Dr. Mercola warns that “Stress has a direct impact on inflammation, which in turn underlies many of the chronic diseases that kill people prematurely every day, so developing effective coping mechanisms is a major longevity-promoting factor.”
Have you noticed that when you’re under great stress, you become forgetful?
That’s because, in addition to inflammation, chronic stress actually changes our brain and how it functions.
Lizette Borell reports for Medical Daily, Nov. 11, 2015, that the stress we face day in and day out can eventually develop into chronic stress, at which point it will begin to change your brain. In TED-Ed’s latest video, “How Stress Affects Your Brain,” Madhumita Murgia shows how being overworked or having arguments at home can affect the size and structure of the human brain, as well as how it functions.
High levels of cortisol over a prolonged period of time have notable effects on the brain:
- Heightened cortisol levels can cause electric signals in the hippocampus — the center for learning, memories, and stress control — to deteriorate, inhibiting activity in the HPA axis, and weakening a person’s ability to control stress.
- Excess cortisol levels can cause your brain to shrink, resulting in a loss of synaptic connections between neurons and the shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that regulates behaviors like concentration, decision-making, judgement, and social interactions.
- Cortisol may also cause the hippocampus to produce less brain cells, which could make it harder for you to learn and remember things.
- That, in turn, can set the stage for more serious mental health problems, like depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s important to take control of your stress before it takes control over you. Decreasing stress levels will increase the size of the hippocampus and improve memory.
There are many ways to reverse what cortisol does to the brain, such as exercising or praying/meditating.
There are also foods we should eat, some of which — comfort foods like a bowl of warm oatmeal that boost levels of serotonin — calm us down. Other foods can actually reduce the levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and stress hormones that take a toll on our bodies over time.
A healthy diet, therefore, can help counter the destructive effects of stress by shoring up our immune system and lowering blood pressure. Below are foods that are stress-busters (source: WebMD):
1. Complex Carbs
All carbohydrates prompt the brain to make more serotonin, the feel-good chemical. Complex carbs, being longer to digest, give a steady supply of serotonin. Good choices include whole-grain breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals, including old-fashioned oatmeal. Complex carbs can also help you feel balanced by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
2. Simple Carbs
Dietitians usually recommend steering clear of simple carbs, which include sweets and soda. But in a pinch, these foods can hit the spot. They’re digested quickly, leading to a spike in serotonin. Still, it doesn’t last long, and there are better options. So don’t make these a stress-relieving habit; you should limit them.
Oranges are rich in vitamin C, which can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. In one study of people with high blood pressure, their levels of cortisol and blood pressure returned to normal more quickly when they took vitamin C before a stressful task.
Too little magnesium may trigger headaches and fatigue, compounding the effects of stress. One cup of spinach helps you stock back up on magnesium. If you don’t like spinach, there are other good magnesium sources — green, leafy vegetables; cooked soybeans; and salmon.
5. Fatty Fish
Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and tuna, can prevent surges in stress hormones and may help protect against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). For a steady supply of feel-good omega-3s, aim to eat 3 ounces of fatty fish at least twice a week.
6. Black Tea
Drinking black tea can help you recover from stressful events more quickly. One study compared people who drank 4 cups of tea daily for 6 weeks with people who drank another beverage. The tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after stressful situations.
Nuts and seeds, are good sources of healthy fats. Eating a handful of pistachios, walnuts, or almonds every day may help lower your cholesterol, ease inflammation in your heart’s arteries, make diabetes less likely, and protect you against the effects of stress. Almonds are chock-full of helpful vitamins: vitamin E to bolster the immune system, and B vitamins that can make you more resilient during bouts of stress or depression. To get the benefits, snack on a quarter of a cup of almonds every day. But don’t overdo it, though: Nuts are rich in calories.
One of the best ways to reduce high blood pressure is to get enough potassium. Half an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana! But watch your portion size, as avocados are high in fat and calories.
9. Raw Veggies
Crunchy raw vegetables, such as celery or carrot sticks, can help ease stress in a purely mechanical way. Munching them helps release a clenched jaw.
10. Bedtime Snack
Carbs at bedtime can speed the release of the brain chemical serotonin and help you sleep better. Since heavy meals before bed can trigger heartburn, stick to something light, such as a glass of warm skim or low-fat milk. Research shows that the calcium in milk eases anxiety and mood swings linked to PMS.
11. Herbal Supplements
There are many herbal supplements that claim to fight stress. One of the best studied is St. John’s wort, which has shown benefits for people with mild to moderate depression. Although more research is needed, the herb also appears to reduce symptoms of anxiety and PMS. There is less data on valerian root, another herb said to have a calming effect. Tell your doctor about any supplements you take, so they can check on any possible interactions.
12. De-Stress With Exercise
Lastly, though not a food, one of the best stress-busting strategies is exercise. Aerobic exercise boosts oxygen circulation and spurs your body to make feel-good chemicals called endorphins. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 to 4 times a week. Walking is easy! Just put your shoes on and step out of your door!
To get you motivated, here’s one of my favorite songs, from the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: