Stress and Brain Function

Because stress management is so important for longer term mental health and brain function, we’ll cover all that off in the adrenals, thyroid and immune system in some future posts.

This is a vital and important area. Having been over trained several times in my own amateur exercising career, and helped many, many athletes and individuals recovery from stress and burn out it’s an area I look at and research frequently. It ties into mindset, thought processes and reframing – likely part of the massive rise in mindfulness and the yoga explosion in urban areas.

The stress response has been spoken about loads in the health and nutrition – here’s how I interpret and understand it. It’s a massively important area. Several key intellects in the high-performance environment have suggested that the athlete who masters the art of relaxation are the athletes who succeed.

You have to feel the fear and do it anyway (good book). Confidence isn’t the absence of fear, it’s about embracing it and understanding it.

There are a few reasons why this is almost certainly true. But first let’s talk through the stress response so we’re all on the same page.

Quick take homes for the busy reader;

1. Learn about stress response to understand it better.
2. List your stress see saw – replenishers and depleters.
3. Support your replenishing side with food, sleep and supplements.
4. Nourish and stimulate the brain.
5. Look after your heart, healthy heart = healthy brain.
6. Train hard but train smart allow sufficient time to recover between sessions.
7. Adaptogens help you tolerate higher levels of stress.
8. B-vitamins have been shown to help with stress and energy levels.
9. Fish oils maybe help with stress and serotonin.
10. The mind always wins
11. Supporting immune function can help stress tolerance.

Read to the end of the article for some offers and supplement solutions to support stress response.

There’s a slide deck to go along with this article if you email me I’ll wizz it across to you. If you’d like me to speak to you or your team about anything in this article do let me know.

The stress response is a survival and adaptive response. We need stress to survive. The primitive survival brain or reptilian brain has at its heart something called the amygdala. This part of the brain has the ability to signal the adrenal glands to release large amounts of stress hormone, very quickly. Even before the frontal cortex has had the chance to process the danger properly. In the case of a snake dropping out of a tree this is pretty good. By the time we pull the snake off, we’ll have dumped a ton of adrenalin into the system and we’ll be ready to rock with that naughty snake. Adrenalin causes, rapid heart rate, contraction of blood vessels, dumping of fat and sugar into the blood, thickening of the blood, lower pain, higher contractile strength in the muscle and increased reaction time. All good with the snake, not so good if Mike from accounts makes a remark about your new Christmas trousers.

We need stress to flourish – the path of least resistance leads to the garbage heap of despair. (The The - infected).

People who get fired up easily are normally suffering from what sometimes terms the amygdala hijack. The higher brain hasn’t processed the situation into a normal resolvable environment and the stress response can be rapid and excessive. Argument on the tube, with the wife over apparently nothing, road rage – these can all be times when we can get a big adrenalin dump without really needing one. I remember calmly trying to explain to my wife that she was suffering from an amygdala hijack – “what the fuck are you talking about” – I rest my case…. Mixing an Amber Amino hot chocolate drink sorted things out later on luckily.

The lizard brain is primitive don’t let is hijack your life.

Activities which increase hypothalamus and hippocampus volume decrease the negative effects of stress.

In response to most stressors we have a number of options. Let’s take the case of incessant noise from a getto blaster. We can;

1. Turn of the noise – remove the power. This is a direct action and in the case of a person would result in conflict.

Often the most stressful conversations are the ones which bring about the most progress in our situation.

2. We can walk away or remove ourselves from the place or room the noise is occurring in. Running away isn’t always the best option – but sometimes we have no choice if the conversations above don’t workout. This can be the same with sacking someone inefficient or troublesome at work.

3. We can put some of our own headphones on and play our own music. This is a very, very good option – in that the way we perceive the stressor or handle the stress will impact the level of stress hormone released (see more below on this). Adaptogens actually increase the body’s ability to handle and tolerate stressors. They reduce the level of stress hormone released in response to certain stressors and increase the testosterone to cortisol ratio in response to exercise.

Here’s 8 Steps to stress hardiness

• Meeting your needs through assertive action
• Coping skills, sense of control to ward off depression
• Expressing emotions
• Asking for help
• Meaning and purpose in work, daily activities and relationships
• Having capacity for pleasure and play
• Laughter
• Immune competence = stress hardiness

Normally in response to a stressor we’d have to use our body to fight, flight or there’s another response which is to freeze. In the fight or flight situations we use up all the sugars in the blood, burn up the stress hormone and essentially the system returns to normal quicker if we exercise after experiencing stress.

Exercise is probably one of the best ways to manage the negative effects of stress. IF we combine this will mindfulness techniques

We have another longer acting type of adrenalin – it’s called cortisol. It’s like a slow adrenalin and it’s released in time with the sun rising and setting and also in response to exercise and threat. It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory, raises blood glucose, can make you feel pretty good. It raises in response to perceived or real pending threat, or longer-term stressors or worries. Like most hormones it’s good to have around in shorter ‘pulses’ like when you exercise or wake up. You really don’t want too much around all the time as if it’s chronically raised then it can begin to cause a number of different issues.

