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How Stress Wrecks Your Brain At The Cellular Level

Stress, both acute and chronic, is a NO-NO, for so many reasons that you are already aware of, plus one more that we are going to reveal in this article.

Elementary science tells us that “A Cell is the basic unit of life” and that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. It produces 90% of the body’s energy and regulates cell survival and death. Interestingly, the mitochondria have the power to regenerate through a process called Mitochondrial Biogenesis. However, stress can mitigate the Mitochondrial Biogenesis.

Mitochondria – not just for energy production

A typical cell contains from one to two thousand organelles of mitochondria, that powers it up. This may well be the common known role of the organelle – mitochondria, but there is more. There are many more important roles that the mitochondria play. They communicate with each other about changes in the body, they influence the way neurons link up and communicate with each other in the brain and they shift the way genes behave in the cells.

Furthermore, we always believed that the mitochondria is only in the main body of the cells, not in the intracellular “telegraph lines”, but not anymore. The synapses in the brain, that part where the neurons pass signals to each other are packed full of mitochondria. Scientists believe that if the mitochondria do their jobs well, the signals between the neurons will stay strong. But if the mitochondria weaken, the signals will weaken.

You can now see how the mitochondria are not just a powerhouse, in the sense of just energy production, but a powerhouse because of the numerous important functions it performs.

What stress does to the mitochondria?

Scientists have realized in this research that many stress-related changes in the brain originate from the mitochondria. “Consistently elevated cortisol will have profound effects on thyroid functioning, Glycemic control, and immune system response which will inevitably affect additional systems and mitochondrial health,” says Doctors Matthieu Bouchard and Corey Schuler.

Tests conducted at the Center for Mitochondrial and Epigenomic Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shows that stress can cause a reduction in both the amount of energy the mitochondria releases to cells and the ability to send out signals that alter protein production in the cell. Thus, mitochondrial can result in the clouding of your memory.

The brain is an energy hog. As researcher Douglas Wallace notes, the brain is an energy-hungry organ that depends on the fine-tuned mitochondrial function to keep working the way it should – “The brain, constituting only two percent of human body weight, consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. Hence, mild variations in mitochondrial bioenergetics will have significant effects on the brain.”

What’s more?

Stress inhibits the production of new brain cells – You lose brain cells daily, but BDNF replaces it. What is BDNF? BDNF stands for Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor which is a protein that maintains existing brain cells and stimulates the production of new ones). The BDNF is seen as the Fertilizer of the brain, also capable of offsetting the negative effect of stress on the brain, but Cortisol halts its production, resulting in the formation of few cells.  Lower BDNF levels result in brain-related conditions like depression, schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Stress shrinks your brain – The stress hormone – cortisol, can shrink, kill or stop production of new neurons in the hippocampus: the part of the brain that stores memories, critical for learning, memory, and emotional regulation.

More so, stress shrinks the prefrontal cortex, negatively affecting decision-making, working memory and control of compulsive behavior.

Stress allows toxins into your brain – The blood-brain barrier (a group of highly specialized cells that are gatekeepers), protects the brain from toxins because of its sensitivity. These barriers filters substances that enter the brain to let in nutrients and inhibit entry of harmful substances – toxins. Research has shown that the more stressed you are, the more permeable the barrier becomes allowing pathogens, chemicals, heavy metals, and toxins, resulting in cases like brain cancer, brain infections or even multiple sclerosis.

Mitochondrial health – simple secret

By now, you already know how important it is for your mitochondria to stay healthy and normal. The question is, how do you maintain its health?

Researchers at BYU (Brigham Young University in Utah, have discovered that memories form and are reinforced at the hippocampus, and the synaptic links among neurons grow stronger over time; the process that strengthens this link is called Long-Term Potentiation (LTP).

Since chronic (never-ending) stress disrupts the mitochondria and weakens synaptic bridges between neurons, the BYU scientists have found that LTP is kept normal by performing EXERCISE during stressful times.

“The ideal situation for improving learning and memory would be to experience no stress and to exercise,” says researcher Jeff Edwards. “Of course, we can’t always control stress in our lives, but we can control how much we exercise. It’s empowering to know that we can combat the negative impacts of stress on our brains just by getting out and running.”

A study at the New England College of Osteopathic Medicine has shown that to make the best of exercise (as a coping mechanism for stress), it is best done in a group than alone. This provides stress relief and opportunity for social interactions. According to these scientists, these social interactions “pay dividends beyond exercising alone.”

Apart from exercise, which you should make regular, one simpler thing to do is SLEEP. Sleep has been found to provide an opportunity for the cells to rejuvenate and return to normal. You may think there is so much on your plate, that you don’t have time to sleep, but even a 30 minutes nap could be magical. It will help you feel better, revived and keep your cells healthy.

Now you have it. The next time you are going through stress, remember that its effect reaches to the very core of your cells. Take some time to exercise with friends and family, enjoy the interaction (especially the jokes and laughter) and don’t forget your short healing naps.

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