Month: April 2021



You probably already knew this, but chronic stress is bad for your health. It’s no thanks to the pandemic that many of us have given our trusty stress-management practices a backseat, replaced by even more of the cortisol-filled thoughts than before it started. That chronic stress we tried so hard to get rid of is back with a vengeance.

Being the health conscious folks that you are, you are likely already aware that chronic stress increases the risk of dementia. Like so many of us, you have seen friends and family succumb to it.

Not that many people know about the science behind the way in which stress causes damage to the brain. But once you do, it becomes easier to grasp the importance of making a conscious effort to reduce your stress levels, especially once you are over 50, pandemic or not.

So what is chronic stress? In essence, it’s when people are afraid, anxious, or angry all the time.

The Tiny Part of Your Brain that Packs a Big Punch

We now know a lot about how stress works in the brain. There’s a tiny little part of your brain, right on the inside, called the hypothalamus. It’s one fifth of an ounce of tissue, and I would say it’s a contender to be considered the most important fifth of an ounce in your body.

That’s because it is the part of the brain that controls your emotions. In addition to playing a role in various key things like our appetite and sex drive, it regulates anger and partly controls our fear response, two key aspects of that emotion we call stress. The hypothalamus funnels the stress response when something stressful happens to you.

But here’s the tricky thing about the hypothalamus: the fundamentals of how it conceives of and manages stress evolved thousands and thousands of years ago.

If you pick out any bunch of people at random from your neighbourhood or your country and ask them about which of their life experiences have been stressful, you’ll get a big variety of answers, but also a certain amount of overlap. What you won’t find is any of the things that made life stressful for our ancestors millions of years ago.

How Lions Changed Our Brain Chemistry for Millions of Years

Back then, what caused stress – even if people almost certainly didn’t use that word for it! – was a lion in the underbrush. The hypothalamus’s stress response evolved to send people in that situation a pretty important message: you’d better do something about this quickly, or else you’ll die.

The eyes saw the lion, the brain processed that information, the hypothalamus sent an urgent warning message to the body, and the human ran a mile.

The last two of those steps happen through the production of hormones. The hypothalamus produces a hormone called CRH, which causes the pituitary to produce ACTH, which makes the Adrenal gland produce cortisol, a hormone that helps you to shunt the blood supply to your legs so you can run away faster.

At the same time, though, cortisol shuts off blood supply to your digestion, and it suppresses your immune system. Trading faster legs for slower digestion and less vigilance against disease is fine if there’s mortal danger to be dodged right now.

Modern Day Stress Is Everywhere, All the Time

However, it’s bad news if your body is set to that mode permanently. And in the 21st century, the sorts of things that tend to trigger the stress response are much more constant presences in our lives.

If you don’t believe me, just go and look at the news feed on your favourite social network. Did you find anything that made you feel angry or afraid or stressed? Of course you did.

And that looming work deadline that you have, or that uncertainty over whether anyone is going to buy your house after it’s been on the market for nine months, or that weird mole on your arm that you swear wasn’t there before, or the question of how your kid is going to find a job when he finishes college: those and a million other 21st century things besides might be making you feel the same way.

If they are, then like your very distant, lion-fearing ancestor, you will first be releasing ACTH, and then cortisol. Because your ten-million-year-old hypothalamus still thinks that shunting blood to your legs is the best way to face these things that it is being told are dangers.

The Effects of a Constant Stress Response on the Body

Once your stress response is up and running, your immune and digestive systems are now suppressed. And because of the types of things that make you stressed, they’re not suppressed once every now and then, but regularly. That’s not good, and it’s especially not good for your brain.

It’s not just a question of the knock-on effects that, according to recent scientific studies, poor digestion and a malfunctioning immune system can have on mental health. On top of those, if cortisol keeps feeding back into your brain, it becomes toxic and kills neurons.

More specifically, cortisol will kill neurons in the parts of the brain involved in learning and memory. And down that path lies cognitive decline, dementia and a plethora of other brain conditions that can make our final years an utter misery.

Simple Lifestyle Adjustments Can Make All the Difference

There’s a tempting way to respond to this alarming news about the damage stress causes to your brain: feeling yet more stress. But, please, take a deep breath and relax.

The good news is that cortisol wreaks this havoc very slowly. If you were able to enjoy reading this article, you still have time to learn to manage your stress and therefore keep your brain healthy. It’s just a question of embracing some simple lifestyle adjustments.

To help you track and manage your stress – plus various other habits that affect your brain health, including sleep, diet and physical exercise – you can check out the Synaptitude app. It won’t save you from lions, but it might just save you from cortisol.

Do you find yourself in constant stress these days? What do you usually worry about? Are you able to find respite from it? How? Please share below!

Can you carry on exercising when your motivation slips, the weather gets worse or your schedule becomes overwhelming?

Work out why, don’t just work out

Our reasons for beginning to exercise are fundamental to whether we will keep it up, says Michelle Segar, the director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center. Too often “society promotes exercise and fitness by hooking into short-term motivation, guilt and shame”. There is some evidence, she says, that younger people will go to the gym more if their reasons are appearance-based, but past our early 20s that doesn’t fuel motivation much. Nor do vague or future goals help (“I want to get fit, I want to lose weight”). We will probably be more successful if we focus on immediate positive feelings such as stress reduction, increased energy and making friends. “The only way we are going to prioritise time to exercise is if it is going to deliver some kind of benefit that is truly compelling and valuable to our daily life,” she says.

