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Your Brain and Stress

“Hey, stress is just part of the job. Learn to live with it. That’s life in the big city.”

Heard that before? It certainly doesn’t help the way you feel. Nor is it accurate advice. Stress can rob your brain of its powers, now or later, if you don’t take steps to preserve the health of your brain. That’s the warning from Dr. Laura Pawlak, the featured speaker at an INR seminar on brain aging and rejuvenation, and the workings of the brain and how stress affects it. INR is a non-profit, scientific organization dedicated to research and education in medicine and science, and it is the largest provider in the U.S. of live health education programs, with over 600 offered annually ((877) 246-6336, Dr. Pawlak holds her Ph.D. degree in biochemistry, and has done post-doctoral studies in the fields of immuno-biology, chemistry, genetics and the biochemistry of the brain.

The brain has been unlocked in the past three decades, Dr. Pawlak says. More research has been done during that time not only about how the brain works, but also how to keep it working healthily. Pawlak says humans are genetically pre-programmed to live to age 120 and there is no reason that the brain cannot function effectively that long. Already, the numbers of people living to age 100 is doubling each decade. Organ replacements are a reality for some people, says Pawlak, but the brain cannot be replaced, and if heart disease occurs, that will affect brain health.

“We need to start making sweeping changes,” in perceptions of preserving brain health, she says. Research into the workings of the brain, and the effects of stress coupled with aging is occurring at a record pace because baby-boomers are aging, and it is anticipated that the rate of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) will quadruple over the next 20 years. Yet, says Dr. Pawlak, only 3-5 percent of the population actually carries the dominant genes for AD. The remaining cases of AD onset late in life, due to recessive genes affected by the environment—including stress.

“Recessive genes are always controllable; dominant genes are not,” says Pawlak, so research is now focusing on ways to lessen or eliminate the factors that can cause AD in people who ordinarily would not be expected to have it (those with no genes for it or recessive genes only). “We have a lot that we can do and that’s the good news,” she says, and that includes one important point that we are “self-fulfilling” in that the age to which we predict we will live tends to be the age to which we will likely live. “That’s because the mind plans and you take care of yourself better,” she says.

To know how to take care of your brain requires a quick lesson in its physiology. Dr. Pawlak explains that the human brain is actually three brains in one. The “archaic” or “reptilian” brain deep at the center governs survival including temperature control of the body, hunger, thirst, keeping safe, and the flight-or-fight fear responses. The major structures of the archaic brain are the thalamus, caudate nucleus, putamen and globus pallidus. Not only is survival a key role of this part of the brain, but the archaic brain is also critical for higher functions of the brain because it connects to the parts of the brain that make a person creative and organized. It is the place where the beginnings of learning and action occur. Global attention, refined attention (focus/concentration), and order are a part of the function and messaging of the archaic brain and they are necessary for stress management.

The “old” or “limbic” brain (also called the “subconscious”) is the structure for emotion, with the primary human emotion being fear. The limbic brain controls memory, mood, and hormone production. Its principal structures are the hippocampus (the primary memory formation center and the site of the most stem cells), the anterior cingulate (mood and impulse control mechanism), the amygdala (the primary mechanism for fear, anger and flight-or-fight, and located next to the hippocampus that forms memory), and the hypothalamus (the controller of the endocrine system). Pawlak adds that the hippocampus is capable of bringing back memory function with the help of hormones.

