Stress, Brain Health, Sleep and Neuroplasticity

What is stress? Stress comes from stressors. It’s impossible to know what stress comprises of without talking about the stress response which we’ll discuss in detail in this blog.

A stressor is something that imposes a demand on the host. In this sense, most stress is good as long as we can adapt to it.

We need stress for adaptation and resilience. No stress = no demand on the system to become stronger. Stress only becomes a problem when our capacity to adapt is exceeded.

The glands which operate stress hormone release are primarily the adrenal glands. More on these later.

We can see stress and recovery working well for training adaptations in the following diagram.

A healthy mind and brain goes a long way to combatting the negative effects of the stress cycle on the organism.

Stress makes us feel bad when we fail to recover, we can feel overwhelmed. This is due to a number of factors; one key factor is the effect stress has on our hormones. Another factor is the dose of the stress in relation to recuperation factors this is called the hormetic dose.

Chronic stress releases hormones which oppose other hormones which make us feel good. Also, stress comes in different forms, each of which taxes the same system even if they feel very different.

Let’s take the example of training stress. A hard training session causes the acute release of lots of stress hormones, adrenalin, cortisol and so on. Testosterone is also released. Once the session is over the stress hormones should subside, hopefully, the T levels remain elevated. This is a normal cycle of positive stress. The fatigue ensuing will allow for deeper sleep and growth hormone release.

If, however, we were chased from the gym, unable to complete our recovery meals and siesta the stress response would stay switched on, chronic rather than acute. This situation if prolonged would overburden our capacity to adapt. Incurring a negative stress response. One from which we gained no adaptation.

Overstimulation of a system leads to a blunting of the receptors and depletion in that system.

We can tax our stress system both from internal stressors and external ones too. The combined stressors are sometimes referred to as the stress cup. If the stress cup gets too full it can overflow. If we frequently empty it then there’s less risk of becoming overwhelmed.

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.

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;

Turn off 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 that bring about the most progress in our situation.

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.

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 are 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 the 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 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 threats. It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory, raises blood glucose, and can make you feel pretty good. It raises in response to perceived or real pending threats, 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 bloodstream.

Here are 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
  • Driving
  • Playing video games – depending on the type, Tetris is relaxing – Doom less so
  • Presenting
  • Debating, meetings or arguments (constructive)
  • Exercise-related;
  • 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 (this happened last week)

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 stimulants like coffee
  • Eating foods that we are intolerant to as these cause an immune response that acts as a stressor
  • Dehydration
  • Low and high blood sugar – rebound hypoglycemia
  • Excessive or combined toxins, alcohol, drugs
  • Additives chemicals and preservatives increase toxic load e.g. processed food