high cortisol levels. (9)
This connection is likely due to the fact that chronic stress triggers inflammatory mediators in the brain, primarily in the hippocampus. This specific type of inflammation is strongly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. (10)
A study conducted by The University of Gothenburg in Sweden also makes a connection between stress and Alzheimer’s disease. They found that “information stress”, or the demand for handling a rapid flow of daily information, can cause mild cognitive impairment, a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease. (11)
One shocking observation found that patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in this study were relatively young, with an average age of 64 (early onset of Alzheimer’s is considered under age 65). This indicates the dangers of dealing with chronic levels of stress and pressure on a regular basis.
5 Tips on Preventing Chronic Stress
Now that we understand how chronic stress can lead to cognitive impairment, it’s important to take preventative steps to gain control of your stress levels. Here are the best ways you can get your stress under control, preventing early cognitive decline and other health issues.
1. Eat a Nutrient-Rich Diet
Believe it or not, what you eat can impact how well your body responds to stress. Consuming a nutrient-dense diet that includes complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and clean protein can help stabilize blood sugar levels, which is an important part of balancing hormone levels and supporting a positive mood.
Here are some of the best foods to enjoy to help stabilize blood sugar levels to support your body’s stress response and hormone balance:
Make sure you’re also eating enough calories each day. With so many fad diets out there, many people simply aren’t consuming enough calories to sustain overall health. This is bad news, because not getting enough calories in your diet is actually linked to an increase in cortisol levels. (12)
The total number of calories you need depends on your age, activity level, gender, height, and weight. As a general guideline, adult women typically need 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day, while the average man needs 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day. (13) While the exact number is going to be different for each person, you don’t want to go below the low end of these daily calorie requirements.
2. Breathe Deeply
Something as simple as the way you breathe can significantly reduce levels of chronic stress. When you breathe deeply, your body will literally respond by telling your brain to relax, which can help lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and slow rapid breathing. (14)
Try to practice deep breathing every single day, and especially during periods of increased stress. You can start to practice deep breathing as often as you can in about one-minute sessions, and more if you are feeling especially tense.
Mindfulness is another great way to reduce stress. You can practice mindfulness daily by setting aside five minutes and finding a quiet place to sit and just notice your body. Take a few minutes to be mindful of your breath, and take notice of when your thoughts start to wander. Acknowledge your wandering thoughts without judgment and just bring your attention back to your breathing. Sit for five to ten minutes and just be present, coming back to your breath each time you start to become distracted. Practice this daily. This can become an essential tool in combating stress during other moments of your day. You will literally train your brain to be mindful of how your body is feeling during periods of stress, and then bring your awareness to your breath to help calm both your mind and body.
3. Improve Your Sleep Habits
Sleep is essential for overall health, and it certainly plays a role in how stressed out you feel. One study found that 47 percent of Americans lie awake at night because of stress! (15) It’s a double-edged sword, because not getting enough sleep can also make you even more stressed out. (16)
Try to get at least seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, and set a calming bedtime routine to wind down your day each evening. An hour or more of calming music, reading, a warm bath, or any other kind of relaxing activity you enjoy can greatly improve your overall quality of sleep.
4. Learn to Say “No” More Often
If you tend to say “yes” to everything that comes your way, then you may be dealing with chronic stress due to overcommitment. It’s so easy to overcommit, but it definitely doesn’t do our health or our stress levels any good.
Make it a point to start saying no to the obligations that no longer serve you. Start by saying that you will think about it before immediately responding with a yes, then give yourself time to truly consider if you have time for another commitment. Just taking the time to pause can be life changing, as it can really help free up more time for you to practice self-care (a biggie, see below) and reduce your overall stress levels.
5. Practice Self-Care
Self-care is one of the most important steps you can take to reducing the stress load you carry. Make it a priority to take some time for yourself each week, and if you can manage self-care daily, do it! Even making time for little things, like a five-minute meditation or a brisk walk, can significantly help to reduce your stress levels. Then, schedule in time for something a little bigger each week, like going out to lunch with a friend. These may seem like small changes, but trust us, they make a big difference to your wellbeing.
Taking care of yourself is an essential part of reducing stress and lowering cortisol levels.
The Bottom Line
Chronic stress can significantly impair our overall quality of life and can throw our hormone balance out of whack. The chronic exposure to elevated cortisol levels has been found to hold some pretty detrimental effects on the body and cognitive function, so it is our job to take matters into our own hands and turn things around to prevent this from happening.
Evaluate what changes you can make in your diet, get into bed earlier, learn that saying no can be the biggest gift to yourself, and take care of yourself each and every day! With just a handful of steps, you can help reign in your chronic stress and safeguard both your physical and mental health for the long run.
(More on Brain Health: How Too Much Sugar May Increase Your Risk of Alzheimer’s)