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Brain Health Responds to Protecting Your Hippocampus

216036Chronic stress can lead to our brains getting into a rut and causes us to oftentimes repeat dysfunctional behaviors such as overreacting or arguing with imaginary others in the bathroom mirror over challenges or emotional traumas we feel we face.  Chronic stress initiates a response cascading a stress hormone release into the bloodstream and this lowers our brain function in order to meet the needs for addressing the “fight or flight” response our bodies require.  High levels of stress chemistry, especially cortisol, damages the hippocampus, a brain structure responsible in making memory, in turning short term memory into long term memory as well as affecting our emotions connected to our experiences.  In David Perlmutter’s book, Power Up Your Brain, The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, he reports the following important information regarding this stressful condition affecting the brain:  “Research using animals has shown that an elevated level of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a protective brain hormone, increased by such activities as calorie reduction, fasting, and mental and physical exercise [and] imparts a high level of protection for the hippocampus making it resistant to damage from elevated cortisol . . .”

Research also associates that higher levels of cortisol from stressful situations increase with age and has been seen in Alzheimer’s patients.  Reducing these levels has been an important focus for researchers as to how to reduce the level of cortisol production that can damage the hippocampus.  The catch-22 is that the hippocampus controls the adrenal glands’ production of cortisol-potentially damaging itself. What is a body supposed to do then?

The key appears to be in protecting the hippocampus to reduce its signal to the adrenal glands to produce cortisol in stressful situations.  Research has discovered that when positive and loving experiences occur early in life, the hippocampus becomes less sensitive to the effects of cortisol, thus not overreacting during higher stress situations later in life.  Early positive and loving experiences develop a “set point” in the hippocampus that tends to last throughout life.

If, however, one’s life experience has been more traumatic from early years forward, it is still possible to reset the set point sensitivity of the hippocampus.  As stated above, it is important to initiate the BDNF hormone release as a protection and to stand back from one’s experiences and try to see it from a different perspective.  See how it can teach you something, see the positive that could come out of it helping you to change something in your life or remove troubling people or events that create the chronic stress in the first place.

By changing one’s perceptions and using the lessons received, the hippocampus begins to establish new nerve (neural) networks.  A person does not need to be forever tied to earlier stressful situations that damaged the hippocampus.  Our brains are capable of change, of adapting, and of evolving new perceptions.  We just have to give it a boost to do so by making active choices to increase BDNF and reducing our stressful situations; maybe not easy but always possible.

Krystle Shapiro owns Touchstone Massage Therapies and Nutrition Plus!  She can be reached at (208) 290-6760.

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