Many of us acknowledge the intricate connection between our bodies and minds when it comes to stress, yet the average person may not be entirely certain about the underlying mechanisms.
Enter the hypophyseal-pituitary-adrenal-axis, or the HPA-axis. This intricate system interconnects various glands within the endocrine system (our internal hormonal messenger system), orchestrating hormonal balance to keep our bodies finely tuned and optimally functioning. However, chronic stress or traumatic events can throw the HPA-axis into disarray, causing a biochemical imbalance with far-reaching consequences.
While some stress is beneficial – like the exhilarating anticipation before a promotion – prolonged stress, such as that experienced by many during the pandemic, leads to elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. These sustained high cortisol levels wreak havoc on the entire system, particularly impacting the hippocampus in the frontal lobe of each cerebral hemisphere. Primarily recognised for its role in memory and learning, the hippocampus falters under chronic stress, manifesting as brain fog, difficulty remembering recent events, and impaired cognitive function, which can greatly impact your ability to complete day to day tasks.
You may be asking, but how can I improve this? And how can I maintain any progress in a society with such relentless stress?
Well, a prudent place to start is to slow the pace.
Give yourself a mental reboot, so to speak, before beginning any journey towards improvement. Prioritise ample rest and become attuned to your circadian rhythm. This involves sticking to a consistent waking and sleeping routine, with a two-hour screen-free period before sleep to ensure that you are receiving quality sleep and, most importantly, the timely release of cortisol each morning.
Once you have your sleep schedule sorted, you should have a look at what you are putting into your body. Given the objective of mitigating stress, it's important to avoid stress-aggravating foods.
Research indicates that processed foods and refined carbohydrates exert a direct influence on mental health and increase your stress levels.
You should also eliminate any stimulants like caffeine and alcohol, opting instead for foods fostering mental clarity – low-sugar fruit, lavender tea, green leafy vegetables, garlic, asparagus, and healthy fats from avocados and nuts.
Physical exercise is the next step you can take to getting your mind and body back on track. As fitness improves, the HPA-axis stabilises, becoming less reactive to stress. This means that regular exercise facilitates the release of energy from adrenaline rushes, curbing any surges in cortisol levels and preventing the risk of profound brain changes.
In tandem with exercise, meditation and mindfulness are other tools to counteract the effects of stress on the brain. Beyond inducing a sense of calm, peace, and balance, meditation can contribute to emotional well-being and overall health. By cultivating the ability to remain centered and maintain inner peace during elevated stress, meditation accelerates the return of the HPA-axis to its normal state. Your body will be able to handle stressful circumstances much better, while simultaneously recovering from the stress at a faster pace.
Navigating the path to recovery from chronic stress or trauma is a gentle and gradual process, often taking anywhere from six months to a year for your body to return to its normal functioning.
It's also essential to recognise that external factors, such as conditions like Cushing's syndrome, may play a role in influencing your body's internal balance, adding layers to the recovery journey.
If, despite your efforts in implementing a mental reboot, you find yourself still wrestling with persistent high levels of chronic stress, consider reaching out to a healthcare professional. Their expertise and understanding can provide personalised guidance and support, ensuring that you receive the care needed for your well-being.