The link between the brain, hypothalamus and the pituitary and adrenals is referred to as the HPA – of hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal axis. In severe stress this axis becomes disrupted and function becomes impaired.

One of cortisol’s main jobs is to steady blood glucose. It, like adrenalin tells the liver to release a little stored glycogen into the blood stream.

Here’s a few activities which don’t really use exercise and will likely raise cortisol (and hopefully testosterone a little too);

Commuting in rush hour or at all
Playing video games – depending on the type, Tetris is relaxing – Doom less so
Debating, meetings or arguments (constructive)
Sparring – but light
Sprinting or general heavy physical exercise

As long as we make it through these activities and then get into a rest and repair mode these are all good and part of a balanced life.

Here’s where adrenalin would kick in (if we get the hijack)

Bumping into someone rude whilst commuting
Road rage and chasing someone in your car who has been a dick
An argument which is non-productive and has threat associated with it
Sparring heavy or when light sparring gets heated
Angry dog chasing you in park whilst sprinting

A healthy, rested brain normally has a better chance to elicit a normal stress response. For example, a dehydrated brain has been shown to release more cortisol.

The stressor can also be physical as in exercise which after recovery and repair leads to a more favourable adaptive response.

When we are talking about these elements you’ll see they are all associated with moving the body out of equilibrium. Getting the body back into balance and beyond is all about the super compensation effect of exercise.

Ways we can stress ourselves with food include;

Excessive stimulant like coffee
Eating foods which we are intolerance to as these cause an immune response which acts as a stressor
Low and high blood sugar – rebound hypoglycaemia
Excessive or combined toxins, alcohol, drugs
Additives chemicals and preservatives increase toxic load


Allostasis is the process of achieving stability, or homeostasis, through physiological or behavioral change. This can be carried out by means of alteration in HPA axis hormones, the autonomic nervous system, cytokines, or a number of other systems, and is generally adaptive in the short term (McEwen & Wingfield 2003).

Homeostasis is definable as the balance of bodily functions in organisms or the stable condition of an organism and of its internal environment. Allostasis is basically the process of achieving homeostasis, through physiological or behavioral change. (researchgate)

This gives rise to a phrase of the stress cup or allostatic load. This is the combined load of all real or perceived stressors.

A good activity I use with clients is to ask them to list all their stressors and replenishers. This can be habits which restore and habits, actions and situations which deplete. You create a sort of stress see saw or even allostatic cup list.

Sleep is crucial for brain health, we consolidate memories, pay down new synapses and neurons and clean up debris which accumulate during the day. Also lack of rest increases cortisol level, chronically raising them if not addressed with sufficient rest and recuperation.

Chronic stress has a highly negative effect on the brain, learning, depression and behaviour. Elevated long-term cortisol can even shrink the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Short term stress is stimulating and helps the brain.

Short term stress associated with high intensity training also helps brain health and brain volume over time. Doing it keeps the brain healthy and strong.

Top 10 good things for the brain

Stimulus + learning new tasks and skills
Good fats
B-vitamins + other essential nutrients
Vitamin D / Sunshine
Practice and making mistakes
Clean food, air and water

Top 10 bad things for the brain

Lack of stimulus
Isolation and lack of interaction
Bad fats
Lack of good nutrients, b-vitamins and other essential nutrients
Lack of vitamin D / sunshine
Lack of goals
Toxins + processed food


In terms of changing the way you think to protect brain function the fundamental way to begin doing this is to limit the amount of time you allow the reptilian brain to engage you into stressful outcomes. The part of the brain is basic. It responds to stress quickly and often aggressively although it can also incur a flight or freeze response.

The conscious ‘higher brain’ controls most of these functions, but if a stressor by passes this then we get an instant ‘hit’ of stress hormones. In terms of longevity this is fine, as long as you quickly go back to ‘stasis’ or equilibrium. If you stay switched into the stress response, damage can occur – damage to neurons and perhaps more importantly the inability to being repair of these vital neurons can’t work efficiently in a stressed state.

A relaxed brain repairs and learns much more efficiently

My cat once has the most awful of all fights, I saw it. She made her way back afterwards – home and within a few minutes was complete at rests, scarred and bleeding but purring and safe. Any human would normally have been switched on for days afterwards. We need to take a leaf from the cat’s book and switch on and off as we need. The mindfulness techniques of the ancient samurai are a great place to start, daily readiness for death meant daily preparation for death, after all in a death ready state – what do you have left to lose?

Their practice of meditation often occurred at night, they’d imagine all their friends burying them saying goodbye – lying in their grave dead – after a series of mindful breathing techniques which to be fair they’ve have known since they were able to speak.

The quicker we can incur a relaxation response after a stressful event the more we can stay in stasis and only switch onto stress when we need to – the more we nourish our hearts, brains and systems with the right nutrients the better able we will be to mount successful and aggressive stress responses and then be asleep by the fire with our loved ones afterwards – with no worries in the world (until we need them next) the better we will age and the better we will function.

Next post will address overtraining in more detail with solutions.

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