Today I watched Episode 08 of Alzheimers – Science of Prevention, a groundbreaking documentary series, featuring David Perlmutter, MD, board-certified neurologist and #1 NYT bestselling author, along with leading experts in the field of brain health. For my notes on Episode 07, click here.
This fantastic series reveals the powerful ways we can decrease our chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. According to Wikipedia, Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually starts slowly and worsens over time. It is the cause of 60–70% of cases of dementia.
With Alzheimers reported to be the fastest growing epidemic among the aging, I want to know what I can do now to optimize my brain health long-term. I took copious notes while watching this episode and want to share these important insights from the series with you below.
For full access to this series, as well as for bonus interviews not included in the free series, check out access to the series here.
Episode 08 Notes:
Your Brain’s Destiny Is In Your Hands.
Multi-Tasking Is A Micro-Stressor That Can Contribute To Illness
One hidden source of stress is multi-tasking. By doing so, you accumulate urgencies, you create micro-stressors. And these micro-stressors over time manifest into significant emotional and chemical problems in your brain but we’re never aware of. Over time that stress will lead to significant immune disorders, cancers, etc. The first thing you should stop doing is multi-tasking. Create clear lines of behavior and outcomes. – Dean Sherzai, MD
There are 4 main mechanisms to grasp:
- Stress alters your gut microbiome
- Stress dramatically impacts your hormones
- Chronic stress increases levels of inflammation and the damaging effects of free radicals called oxidative stress
- Stress increases blood sugar
Stress Alters Your Gut Microbiome
Under stress, you get a different environment that the microbes live in. You change their world and they adapt to it. There’s even a direct effect on that sympathetic nervous system on the microbes themselves, so they have receptors for our stress hormones, norepinephrine and epinephrine. So when you’re stressed the signals don’t just go the heart, they go to directly to the microbes as well. And what’s been shown to many species of microorganisms, it changes their gene expression and their behaviors. So anyone who knows that they’re stressed should know that their microbes are also basically stressed and produce substances that they would normally not produce which act back on our gut. There’s also studies on the brain and on the microbiome. So our group has recently done a study on mindfulness-based stress reduction on brain structure and function. And there was an associated microbiome change as well. There are other techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. We also finished a study showing similar things – changes in brain systems and connectivity and microbiome changes. It’s clear that if you regulate the ways your stress system is engaged within the brain, it will have an impact on your gut microbiota. – Emeran Mayer, MD
Chronic Stress Affects The Brain
There are many studies on how chronic stress can affect the brain. A major immediate response is the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is one of the orchestrators of this fight or flight response but if it’s elevated chronically it has negative effects on the organ systems including the brain. So we know that it affects the number of nerve cells in the hippocampus, so the major brain region important for memory. The hippocampus is one of the areas that can generate new nerve cells through neurogenesis. If the stress is persistent and chronic, their ability is lost and you have an irreversible change in cognitive function.
The way the cortisol is produced is by stealing the substrate that the body needs to make estrogen and progesterone. If your cortisol goes up, your estrogen and progesterone go down. Women with very high cortisol level show brain shrinkage in midlife. – Lisa Mosconi, PhD
As cortisol is increasing, another important hormone is decreasing and that hormone is oxytocin. Oxytocin is the love and connection hormone. When we incorporate practices to increase oxytocin, cortisol goes down.
