If you’ve read any of my past articles, you know that the vast majority of health problems are associated with chronic inflammation, ranging from heart disease and cancer to diabetes and arthritis.
Inflammation also increases the risk of developing various neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Along those same lines, newly released research has uncovered an interesting connection between short-term memory loss, chronic stress, and inflammation. Considering most people have at least one thing (usually more!) that causes constant stress—whether it’s finances or work-, health-, family-, past- or parenting-related—I think this study has implications for everyone.
Stress, Inflammation, and Memory Loss
In this study, researchers trained mice to find an escape hole in a maze. They then exposed some of the mice to constant, repeated stressors. Afterward, they retested their ability to locate their escape hole. The control (non-stressed) mice were easily able to find their way through the maze and out of the hole, but the stressed mice had a harder time remembering the route. The researchers also noted behavioral changes like social avoidance and depression in the stressed mice.
In my opinion, the most important finding was that the stressed mice experienced significant changes in their brains. The repeated stress they endured appeared to cause an immune reaction in their brains, which led to inflammation.
And that’s not all. Between 10-28 days after the stress exposure, the mice failed to develop new neurons in the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for memory, behavior, and emotions. This caused short-term memory loss, which the researchers linked to the inflammation.
The researchers wrote: “Repeated exposure to stress alters the homeostatic environment of the brain, giving rise to various cognitive and mood disorders that impair everyday functioning and overall quality of life.”
They continued by saying that the communication between the body’s immune system and the brain “plays a significant role in various stress-induced inflammatory conditions, also characterized by psychological impairments.”
What This Means for Us
It’s important to note that all of the problems the mice experienced resolved after 28 stress-free days. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that we humans rarely go 28 days—much less one or two days in a row—without some form of (in most cases) intense stress. Now I’ve talked in the past about how small amounts of short-term stress can strengthen us and make us more resilient. But chronic, repeated, intense stress, day-in and day-out, can be devastating.
Think about your friend who works long hours at a job she hates. Or your neighbor who is a single parent to four children. Or the co-worker who lives in constant fear because of traumatic childhood events. Or your spouse who sits in three hours of traffic a day and barely makes it home in time to kiss the kids goodnight. Or the child who gets bullied at school. All of these everyday scenarios represent chronic stressors that could potentially lead to long-term brain inflammation and memory problems, if the study results translate to humans’ brains.
Dealing With Stress
Sometimes stressful situations just can’t be changed or avoided. But we can change how we react to them. We can identify the sources of our stress and fears and rewire our minds to live free and fearless. Doing so not only lessens the effects of stress, but also proactively protects our health.
By far one of the best ways to cope with stress—and reduce chronic inflammation in the body, for that matter—is exercise. I know it can be hard to fit a workout into an already busy schedule, but you must. The physical and mental benefits are truly endless.
Some people like to wake up before dawn (while the rest of the family sleeps) to exercise. Others like to break up their day with a workout during their lunch hour. Still others prefer to unwind at night in the gym. Figure out a fun workout and what time of day works best for your schedule, and commit to it!
Another amazing therapy to relieving stress and boosting brain health is meditation.
Remember, my promise to you is that I will always provide you with accurate information, based on the latest science. I look forward to helping you live your best life.
- McKim DB, et al. J Neurosci. 2016 Mar 2;36(9):2590-604.