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How Stress Gets Under Your Skin and Rewires Your Brain

As stressful events and people bombard us virtually every day, we use the term “letting it get under your skin,” but this expression is more accurate than you think.

Research by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has taken that topic and assessed how much stress penetrates our bodies and, as a result, how we live our lives. Many of us shrug off stress as a fact of life that we cannot control without realizing how much it changes how our brain works, affecting our natural biological rhythms, making us feel powerless, and creating habits that make us more susceptible to disease.

The MacArthur Foundation Research Network brought together social scientists, physicians, and epidemiologists to measure and evaluate stress from social and physical environments. Their startling findings tell us how much stress suffuses the body and brain, profoundly undermining our collective health. The effects are far more severe on people living in poverty and/or facing racial discrimination.

The researchers broke stress down into three types:

     · Good stress – based on taking a chance on something you want, like preparing for a job interview or public speaking for a cause you believe in

     · Tolerable stress
– that you can bounce back from, such as a death in the family or a job loss, thanks to our support networks or savings

     · Toxic stress – a derailment so serious that it could lead to mental or physical ill-health as you lack the resources to recover

How Our Bodies Deal With Stress

When we are in a healthy state, our brain regulates our bodily functions to ensure that we keep breathing, stay warm, and flow hormones to the areas where we need them when we need them. When we perceive a clear threat, such as a violent person, our hypothalamus sends a message to our central nervous system via the pituitary gland to go on high alert. The pituitary gland forwards the warning to the adrenal gland to shoot out adrenaline, getting your heart pumping, your muscles tense, and your blood focused on the areas that are primed to fight back.

At the same time, a dose of cortisol shuts off supplies to your immune system, digestion, and growth cells while firing up the parts of your brain that are in charge of quick decisions.

While it’s key to have these all ‘on’ when we need them, it’s vital to dial them down afterward. If you don’t, or cannot, due to ongoing physical abuse or financial pressure, your body will experience allostatic overload. This is what wears us down and causes that toxic stress.

Several factors can add to this phenomenon without you realizing their impact:

     · Loneliness
     · Smoking
     · Excessive drinking
     · Jet lag
     · Urban noise
     · Air pollution
     · Family strife
     · Demanding jobs
     · Erratic sleep
     · Lack of exercise
     · Eating junk food

These factors undermine the normal bodily functions that we rely on to cope day to day and leave us vulnerable when we experience that derailment mentioned above. If you are not healthy enough or have a circle of people to help you, then you will feel you have nowhere to turn, exacerbating your stress level.

It may help to understand how our responses are part of the ebb and flow of daily life under our skin. For example, cortisol doesn’t just kick in when we see headlights coming towards us. It helps us get out of bed in the morning, repairs wounds, and sharpens our senses to keep our brains adapting and learning. It can shoot up in a moment but only rise slightly when needed for routine tasks. When it declines at night, it helps to prepare us to sleep.

When your sleep is unattainable or disrupted, your liver gets the message to make more secretions to hang onto body fat, affecting your body weight and ‘bad’ cholesterol. This, in turn, makes you more at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Lack of sleep is also related to the genesis of depression, which also affects eating habits and energy levels needed to exercise and concentrate.

When cortisol keeps firing due to ongoing stress, it leads to inflammation in the body, on top of the risk factors listed above. Now you are brewing a toxic soup.

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How Stress Bends Your Brain

While your body is dispatching messages and hormones all over the place, your brain is trying to keep track of it and delegate appropriately. It learns from past experiences and tries to use those lessons to keep up with the grind of ups and downs from your busy days. However, it can also get worn down and begin making questionable decisions under stress.

For generations, medical professors believed that the brain was largely formed by adulthood. More recent studies have shown that a variety of factors can alter brain function well into this phase of your life.

Research has shown how toxic stress can enlarge neurons in the amygdala, the brain cells controlling emotion, anxiety, and aggression. Meanwhile, cortisol also erodes the ability of the hippocampus to regulate moods and store memories.

Even more serious, it impedes this part of the brain from limiting the production of glucocorticoids, hormones that suppress the immune system, cause inflammation, and stimulate the release of glucose. That could lead to a cascade of these effects in your body when you don’t need or want them. At the same time, glucocorticoids shrink dendrites, projections of a neuron that receive signals, cutting off the flow of information to your brain.

Ongoing stress slows the growth of new brain cells in the part of the hippocampus responsible for new memories and adapting to new environments.

The Value of Good Sleep and Vacations

The cycle of waking and sleeping is also key to brain function, especially when under stress. Cortisol fluctuations affect the synapses in the cerebral cortex. Interruptions to your sleep cycle – arising from shift work, jet lag, small children, or racing thoughts – interfere with learning motor skills.

Lack of solid snoozing shrinks dendrites in the prefrontal cortex (which governs emotions, memory, and impulses) and makes it harder to grasp new ideas. (It also causes weight gain and insulin resistance, precursors for depression and diabetes, as we have seen in shift workers for generations.)