Stress is related to brain health because stress not only raised cortisol levels and other stress hormones, but stress also can cause inflammation and oxidation. So it can cause some of the very same things to happen in the brain that eating the wrong foods can. It can imbalance your neurotransmitters and cause damage to cells from the inside out. So having some stress every once in awhile it fine, but having prolonged, severe chronic stress for a long time, it’s really important to learn ways to relax and make sure you’re spending time doing things you enjoy. – Georgia Ede, MD
When you have a lot of oxidative stress you can promote an inflammatory state and an inflammatory state is one of the things that can lead to insulin resistance as well as mild cognitive impairment. So that’s how they’re linked together. Relaxation would reduce these kinds of inflammatory conditions that add to the burden of disease that leads to AD. – Suzanne de la Monte, PhD
When you have bad stress, it sends messages to your pituitary ultimately that raises the cortisol level, raises the adrenal level, lowers the oxytocin level. We’re talking inflammation that’s released in the body. Your immune system is altered. – Dean Sherzai, MD
Chronic stress not only increases inflammation but it also has the ability to increase blood sugar. And blood sugar leads to insulin resistance and diabetes, increasing risk for developing AD. – Dr David Perlmutter
Cortisol raises blood sugar. That’s what it’s supposed to do. In the modern era, we are marinating in cortisol all day and we don’t have those life-threatening emergencies. Increased blood sugar raises insulin and that’s a major risk factor in Alzheimers disease. – Amy Berger
Stress can cause the same kind of cellular damage over time that eating the wrong foods can – inflammation and oxidation and high cortisol levels. And the hippocampus, in particular, they found that people with trauma history or stress in childhood, they tend to have a smaller hippocampus, a smaller memory center, that seems to be related to the stress that they had to go through when they were young, so we know there is a really tight connection there. – Georgia Ede, MD
Stress – it’s not whether you have or it or not, it’s how you deal with it. Stress is defined as the perception, not actually the reality, of a real or imagined threat to your body or ego. So it can be attached to a tiger chasing you which is a very real threat to your body, or it could be an imaginary threat. What that does in your body is it sets in motion a cascade of events that causes rapid aging and disease. You lose muscle, you get diabetes, your blood pressure goes up, and you shrink this important this important area of your brain that’s responsible for memory called the hippocampus. Stress can literally cause cognitive impairment and depression.
Studies show that when you cut the cortisol out, the brain can recover and grow back. That’s what we’re seeing now, that even a damaged brain can repair and heal and recover if you change those conditions. So, things like meditation, it’s not a fluffy, new age thing, it’s actually critical for repairing the brain, reducing inflammation, for increasing stem cells in the brain, for growing your hippocampus, all those things are critical. So we have to not only learn to think differently about stress, and to reduce our reactivity around it, but to actively engage in things that help to activate this healing system called the parasympathetic system that can repair the brain. And it can be done through yoga, meditation, massage. – Dr Mark Hyman
Going back to nature affects your stress significantly because it takes you back to your root, your meaning.
There are some strategies that are scientifically proven to reduce stress. Meditation could be a really great asset. There are meditation practices like kirtan kriya that have been shown in clinical trials to be effective at reducing cortisol levels especially in women. For many women, yoga is a godsend but exercise in general is really good to reduce stress levels. In terms of diet, a healthy diet also has very beneficial effects on hormonal levels and can help reduce stress, especially B vitamins. Vitamin B12 and Vitamin B5. – Lisa Mosconi, PhD
We’ve narrowed it down to something very simple which is diaphragmatic breathing which is a form of meditation where you exclusively focus on your breath. Your in and out inhalation and exhalation and making the patient aware that that sends a signal to the brain through the vagus nerve into the centers that regulate the arousal levels and stress response. – Sara Gottfried, MD
Thank you, Dr. David Perlmutter and experts featured in this series for sharing your life-changing knowledge, practical tips and habits to help us optimize our brain health. It’s incredibly empowering and inspiring to know that we have more control over our cognitive health than statistics suggest.
Actionable steps to nurture inner peace and reduce stress:
Create a list of 5-10 things that can help you rise above stress.
Yoga has been one of the most effective strategies for me. I’m also a huge fan of meditation and in some ways it really doesn’t matter what brand you use as long as you’re doing something that helps you to objectively look at your reaction to life. Ten Percent Happier app, Headspace, Calm. I also like the Peloton app because there’s guided visualizations there. Getting together with friends. Ashwaghanda. Food stress can be eliminated by healing your gut, going on an elimination diet, giving up the most common food intolerances like dairy and gluten. A final thing to add to this menu is exercise. Laughter, making jokes, having a sense of humor, reduces stress, increases oxytocin. Being in a good social network, playing with pets, intimacy, smiling, generosity and giving. – Anna Cabeca, DO
It’s not about perfection it’s about doing the best you can.
Here are some ideas to help reduce stress in your life:
- Mindfulness practices
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Spending time in nature
- Cultivating healthy relationships
- Good quality sleep