Stress May Be Literally Shrinking Your Brain — Here's What You Need To Know

mbg Contributor By Caroline Muggia
mbg Contributor
Caroline Muggia is a writer, environmental advocate, and registered yoga teacher (E-RYT) with a B.A. in Environmental Studies & Psychology from Middlebury College.
Stress May Be Literally Shrinking Your Brain — Here's What You Need To Know

Image by Hayden Williams / Stocksy

Need more motivation to finally cut stress out of your life for good? How about better memory and more brain power?

A new study published in Neurology compared people's cortisol levels with cognitive functioning and brain volume. By testing things like memory, attention, and visual perception, along with administering an MRI to look at brain volume, the results showed people with higher cortisol levels performed worse than those with average cortisol levels on cognitive tests. It also showed that women with higher cortisol levels had lower brain volume, while men did not. 

Cortisol is our primary stress hormone and is released to help us act in stressful situations (which is great) but too much can be detrimental. With that said, higher levels of cortisol doesn’t automatically equal more stress. “Elevation in cortisol is not only related to stress, there are other reasons for this," said lead author of the study Justin Echouffo-Tcheugui, MD., Ph.D.

While this is just one study and more research needs to be done to substantiate these findings, reducing stress and lowering cortisol in our lives is never a bad idea. "Cortisol doesn't get high all of a sudden," as Dr. Echouffo-Tcheugui points out. He recommends physicians pay closer attention to slightly higher than normal cortisol levels (levels that were perhaps not clinically important in the past). Knowing this progression does not happen overnight, there are things you can do to help lower cortisol levels.

The easiest first step? Do things that you love. When you are engaging in activities you enjoy, you will be happier and more relaxed. Spending some time in nature, dancing, or even just laughing with those you love can keep your cortisol levels down, says mbg expert Dr. Lissa Rankin, M.D. There's no need to overthink; just follow what makes you feel good.

Getting on a more consistent sleep schedule regulates cortisol, according to integrative medicine doctor, Aviva Romm, M.D. This is important because cortisol levels can suppress melatonin, leading to sleep issues. She also tells us that chronic inflammation can trigger elevated cortisol levels, so it's best to choose cleaner foods, avoiding processed foods and high sugar.

This may sound like more added to your plate, but we promise it's worth it: one less thing to stress about, right?

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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