5 Ways Chronic Stress Ages Your Brain

PLUS: 5 Effective Ways to Protect Your Brain

Woman head full of things to do

Have you ever found yourself saying to your children, other family members or friends . . . “I don’t want to be a burden on anyone.”

I hear this from my parents, my husband, my patients, and my friends. Yes, I know you don’t want to create extra work for your children. Or have anyone feel obligated to tend to your everyday needs. But what’s the real concern hidden in this statement?

One of the greatest fears adults express when considering what the later years of their life will be like, is the loss of the ability to live independently.

What are the greatest threats to losing your independence as you age?

Somewhere . . . funny, I can’t recall where now, I read that these three functions were the most crucial to maintain in order to have an enjoyable life as we age. Memory, Mobility and Vision. Sounds reasonable. And personally, I think I’d place Memory, or better yet, overall, optimal Brain Function, in the number one position.

Without a sharp brain, chances are, you are going to become dependent to some degree.

Is There Anything You Can Do to Ensure You Have a Healthy Brain for Years to Come?

It is well documented in the research that chronic stress can age your brain. Studies have demonstrated that there are several mechanisms in which the stress response in the body causes damage to the brain, at any age. There are several effective strategies you can adopt now to prevent this from happening to you. So that’s good news, meaning, cognitive decline is not an inevitable part of growing older.

Is Stress an Inevitable Part of Life?

Women become wise with the passing years. We learn to delegate. We align our lives with our highest values, so saying “no” becomes easier. Yet stressors are not always unavoidable.

But what’s true, is that you do have control over your response to Stressors.

Stress is the response in the body and it is both a psychological and biological phenomenon. It occurs when you encounter a Stressor. A psychological stressor is a perceived “threat”, one in which you feel that you lack the resources to handle or that the threat is beyond your capacity to deal with. So the result is Stress in your body. A physiological stressor is one that places a physical burden on the body. And your perception or “emotional” reaction to physical stressors can worsen or alleviate the stress response.

Stress is your perception, real or imagined, of a threat or danger.

Stressors can by psychological (divorce, death of loved one, moving, loss of job, or financial concerns for instance) or physiological (toxins, physical trauma and the resultant pain, or nutritional deficiencies are a few examples).

So when your capacity to handle the current amount, or the intensity of the stressors in your life become too great, your body pays the price. And when this continues for days, weeks, months or perhaps years . . . Well, now you are feeling the detrimental effects of chronic stress.

How Does Chronic Stress Pose Such a Risk to Your Brain?

Here are 5 Ways that Chronic Stress can cause your Brain to age:

1. Your Brain Cells End Up Committing Suicide

It has to do with your telomere length. Telomeres are protective endcaps on your chromosomes. (Imagine the plastic tips on your shoe laces.) Every time a cell divides, telomeres become shorter. Studies has shown that perceived stress causes shortening of telomeres. Longer telomere length facilitates the neurogenesis, the production on new brain cells. Once your telomeres get too short, cells are signaled to die. So, one cause of brain atrophy (shrinkage) is shortening of telomeres.  Many researchers believe that telomere length may be the best indicator of biological age and risk for chronic disease, including Alzheimer’s.

2. Your Brain Makes Fewer New Neurons (brain cells)

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has been referred to as fertilizer or “Miracle Grow” for the brain. It is a protein that stimulates your brain to form new neurons (brain cells) and to maintain the health of existing ones. You may be aware that during the “fight or flight” stress response, your adrenal glands release cortisol. Well it turns out that cortisol halts the production of BDNF. So this explains yet another way that chronic stress can contribute to aging of your brain. Studies have found a correlation between Alzheimer’s and lower levels of BDNF.

3. Your Brain Begins to Shrink

Another negative effect on your brain comes from cortisol. As you may know, cortisol is produced by your adrenal gland. In the case of chronic, prolonged, stress, circulating levels of cortisol remain too high. This elevation of cortisol has the ability to halt the formation of neurons in the hippocampus. (The hippocampus is a part of your brain where memories are stored.) This can cause that part of your brain to measurably shrink.

4. Your Brain “Rusts”

Inflammation is associated with many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. The brain, with its high oxygen consumption, is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress. As oxygen is consumed or metabolized, free radicals are formed. Though free radicals do stimulate repair, when produced in high amounts they damage cells and also DNA. If your body lacks sufficient antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals, your body and brain are now in a state of oxidative stress.

