How to Reverse the Brain Changes Caused By Chronic Stress

What causes you stress?  Your health? Bills? Work? Family?  Chronic stress puts serious wear and tear on our bodies over time, but did you know that chronic stress can change your brain?  Thanks to research in this area, we’re learning more and more about the ways in which this happens.  The good news is this:  we can reverse all of these negative brain changes with exercise.

Below are a list of conclusions drawn from research on this topic.  In bold italics, I have added the counterpart conclusion from research on exercise and the brain.  Just a few more reasons to exercise this morning.


• Chronic stress reduces the number of neurons in the dentate gyrus (the part of the brain associated with the formation of new memories), and also contributes to cognitive problems. So chronic stress shrinks part of the brain just as depression does. How frightening. Let’s nip this one in the bud here. Exercise reverses this effect by triggering the formation of new brain cells in the dentate gyrus.

• In the hippocampus (which play a role in long-term memory and spatial navigation), chronic stress causes neurons to undergo remodeling of dendrites. Dendrites act as part of the brain’s communication network. Yes, chronic stress causes your brain cells to stop communicating with one another very well. This means that you learn more slowly-think about kids in school who suffer from depression. Before we all begin to feel depressed about this, know that exercise re-establishes the connections by causing new dendritic growth between neurons, too.

• Stress-induced remodeling of the hippocampus can be at least partially reversible with the removal of the stress. Stress-induced remodeling of the hippocampus is all the way reversible with consistent physical exercise.

• An insufficient amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is thought to be at least partially responsible for remodeling the brain under stress. Experiments have found that the brains of mice with an inadequate amount of this protein look similar to those of normal mice that have been under stress for long periods. BDNF enhances the adaptability of neurons in the hippocampus. Exercise specifically triggers the release of increased BDNF in the brain, a factor which is like “Miracle Gro” for your brain cells. In fact, the increased BDNF is largely responsible for regenerating the brain cells and dendritic connections mentioned above. Exercise increases BDNF so significantly that some research is suggesting that exercise could reverse the signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

• Chronic stress effects the functioning and mental flexibility of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in working memory and decision making. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in overcoming distorted learning (think trauma and phobias). Yes, exercise can reverse this effect, too. I know how boring this is getting for you, but it’s true. The prefrontal cortex orchestrates the communication between other parts of the brain by notifying those parts when new information is present in our environment. While chronic stress breaks down this signaling system, exercise reverses that effect by increasing dendritic connections, regenerating cells in the parts of the brain that tend to shrink during depression, and rebalancing the neurotransmitters associated with learning.

• Chronic stress is thought to be one of the most common causes of adrenal fatigue.  Exercises is the perfect antidote for sleep problems, muscle tension, anxiety, depression, PMS, problems with learning and attention, and even some developmental/learning disorders. The reason for this is the simple fact that we are meant to move. Chronic stress may wear our brains down, but exercise builds the brain.

Exercise builds your brain, makes learning easier, and helps you process information faster. “Smart” is earned by building your brain with exercise and filling it with information just as you would build muscles with weights. Your brain is a muscle, and intelligence is fluid-not static.

That’s all for today, folks.  It was a great holiday weekend here!  We spent time cooking out, boating, and celebrating birthdays.  I hope that you had a good one, too.  Ta-ta for now!