Protecting those “inner” brains is the cortex (the “conscious”), which is the outer area of the brain and the site of such functions as higher cognition, abstract thought, planning, management, goal setting, language, social behavior, and the control of the ability to use tools. The cerebellum at the rear base of the brain controls physical balance, coordination, and coordination of learning. There is a partnership between the cerebellum and the front cortex in the process of, first, focusing on an idea, and then, second, learning. What goes on in the archaic and limbic brains moves to the cortex through a series of transfers by neurons. If a neuron dies, the transfer pathway will cease, but the brain compensates because it wants to survive. It will use hormones to help the existing neurons find other pathways around the dead one and re-connect. That is called “plasticity” of the brain. Interestingly, though, says Pawlak, the hormone that triggers plasticity is “lazy” and won’t do the work unless it is driven to do so. That means a person must use the brain and memory, supplying energy and activity to the brain, making it work. Mental activity and learning keep the brain from undergoing atrophy, a condition that affects any of the body’s muscles, nerves, fibers, tissues, etc. that aren’t used—the brain is no exception. If the brain is not challenged to keep memory and thought processes going, it won’t process information as effectively as it can. Pawlak says it is vital to brain health to keep learning. “Use personal effort. Learn. Learn a new language—learn one word a day. Who cares if it takes twenty years—learn it. Learn to knit. Learn a sport. Do crossword puzzles,” she says. Keep your brain active is with new information and mental gymnastics. She adds that recent studies have shown that people who do crossword puzzles are not likely to be afflicted with AD. Brain-derived neurogenic hormones can increase with use of the memory through learning new information.

“Everything that happens in the brain involves energy,” says Pawlak. If there is no past history to call on or no emotional link to something, there won’t be learning. “If you can’t get it into the memory, you won’t learn it,” she says. This is why so much learning involves emotion, in both children and adults. Emotion creates an interesting and motivating “in-path” so that learning can occur. “People get bored and we wonder why they’re not listening,” she says. To combat boredom, it’s helpful to make an emotional link or mechanism to make the learning exciting. “Get the mechanism going,” she says and that, in turn, will make the memory function effectively. “It’s all about the information and the way it’s given to us.”

Because humans, like all other beings, have a basic instinct for timely, regular supplies of food, water, and shelter, “order is very important to brain health because without it, you have stress,” she says. “Stress, literally, causes your brain to shrivel up,” destroying precious brain cells. Stress cannot be treated trivially with prescription drugs or comments like “everyone’s stressed.”

“We can set up ourselves to process ourselves so we have proper memories,” she says. “We have the power, by mood and what we remember, to alter our hormones.”

The hormones act as neurotransmitters, bridging the gap between the neurons. Neurons in the brain do not touch one another, but need bridging by chemicals that are neurotransmitters. Serotonin is one of those neurotransmitters and is linked to mood, food intake regulation, the limbic brain, pain and sleep. Disorders from lack of serotonin include depression, anxiety, appetite disorders, and migraine headaches. Yet, says Pawlak, simple changes in lifestyle can create higher levels of serotonin and better brain health, plus the ability to control stress before it ravages the brain. Sunlight is the first necessity for creating your own serotonin. People need bright light, says Pawlak. Open your house and workplace to light and sunlight. It is known that adults need at least one hour of sunlight each day, she says, and research has not yet been done on how much children and teens need.

The second factor to help create serotonin is sleep. “We are a sleep-deprived nation,” laments Pawlak. We need at least 7 hours sleep and most people need 8 or 9 hours. The sleep should be in complete dark—no nightlights, glowing dials, etc. If the room cannot be made completely dark, Pawlak advises the wearing of a sleep mask. To create serotonin, there must be a “dark valley”—sleep in the dark—that is the opposite of the “peak” of sunlight the body also needs. Sleep is the natural way to increase human growth hormone—produced only during sleep. The first four hours of sleep is critical, when deep sleep is reached. But, says Pawlak, people have become so sedentary nowadays that they don’t go into deep sleep. “Sleep is not an option,” she reminds. “This is a requirement like food and water.” Certain body hormones are not produced unless there are 7 to 9 hours of restful, complete sleep, in the dark, every night. Time your activity so that you get physically tired when it’s time to go to sleep. Exercise a few hours before bedtime with activity or walking. Avoid drinking diuretics, caffeine, or lots of water before bedtime so you don’t have to get up more than once during the night, or not at all.

Third, attitude is important, says Pawlak. “Smile. Live in the present. Forget the past. All of life is a lesson.” Recognize mistakes if you must, but learn from them and move on. “Be thankful you made all those mistakes” she says, because mistakes are learning opportunities. Dwelling on the past or fretting about the future destroys brain function and creates stress, lessening serotonin and other neurotransmitters.