A study of medical students showed that those who felt like their stress levels were out of control experienced that effect on dendrites. They performed the most slowly in a cognitive-flexibility test and had slower connectivity in a circuit in the prefrontal cortex when tested in an MRI machine that specializes in brain activity.

Yet, after a vacation, they performed much better. This indicates that while they felt they were in the midst of toxic stress, they had tolerable stress since they were able to take a break and recharge. It also showed their brains were resilient after a period of rest away from school.

Cortisol exposure also expands dendrites in the orbitofrontal part of the prefrontal cortex, making people more vigilant. This can help you stay alert if you think someone is following you home on a dark night, but can turn into a bad habit if you cannot turn off your radar once you’re in a safe place.

As dendrites in the basolateral amygdala – which hosts fear, anxiety, and other strong emotions – grow more branches,  they elevate your sensation of anxiety. Even a singular, traumatic event can create new synapses within one or two weeks, making anxiety linger. Research into the brain patterns of PTSD survivors demonstrates this adaptation keeps them on edge. This can be reversed with a timed elevation of cortisol at the time of, or shortly after, a trauma.

Your Best Medicine Is Right at Your Fingertips

While these explanations can be quite complex, your remedy can be quite simple. Mindfulness and meditation can reverse the effects of toxic stress by reducing the size of neurons in the amygdala. Just block out the world for part of a day and live in the moment.

Your second secret weapon is even more powerful. Regular physical activity restores function to your brain and your body. It boosts your heart rate to balance out the release of stress-inspired hormones and encourages the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. This process requires two hormones to travel from your body to your brain, with one coming from your liver and the other from active muscles.

Just taking a brisk walk improves memory and mood. Within six months to a year, you will find that regular aerobic activity enlarges the hippocampus, improving your memory and your confidence in making the right decisions. Walking for one hour a day for five days a week boosts blood flow and makes your prefrontal cortex work more effectively.

Creating a “Nutritional Buffer” Against Stress

When stress piles up, it takes a toll on our bodies and minds, lowering our baseline and making it harder to bounce back. The good news is that the right nutrients can help raise that baseline, making it easier to handle stress and maintain resilience.

To combat the detrimental effects of stress, supporting our body with the right nutrients is essential. Key vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, iron, and magnesium are crucial in maintaining brain function and a healthy nervous system, better preparing us to handle stress.

However, the reality is that even a super healthy diet might not be enough to tackle all the stress and environmental toxins we face today — which means modern diets fall short due to depleted soil and the abundance of processed foods.

In other words? Getting all the necessary nutrients from food alone is a challenge.

That’s where BioOne Greens Plus comes to the rescue…

BioOne Greens Plus delivers the equivalent of one serving of fruits and vegetables in a single, great-tasting powder.

Made with over 90% organic ingredients, it's your go-to solution for boosting your nutrient intake. In our fast-paced lives, increasing our intake of leafy greens and high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables is vital but often impractical.

Just one serving of BioOne Greens Plus mixes easily into your favorite beverage — like juice, smoothies, protein shakes, or even plain water!

This powerhouse blend includes high-antioxidant berries like cranberry, raspberry, and blueberry, as well as sulfur-rich cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and cauliflower. It also features colorful, phytonutrient-dense vegetables like beets, carrots, tomatoes, and spinach.

Our ancestors thrived on diets rich in nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits, low in grains. Today, grains have largely replaced these healthier options, contributing to a larger net acid load in our bodies which is not ideal for optimal health. BioOne Greens Plus is designed to help restore the body's balance of acidity and alkalinity, potentially reducing the risk of modern degenerative illnesses.

BioOne Greens Plus at a glance:

    · Over 90% organic ingredients
    · Free from grain/legume fibers, designed to be the least allergenic
    · Contains no alfalfa, a common allergen in other leading brands
    · Special gentle processing retains nutrient potency
    · Proven ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbency Capacity) value to neutralize damaging free radicals
    · Great taste with no added sugar

Whether you’re looking to support your brain and body in a season of stress, enhance your mental clarity, support sustained energy or aid in recovery from exercise…

BioOne Greens Plus is here to nourish your body at the cellular level!

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Reference

1. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain, http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2005/05/Stress_Disrupts_Architecture_Developing_Brain-1.pdf

2. Allostasis and the Epigenetics of Brain and Body Health Over the Life Course: The Brain on Stress, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28445556/

3. Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control, https://www.pnas.org/content/106/3/912.long

4. Stress-Induced Alterations in Prefrontal Cortical Dendritic Morphology Predict Selective Impairments in Perceptual Attentional Set-Shifting, https://www.jneurosci.org/content/26/30/7870.long

5. Neighborhood matters: divergent patterns of stress-induced plasticity across the brain, https://www.nature.com/articles/nn.4115

6. https://aeon.co/essays/how-stress-works-in-the-human-body-to-make-or-break-us