Stress: modern life (especially considering the events globally over the past year) is full of it. And you’ve probably already started seeing the impact of this on your clients’ wellbeing. Every body system is impacted by stress and this is especially true when it comes to brain health.

This blog post shares findings around the current landscape your clients are navigating, the ways that the brain is altered by long term stress and neuroinflammation. Read on to discover how to more effectively support your clients in taking preventative action on their health.

Are your clients experiencing stress?

Over 56% of adults in the UK have reported feeling stressed, anxious and depressed about the effects of the current pandemic on their future. [9] While over 67% of young people aged 13-25 agreed that this pandemic will have a “long-lasting negative effect on their mental health”. [11] But what will the long-lasting effect of chronic stress look like in a couple of years and how will it impact our mental health and cognition in the long run?

The long-term consequences of chronic stress are especially concerning when it comes to a younger generation, whose brains are even more vulnerable because they are still in the development stage [10]. According to research, being exposed to chronic stress can lead to pathophysiologic changes in the brain, which can manifest as behavioral, cognitive, and mood disorders later in life. [12]

Stress can change your brain

Researchers at University of California, Berkeley, have recently demonstrated that chronic stress can impact long-term changes in the brain. For example, in the brains of PTSD patients they observed a stronger link between the hippocampus and the amygdala, where the “fight-or-flight” response happens, and a weakened connection between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which is called an “executive brain” because it helps set and achieve goals by enabling focus and attention. [4] It is well established now that anxiety can decrease the prefrontal cortex function and “disrupt this circuitry, which can lead to an amygdaloid hyper-responsivity”. [5] Neuroimaging shows that an increase in amygdala activity can reduce activity in both prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortexes. All of which is associated with stress response and anxiety. [5]

Figure1. Source [7]

Did, you know that stress can literally shrink your hippocampus? We are talking about the part of the brain that sits deep in the temporal lobe and is paramount for learning and memory.[7] Studies have shown that due to its vulnerable nature (it’s highly plastic) it gets damaged easily, thus it is associated with neurological and psychiatric illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and epilepsy. [7] The Hippocampus is particularly sensitive to stress because it possesses a large number of glucocorticoids, estrogen, and progesterone receptors. [8]

The link between stress response and inflammation

Stress results from an acute or chronic exposure of an organism to physiological or psychological threats. [2] Both acute (through catecholamines) and chronic (through glucocorticoids) stresses have an impact on cognition. [12]

The biological stress response includes activation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. When the ANS gets stimulated, it leads to activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) branch, or so called “fight-or-flight” response. [1]

Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation results in the following [1]:

  • release of catecholamines from the locus coeruleus in adrenal glands (dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine)
  • increased heart rate (HR)
  • increased blood pressure
  • secretion of salivary alpha-amylase.

Activated HPA axis results in the secretion of the following hormones [1]:

  • corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) – by anterior pituitary gland
  • adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) – by the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN)
  • cortisol (glucocorticoid) – by adrenal glands

Persistent stress, which is associated with chronically high cortisol levels, over time can decrease the negative feedback loop function, and result in the hyperactivation of the HPA axis. This is especially true for the area of the brain that is responsible for the regulation of mood and emotional responses, called the limbic area. [2] Stress-induced glucocorticoid release is dangerous for the brain. Being lipophilic by nature, glucocorticoids can diffuse through the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and result in a long-lasting effect on the processing and cognition properties of the brain. [12]

Other hallmarks of chronic stress include elevated proinflammatory cytokines (IL-6, TNF-α etc) which increase inflammation, and can further “impair neuronal transmission and plasticity within these brain circuits”. [2]

Conditions associated with chronic inflammation:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sleep apnea
  • Headaches
  • GI symptoms
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased libido
  • Poor post-workout recovery
  • Poor sleep
  • Joint stiffness
  • Chronic pain
  • Metabolic syndrome (MetS)
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

We’ve talked about inflammation previously in this blog post sharing 3 ways inflammatory markers can help you unlock optimum client health.

Inflammation in the body = Inflammation in the brain (Neuroinflammation)

Chronic stress not only impacts organ systems, but it also affects development of neurological and psychosomatic conditions. [2] Inflammation, brain ageing, and memory loss are all linked to neuroinflammation, and strongly prove that inflammation in the body, sooner or later, results in an inflamed brain.

Neuroinflammation is linked to [6]:

  • Neurodegenerative diseases (Dementia)
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Decline in spatial memory
  • Depression

Pathophysiology of neuroinflammation: the inflammasomes (the cytosolic protein complexes) activate the proinflammatory caspase-1, and proinflammatory cytokines IL-1β, IL-18, and IL-33,69,70 get released. [6]

Neuroinflammation is also known as a chronic stimulation of the immune response in the central nervous system (CNS) in response to various stressors or injuries. [13] The CNS dysfunction may lead to a number of pathological conditions linked to cognitive impairment and neuroinflammation. The immune system has a strong influence on brain plasticity, which creates an undeniable association between neurodegenerative diseases, psychiatric disorders and neuroinflammation. [13]

Take action today with Brain Check

FDX Brain Check is formulated to provide a comprehensive investigation into factors affecting the health of the brain including; inflammation, cardiovascular dysfunction, toxic metals, endocrine and immune system function, hormone balance, key vitamin and minerals, plus markers associated with depression, anxiety, ADHD and any kind of personality disorder.

The impact of stress on the immune system

Individuals operating under chronic stress are more likely to have an impaired immune function, and experience frequent illnesses. [12] As we mentioned earlier, the stress mediators (like glucocorticoids) can pass through the BBB and affect the immune system by modulating the CNS function and neuroendocrine system. [12] In response to stress, neuroendocrine, lymphatic, and neural systems release their own pro-inflammatory mediators. Stress can negatively affect numerous receptors for various hormones that are involved in immune system function. For example, the following hormones have receptors in immune system tissues, thus can modulate its function: [12]

  • Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)
  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
  • Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP)
  • Steroid hormones
  • Substance P
  • Growth hormone (GH)
  • Prolactin

The most common causes of inflammation:

  • Environmental toxins
  • Infections
  • Dysbiosis
  • Pro-inflammatory diet
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Ageing
  • Chronic emotional stress

The blood markers you need to get a picture of inflammation in your clients

Many FDX panels include a number of biomarkers which are powerful indicators of inflammation in your clients. Some of those markers include:

  • C-Reactive Protein (CRP)
  • Homocysteine
  • ESR
  • Fibrinogen
  • Hs-CRP
  • Ferritin
  • Fasting Insulin
  • Omega 6:3 ratio
  • WBCs
  • Antinuclear Antibody (ANA)
  • Thyroid antibodies (like anti-TPO and anti-TG)
  • Lp-PLA2
  • Mean platelet volume (MPV)
  • D-dimer

If you’re keen to dive deeper into brain health, you’ll want to join our upcoming webinar on 11th May with Dr Jess Armine which will be focusing in on this issue. This webinar is exclusive to FDX Practitioners so make sure to register as a Practitioner today.

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[2] [source]