Fourth, play. “Don’t think you’ll play when you retire!” she chides. Do something now that makes you say, “Oh, that was fun.” Don’t get “short-term” fun from food, alcohol or shopping. Select activities that give you long-lasting, playful relaxation.

Next, exercise. When you raise the body’s temperature with activity, continuing to move in any way—sports, dance, aerobics, gymnastics, etc.—you heat the body and make serotonin levels rise. Pawlak reminds that activity should be more than just one hour a day and then sitting for the other 23 hours. Movement should be a part of the whole day. This also has the effect of making a person feel physically tired, which enhances the quality and quantity of sleep. “Stand up and get moving. That’s your number one thing if you are only going to do one thing,” she says. Cerebral blood flow may be one of the crucial contributors to decline of function. Says Pawlak, “You can take an aspirin (to enhance blood flow), but you can also move! Circulation, circulation, circulation are the three big factors” to prevent AD and promote brain health. A recent study found that men who walked three miles a day had a 70 percent lower rate of AD as compared to those who did not walk that many miles. Movement and circulation are increasingly being proven as good for brain health and stress relief. “It’s not requiring a marathon here; just get moving!” she says. “Keep your cardiovascular system healthy.”

Sixth, have a routine. Keep the rhythm of your neurotransmitters in place with a regular time for meals, exercise, sleep, etc. “Give order to life,” says Pawlak. “A chaotic way of living creates stress.”

Seventh, bond. Whether you bond to family, friends or pets, you decrease stress because you eliminate fear. “We don’t realize we’re in fear so much,” Pawlak says. “Fear constantly affects our brain,” even in children. Bond with those who make you calm, she advises. Make time to be with them.

Eighth, use your senses. Turn on your senses in a positive way with things that give pleasure such as music, scenery, massage, aromas, food flavors, etc. Experiencing pleasurable stimuli enhances the formation of serotonin.

Diet is an important part of brain health, says Pawlak. Omega-3 is disappearing in foods because animals and plants are not being raised in a natural way. Omega-6 may be present, but Omega-3 is also needed and can be found in oily, cold-water, wild fish. Farm-raised fish have Omega-3, but not as much as wild fish. Omega-3 is also naturally found in flax seeds and walnuts.

Acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, and b-endorphin round out the more common neurotransmitters, each having a role to play in such functions as memory formation, motivation, basal metabolic rate, concentration, emotional balance, decision-making, goal-setting, and anxiety. Glutamate and GABA are involved in turning neurons on and off, so modifying chemicals are needed to balance activity between “on” and “off.” Although these are the “common” neurotransmitters, there are at least 100 such modifying chemicals in the brain, says Pawlak. Medication that seeks to raise or lower the amounts of the neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain can sometimes help in “tweaking” the amounts, but they cannot replicate normal function. Patients may say they feel “better,” but not “right” or as they used to feel. Far better, says Pawlak, is to do what you know is right to keep your brain well. Mood will affect memory, she reminds.

Norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin are all involved in memory and cognition functions, and levels of these three chemicals change in a person with AD. But mood, including stress, will also affect a normal person’s brain and, if stress is left unchecked, damage can occur. She says research has shown that antioxidants from food positively affect motor performance and coordination in animals fed antioxidant-rich foods. That same research is now transferring to humans. Antioxidant-rich foods include blueberries, blueberry extract, spinach, and strawberries. The antioxidants help motor coordination, create stronger perceptions of reward, and, very important, enhance the work of neurotransmitters.

