Stress can be harmful. It can affect us in multiple ways. In fact, it can go on to shrink your brain as well. The situation is simple – chronic stress equates with lower gray matter in the brain. This is why it is understood that stress can lead to shrinkage of the brain.

Stress can be good but only in small amounts

In small bursts, stress can be actually good. When you are stressed, your body releases the stress hormone, which is also known as cortisol. This hormone can help curtail inflammation, manage blood sugar, and lower blood pressure as well.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley revealed that when lab rats were exposed to brief periods of stress, the stem cells in their brain bloomed into new nerve cells. Consequently, the mental performance of the rats was improved.

However, that’s not what is offered by chronic stress.

Chronic stress shrinks the brain’s gray matter

Repeated and prolonged exposure to stress is harmful. When cortisol is released for longer durations, it can encourage weight gain/obesity, depression, heart disease, and high blood pressure. It can also push you down the road toward an unhealthy lifestyle.

Chronic stress, in particular, affects two areas of the brain namely prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for regulating emotions and thoughts. On the other hand, the hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning.

Recent evidence supports these claims. Researchers examined the cortisol levels of more than 2,000 middle-aged individuals and assessed their thinking skills and memory. They found out that participants, specifically women, with high cortisol levels in the blood performed poorly on the cognitive and memory tests.

In the long haul, their brain volume also declined. One of the study authors, Dr. Sudha Seshadri, commented, “Slightly lower brain volumes and memory performance of the magnitude seen in this study are associated with a higher risk of dementia 10 to 20 years later.” 

Other researchers noted that using an MRI to scan the hippocampus showed a shrunken hippocampus. Its size was lower than the hippocampus size of other people who are not subjected to chronic stress. Thus, it is clear that chronic stress can shrink your brain.

Final thoughts

Chronic stress can be indeed very harmful to the brain. Not only can it come to a crescendo of depression but it can also lower the volume of the hippocampus. It is best to stay ahead of stress by eating properly, sleeping well, and other taking other stress-reducing measures.