Get off to a slow start

The danger of the typical New Year resolutions approach to fitness, says personal trainer Matt Roberts, is that people “jump in and do everything – change their diet, start exercising, stop drinking and smoking – and within a couple of weeks they have lost motivation or got too tired. If you haven’t been in shape, it’s going to take time.” He likes the trend towards high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and recommends people include some, “but to do that every day will be too intense for most people”. Do it once (or twice, at most) a week, combined with slow jogs, swimming and fast walks – plus two or three rest days, at least for the first month. “That will give someone a chance of having recovery sessions alongside the high-intensity workouts.”

You don’t have to love it

It is helpful not to try to make yourself do things you actively dislike, says Segar, who advises thinking about the types of activities – roller-skating? Bike riding? – you liked as a child. But don’t feel you have to really enjoy exercise. “A lot of people who stick with exercise say: ‘I feel better when I do it.’” There are elements that probably will be enjoyable, though, such as the physical response of your body and the feeling of getting stronger, and the pleasure that comes with mastering a sport.

“For many people, the obvious choices aren’t necessarily the ones they would enjoy,” says Sniehotta, who is also the director of the National Institute for Health Research’s policy research unit in behavioural science, “so they need to look outside them. It might be different sports or simple things, like sharing activities with other people.”

Be kind to yourself

Individual motivation – or the lack of it – is only part of the bigger picture. Money, parenting demands or even where you live can all be stumbling blocks, says Sniehotta. Tiredness, depression, work stress or ill family members can all have an impact on physical activity. “If there is a lot of support around you, you will find it easier to maintain physical activity,” he points out. “If you live in certain parts of the country, you might be more comfortable doing outdoor physical activity than in others. To conclude that people who don’t get enough physical activity are just lacking motivation is problematic.”

Segar suggests being realistic. “Skip the ideal of going to the gym five days a week. Be really analytical about work and family-related needs when starting, because if you set yourself up with goals that are too big, you will fail and you’ll feel like a failure. At the end of a week, I always ask my clients to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Maybe fitting in a walk at lunch worked, but you didn’t have the energy after work to do it.”

Don’t rely on willpower

“If you need willpower to do something, you don’t really want to do it,” says Segar. Instead, think about exercise “in terms of why we’re doing it and what we want to get from physical activity. How can I benefit today? How do I feel when I move? How do I feel after I move?”

Find a purpose

Anything that allows you to exercise while ticking off other goals will help, says Sniehotta. “It provides you with more gratification, and the costs of not doing it are higher.” For instance, walking or cycling to work, or making friends by joining a sports club, or running with a friend. “Or the goal is to spend more time in the countryside, and running helps you do that.”

Try to combine physical activity with something else. “For example, in my workplace I don’t use the lift and I try to reduce email, so when it’s possible I walk over to people,” says Sniehotta. “Over the course of the day, I walk to work, I move a lot in the building and I actually get about 15,000 steps. Try to make physical activity hit as many meaningful targets as you can.”

Make it a habit

When you take up running, it can be tiring just getting out of the door – where are your shoes? Your water bottle? What route are you going to take? After a while, points out Sniehottta, “there are no longer costs associated with the activity”. Doing physical activity regularly and planning for it “helps make it a sustainable behaviour”. Missing sessions doesn’t.

Plan and prioritise

What if you don’t have time to exercise? For many people, working two jobs or with extensive caring responsibilities, this can undoubtedly be true, but is it genuinely true for you? It might be a question of priorities, says Sniehotta. He recommends planning: “The first is ‘action planning’, where you plan where, when and how you are going to do it and you try to stick with it.” The second type is ‘coping planning’: “anticipating things that can get in the way and putting a plan into place for how to get motivated again”. Segar adds: “Most people don’t give themselves permission to prioritise self-care behaviours like exercise.”

Keep it short and sharp

A workout doesn’t have to take an hour, says Roberts. “A well-structured 15-minute workout can be really effective if you really are pressed for time.” As for regular, longer sessions, he says: “You tell yourself you’re going to make time and change your schedule accordingly.”

If it doesn’t work, change it

It rains for a week, you don’t go running once and then you feel guilty. “It’s a combination of emotion and lack of confidence that brings us to the point where, if people fail a few times, they think it’s a failure of the entire project,” says Sniehotta. Remember it’s possible to get back on track.

If previous exercise regimes haven’t worked, don’t beat yourself up or try them again – just try something else, he says. “We tend to be in the mindset that if you can’t lose weight, you blame it on yourself. However, if you could change that to: ‘This method doesn’t work for me, let’s try something different,’ there is a chance it will be better for you and it prevents you having to blame yourself, which is not helpful.”

Everything You Need To Know To Be Healthier Overall!

By Amy Copenhagen
How Well Do You Really Feel?
Do You Feel 100% Fit and Healthy, Physically and Mentally?
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