Oxidation (just like rust on metal) destroys. Says Pawlak, “Oxidation is like kindling for the flame of inflammation.” Chronic, low-grade inflammation is the major driving force in disease including macular degeneration, AD, diabetes, and hypertension. If oxidation lasts over time, there is destruction of tissue. In every cell, there are antioxidants, but stressors including those such as chemicals in food, air pollution, water pollution, etc. create oxidation stress that the cells can’t handle. This process ages a person faster and causes disease. It is known that the body’s central nervous system, prostate and breast are the most susceptible to oxidation, yet oxidation is easily fought off by eating foods high in antioxidants, such as blueberries and spinach. Vitamin E is also helpful, but there are really eight different chemicals making up Vitamin E. Just taking, for instance, d-alpha tocopherols is not getting the full range of Vitamin E. In fact, says Pawlak, too much of one type of chemical in Vitamin E can actually be pro-oxidant and harmful. She suggests using mixed tocopherols and eating Vitamin E-laden foods such as wheat bran, soybean oil, olive oil, almonds and nuts.

Studies have shown benefits from carnitine, lipoic acid, folic acid, Vitamins B6 and B12, lutein, and zeaxanthin. These are available in supplement form, but are also easily obtained in such foods as green, leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, collards), broccoli, orange-colored fruit (peaches, nectarines, oranges), carrots/carrot juice, and egg yolks. Pawlak adds that the egg has long been maligned as a source of cholesterol, but now research is showing eggs are beneficial and diet should focus on reducing saturated fats instead of focusing on amounts of cholesterol. The diet should also include folic acid/folate from whole, fortified grains, beans, leafy vegetables, oranges and legumes; B1 from wheat germ ham, peas, enriched grains, beef, beans and nuts; B2 from beef, poultry, fish, dairy foods, broccoli, asparagus, spinach; B6 from animal products, yeast, brown rice, soy, peanuts, bananas; and niacin from fortified breads/cereals, beef, chicken, tuna.

Caloric restriction is good for the brain, says Pawlak. The average person eats 3,000 calories a day, particularly if he/she eats out, but 1700-2600 calories is more the ideal. “The more calories you eat, the more oxidation occurs in the cells,” she says. Strive to eat a balance of protein, carbohydrates and good fats, and no extra fats, sugars, and “fluff!” Focus on nutritious foods. “Unbalanced intake is what causes the problem,” she says. “Fresh is best,” she says of food. Eat fruits and vegetables raw or cook them minimally, as desired. Use up food quickly. For example, spinach loses half of its lutein in just four days. Whole foods should be kept whole until used (e.g. don’t cut up an apple in pieces until you’re ready to eat it). Vacuum-packed foods won’t let in oxygen so they should keep their nutritive qualities longer. Look for organic foods, Pawlak says, and include many vegetables in your meals. Dried fruit is good, but she cautions that overweight people might overeat it. It’s better to use fresh fruit.

Guides such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid can help, but Pawlak says a new twist on that traditional pyramid has surfaced with the California Cuisine Food Pyramid, developed by UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition ( It recommends 4-7 servings of vegetables each day, 2-4 servings of fruit, high-fiber, whole grains, protein from beans, legumes, nonfat milk, seafood, egg whites, and (last) lean meats. Taste enhancers are at the top of the pyramid and include such foods as garlic, turmeric, ginger, boswellin, curry powder, avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, cheese, and Omega-3 rich oils. Says Pawlak, the high amounts of vegetables and fruits give a feeling of “fullness” and satisfaction, especially if they are chewy. The diet is also desirable in that it decreases polyunsaturated vegetable oils, margarine, shortening, partially hydrogenated oils, and trans-fats. There is a “barrier” between the blood and brain, but that barrier breaks down faster with stress, and with saturated fats and trans-fatty acids.

Cortisol is a chemical necessary for survival. “Your thought (and) your behaviors influence cortisol,” says Pawlak. “You have to survive, so if you are activated in fear, worry, or stress, instantly the brain is affected” because cortisol goes to the brain and to the receptors and calls for blood to the muscles, which means there is less for the brain. Memory is the most affected because every perception is processed by the brain. Pawlak says a recent study has shown that after just seven years of stress in an adult, the brain shows shrinkage; and in abused children, it takes only weeks to shrink the brain and thus cause life-long mood disorders. Also, when stress triggers a flow of cortisol, the body is instructed to pull blood from the gastrointestinal tract and kidneys, thus stress-related diarrhea and nausea occur, and lack of urination. “You’re either in a positive attitude or you’re not,” says Pawlak. “There are only two chemistries.” If cortisol stays high because you aren’t fighting stress, chronic stress increases and that, in turn, increases cortisol and causes atrophy of the hippocampus with its memory-processing center—the first site of AD lesions.

