Investigations show how stress and health can affect brain matter

Wed, 10 Aug 2016

Research has found that the links between the body and stress can have surprisingly physical effects on the brain.

Researchers at Yale university have found that bouts of stress can actually reduce the amount of grey matter in the portions of the brain responsible for emotional response and physiological functioning.

Grey matter is a major component of the Central Nervous System comprised of nerves cells and their branching extensions known as dendrites.

Despite the well-known emotional and physical consequences of stress, such as difficulty conceiving, chronic inflammation, increased blood glucose level and depression, a lot of people don’t take the steps necessary to manage and alleviate their stress and subsequently increase their quality of life.

The link between the body and the brain is an intricate and little understood mechanism, but it is there. A recent study published in the journal the Neurobiology of Aging compared obesity and brain size. It was found that people with a higher BMI tended to have a brain which looked aged by up to ten years extra when compared to lean peers of a similar age.

In the past, researchers interviewed 103 healthy people about traumatic events like divorce, job loss, loss of their home or death of a loved one. MRI scans were carried out on the subjects, and showed that in those who had recently experienced trauma, there was a significant decrease in the amount of grey matter located in the medial prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls emotion, regulates self-control and is also in charge of physiological functions like blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

This can lead to a vicious cycle. People with conditions like diabetes can become overburdened by their condition, through what is known as diabetes burnout. This can lead to higher levels of stress, and to further weight gain, and as this new study has found, higher BMI and brain aging is linked. At the end of all this, what state could the brain be in?

It is important to remember that lowering stress levels isn't impossible. "The brain is dynamic and plastic and things can improve - but only if stress is dealt with in a healthy manner… If not, the effects of stress can have a negative impact on both our physical and mental health," said Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry, and Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Yale Child Study Center.

Stress management techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and exercise can all help to reduce our stress levels, and make us healthier both in the mind and in the body.

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