Summary of article abstract by Bruce S. McEwen, PhD.
Topic: Protective/Damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain
This article summarizes some of the current information, placing emphasis on how the stress hormones can play both protective and damaging roles in brain and body, depending on how tightly their release is regulated. It also discusses some of the approaches for dealing with stress in our complex world and explains how the mind and body work together and communicate with one another. It is noted that stress is not derived from a particular event, rather from the whole of the events of our daily lives. The accumulative effect of these events cause unhealthy behaviors that root themselves in disease, sleep deprivation, and other effects on the body and mind eventually resulting in what the author terms “allostatic load.”
The positive effect is that hormones associated with stress and allostatic load protect the body in the short run and promote adaptation by the process known as allostasis. Over time however, allostatic load causes changes in the body that can lead to disease.
According to the author, the brain determines what is threatening and therefore stressful, and also determines the physiological and behavioral responses. Studies have shown stress related illnesses such as mild cognitive impairment in aging, prolonged depressive illnesses, and major depressive illnesses in individuals with low self-esteem. Alterations in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are also reported. The brain decides what to get “stressed out over and how to respond to such stressors and in doing so undergoes changes under acute and chronic stress. It directs such systems as the metabolic, cardiovascular, immune system and others that are involved in the short- and long-term consequences of being stressed out.
The article also demonstrates two contrasting sides of our physiology involved in defending the body against the challenges of daily life. The author addresses sleep deprivation and the central role of the brain in allostasis and the behavioral and physiological response to stressors. An example of Brain regions that are involved in perception and response are the amygdala and the hippocampus, which show structural remodeling as a result of stress. Near the end of this article the author discusses the positive/negative effects of high/low self-esteem on the brain and concludes that the pervasive effects on the brain and body should be addressed in order to limit the effects.
The suggested methods to alleviate chronic stress and reduce allostatic load and the incidence of diseases of modern life include pharmaceuticals and approaches to lifestyle change. In addition, changes to policies of government and business that would improve the ability of individuals to reduce their own chronic stress burden. The authors suggestion that policymakers in government and business, can act to reduce the negative effects and enhance the ability of the body and brain to deal with stress with minimal consequences are often difficult to achieve, is understated. This would be impossible to achieve because policymakers in governments care only about their own power, control, and wealth accumulation. They do not interest themselves in the welfare of the people.
He does suggest however, that on an individual level, improving sleep quality and quantity, having good social support and a positive outlook on life, maintain a healthy diet, avoid smoking, and having regular moderate physical activity, should be our goal. It sounds as if he is reading straight from WebMD. It is not that I dislike WebMD. It just takes an allopathic approach that lacks insight into the importance of nutrition and a healthy mental and emotional state. In all fairness the information regarding brain function in relation to stress is very interesting. It is a worthwhile read and as should be with all information we obtain, keep what makes sense to us and set the rest aside. We are constantly changing and evolving. What might not appeal to us one day may very well be what we need six months from now.