When a stressor tries to attack, Pawlak says, “Drop it. Say, ‘I did my best.’ Find your way out of stress. Look at your world. Take command. We talk to ourselves more than anyone else,” so concentrate on whatever reduces your stress. Yes, things like meditation, music, exercise, and humor reduce stress and provide relaxtion, she says, but sometimes something occurs and “you can’t say, ‘Wait a minute. I feel stressed. I have to listen to music, or dance with someone!’ Immediate stressors need immediate action,” she says. Deep, abdominal breathing such as that taught in yoga is quick and easy and provides an immediate relaxation response. Also, taking command of muscle tension and letting it go, taking command of “self-talk,” guided imagery (imagining calm thoughts), and cognitive control (we control how we view things and our emotional response to them) help to release tension immediately. Beware of reactions such as acting out, denial, displacement/projection, dissociation, regression, and repression. Instead, focus on mature psychological defense mechanisms such as altruism, humor, sublimation, and suppression (put unwanted thoughts aside, but don’t repress or rationalize them).

“Stress kills,” says Pawlak. If left unchecked and the person gets stressed over everything, the hypothalamus will produce more hormones with very little “thought” and, says Pawlak,” it’s a major body-brain dysfunction” that takes nearly nothing to keep it going. That kind of continued stress will take a toll. To eliminate or lessen it, she says, “Fix your thought.” Combat stress with what works for you. That diminishes the cycle and stress stops.

Pawlak says people under stress easily develop depression. Depressed people die earlier of anything related to inflammation, she says. Cortisol increases in depressed people. Symptoms include lack of overt sadness, sleep disorders, decreased appetite, lack of ability to experience pleasure, social withdrawal, declines in memory, cognition and judgment, and decline in psychomotor skill. Anxiety and even panic attacks can accompany depression. Pseudo-dementia can also occur with prolonged stress and with depression. A person may seem forgetful, but it’s not dementia—it’s really poor circulation to the brain from inactivity and lack of restful sleep. Says Pawlak, “We must live in the present. We all need a reason to get up,” and “one of the ways to prevent Alzheimer’s is always to have a purpose in life.” She adds that self-image is important, to feel good about yourself. We give encouragement and pep talks to children and teens, but, she says, “We don’t get a lot of that ‘pumping up’ when we’re adults. We get criticism.” Believing in yourself and your self-efficacy is vital. Concentrate on “the good stuff,” she says, “and let it go at that.”

Watching for depression and stress also applies to others in your life. Pawlak says alarming statistics in the U.S. show that one of each 161 children has autism. Genes for autism are likely related to stress in the fetal brain from the mother’s stress. The fetus’ brain has cortisol in its first trimester. And if you’re watching over an elderly relative, Pawlak advises being on the alert for signs of stress and depression. “We consider it normal to be old, crabby and depressed. It’s not normal,” she says flatly. Light therapy and the simple, yet effective things that raise serotonin (exercise, sleep, etc.) are also needed by the elderly to stave off depression. Social interaction is important even if old friends are no longer around. Help the elder form new friendships and activities. Not only does that keep the elder feeling secure, it also takes away the fear of making new friends—a problem in some elders. Keep the elder’s senses active even if there is some loss by making sure he/she has corrective vision and hearing aids. Self-image and self-reliance are important to everyone, including elders. “Keep them independent as long as possible,” she says and she adds that caregivers need to take time for themselves with exercise or walks for at least 15 minutes a day, and good diet and ample rest and sleep.

Summing up, Pawlak says follow the common sense advice you know is right: don’t smoke; don’t drink or, at least, drink less; keep your weight steady; eat fewer calories; eat lots of vegetables and fruit; take vitamin supplements; exercise; sleep well; challenge yourself with new learning; keep a positive attitude; socialize; and keep stress at bay with what works for you.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2009

Rating : 10.0

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