5. Your Brain Becomes “Leaky” and Toxins Seep In

The blood brain barrier (BBB) is composed of highly specialized cells designed to act as a protective “gatekeeper”. It operates as a filter, letting nutrients in and preventing harmful substances from entering. Stress causes the BBB to become “leaky”. Like poking large holes in this fine gauge filter. Now toxins such as chemicals, heavy metals and other pathogens have access to your brain and can cause damage to your neurons. In the early stages of this process, you will be unaware that you have a “leaky brain”. But over time, symptoms such as brain fog, anxiety, memory issues and difficulty concentrating, can appear.

Can You Reduce the Damaging Effects of Stress on Your Brain?

Sometimes you cannot avoid stressors. And it just isn’t always possible to say no or delegate. But you can learn to think differently. And you can use targeted lifestyle habits to support your brain health. Each day you can set aside a brief amount to time to “chill”.


5 Effective Strategies to Protect Your Brain

The strategies I’m about to share with you to protect your brain from the harmful effects of chronic stress fall into two categories.

  • First, manage your response to stressors.
  • Second, utilize strategies that support good brain health and brain function.

Managing Stress

1. Reframe Your Thinking About the Stressor. Remember, stress in your body (and your brain) is your INTERNAL response to the EXTERNAL stressor. You can’t always avoid those externally driven stressors, but you do have control when it comes to your response to them. So if you can begin to learn how to think differently about the meaning you give to the “stressful event”. For example, if you’re stuck in a traffic jam, instead of feeling frustrated and angry, you can choose to see it as an opportunity to relax a bit and enjoy some of your favorite music. And it’s also helpful to accept that this is a something that you cannot change. Practice reframing and see how your body either doesn’t respond to the event (stressor) with the stress response at all, or at least the “fight or flight” response will be tempered.

I know Thinking Differently is not always an option. Sometimes the total load of stressors at one time are just not humanly possible to handle without some detrimental effect on the body. The remedy? Take a “time out” during each day to Relax.

2. Elicit the Relaxation Response. My favorite recommendation is acupuncture. A 15 – 20 minute treatment will allow you to drop deeply into a parasympathetic state, which is the exact opposite of the sympathetic, “fight or flight” state of your nervous system. Acupuncture, even once, can “reset” your nervous system and create a lasting reduction in the stress response in your body. Many of my patients prefer the reduction of stress from acupuncture over massage, and opt to come in for a session once or twice a month. Other effective ways include walking in nature, listening to soothing music and practicing mindfulness meditation. I refer my patients to the free app, Headspace and I also utilize tools from HeartMath.

Give Your Brain Some Support

3. Exercise – All types of exercise can increase BDNF. Socializing while getting some exercise gives the added benefit or the release of the relaxing, “love” hormone oxytocin (see my article on loneliness). Learning something new, or trying something you haven’t done for a while stimulates neurogenesis. Incorporating activities that involve coordination, agility and balance challenges are excellent for the brain. Interval training, (cycles of intense movements and recovery periods), aka burst training, has been proven to increase BDNF. For example, do 45 seconds of jumping jacks or deep knee bends. Then walk slowly for 2 minutes. Repeat 4 – 5 times and do this 2 times per week.

4. Eat Brain Food – Foods which are high in antioxidants help combat free radical damage. All vegetables contain antioxidants, I suggest having at least one serving of green leafy vegetables each day. Berries are another excellent choice, especially blueberries. Fruit does contain fructose, which can increase inflammation, so limit to one small serving a day. Your brain loves healthy fats.

5. Take Herbs and Use Spices – Ashwagandha is my favorite herb. I also use Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthero) with many of my patients. Both of these herbs help to strengthen the body and increase general resistance to daily stress.  Turmeric, which is found in curry, contains a chemical that has been shown to decrease the plaques in the brain thought to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.  Basil is a potent antioxidant which improves blood flow to the brain and has anti-inflammatory properties that offer protection from Alzheimer’s disease.

You know that Stress isn’t good for the brain . . . at any age.

But having a healthy brain throughout your entire Lifespan is definitely possible.

Begin with just one of the tips discussed here. And start today.



K. B. Beckman and B. N. Ames, “The free radical theory of aging matures,” Physiological Reviews, vol. 78, no. 2, pp. 547–581, 1998.

T. Collins, “Acute and chronic inflammation,” in Robbins Pathologic Basis of Disease, R. S. Cotran, V. Kumar, and T. Collins, Eds., pp. 50–88, W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, Pa, USA, 1999.


Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death, by Robert Sapolsky.

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