How Chronic Stress Contributes To Cognitive Decline

We often think of brain disorders as separate from the body. Anything that affects the brain occurred due to factors that affected the brain. 

But our understanding of the relationship between the brain and the body is far too linear to fully grasp the complex network of interactions that occur.

We are seeing now how limited our knowledge is. More young people are dealing with depression. We believe this is due to an elevated allostatic load brought about by chronic stress. 

The thing about chronic stress is that your body gets exposed to cortisol for a longer period of time. This leads to a disruption of your body’s normal processes. To put it simply, your body being put under a long-term, stress-response state result in health problems.

While completely eliminating stress from your life might be impossible, having a better understanding of how stress affects your physical and mental health is key.

We’re at the tip of the iceberg, but we have to keep on digging. The more we comprehend this fascinating, multidirectional interaction between the brain and the body, the more we can unearth the many facets of what contributes to mental well-being.

In this show you’ll learn about:

  • How your environment is key to influencing our health and well-being throughout your lifespan
  • How your body’s wear and tear is associated with your mental health
  • What you can do to achieve an optimal level of living

To Grow Your Brain Skills To Their Potential You Need These 9 Things In Your Life

In today’s show, you will get a rich conversation on stress, allostatic load, and how it affects our cognitive fitness.

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About Our Guest

About Our Guest

Prof. Zoltan Sarnyai is a medically-trained, PhD neuroscientist with real research interests in the neurobiological mechanisms of stress and psychiatric disorders including addiction, schizophrenia, and depression. Prior to his role in James Cook University in Australia, he was a university lecturer in pharmacology and a fellow of Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge. He has been awarded the Curt P. Richter Award by the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology for his work in neuropeptides and brain functions.

Stress and Allostatic Load

His Background In Neuroscience

  • Prof Zoltan shares being disillusioned while in medical school and getting excited over research involving neuropeptides and brain function.
  • An outdated book on stress research piqued Prof Zoltan’s interest.
  • A research article on the impact of social hierarchy and general health among wild baboons opened Prof Zoltan to the idea of the environment influencing the body and brain.

His Fascination In Mental Health And The Environment

  • Our understanding of mental health and the brain in relation to the body has evolved over time. 
  • Brain disorders were seen as something related to brain function.
  • The brain does not work in isolation, but there is a multi-directional communication occurring between the brain and the body.
  • We don’t understand a lot about the interactions between the brain and the body. 
  • Now, we know that the gut microbiome has a lot to do with how the brain functions and the brain directs the local environment for these bacteria to change.

How Stress Affects The Brain and Gut

  • Chronic psychological stress and trauma affect both the body and the brain. 
  • Chronic stress leads to a leaky gut syndrome, which leads to bacteria interacting in the bloodstream.
  • Immune cells react and activate our stress biology.
  • The body develops more cortisol.
  • Things in our bodies are interconnected in a nonlinear fashion making it more difficult to grasp. 

Variables That Contribute To Stress Resilience

  • Our genetic makeup contributes to our susceptibility or resilience to stress. 
  • We have genes that are related to our biological stress axis.
  • We can’t do anything about our genetic background, but we can do something about what happens to us, specifically during pregnancy.
  • Not just environmental stress, but environmental toxins like alcohol and nutritional factors during pregnancy also play a role.
  • A low-protein diet during pregnancy has lasting consequences in the physical and mental health of a baby.
  • There’s also a long generational influence of the things that happened to our great grandparents that we see affecting their descendants.

How To Achieve An Optimal Level Of Living

  • Since we are already aware that stress, trauma, nutritional factors, and others have an impact on mental health, we can get started on prevention.
  • Our focus on studying the genetic makeup of complex, chronic non-communicable disease will only explain a percentage of the condition but not all.
  • Prof Zoltan talks about a study on mice that had the gene for Huntington’s Disease. Exercise and a complex cage environment were able to delay neurological deterioration in the mice.
  • The early environment of a human is key to the development of the brain and mental health, with the first three years of life being critical.
  • Nurturing makes a big difference.
  • Early neglect has long-term consequences. Prof Zoltan shares the case of what happened in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s.
  • A high-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is bad because it creates a low-grade, inflammatory response in the body.
  • Exercise creates more newly-born cells in the hippocampus. Having more newly-born cells in the hippocampus contributes to better cognitive fitness. Thus, physical exercise helps to improve cognitive emotional and behavioural measures.
  • The brain is very plastic. So while we cannot eliminate stress and trauma, we can devise interventions to help individuals recover.

The Future Direction Of His Work

  • Prof Zoltan shares his ongoing projects, one on integrating different biological measures into an index to predict either disease development or treatment response, and another on allostatic load and predicting mental illness.
  • Allostatic load is the wear and tear of the body. It measures the dysregulation that happens in the body when the body is chronically exposed to cortisol, the stress hormone.
  • An elevated allostatic load is being seen among young people between 15 and 25. There is a link between elevated allostatic load and mental well-being.
  • Elevated allostatic load is associated with cognitive decline. Major depression is characterized by a certain degree of cognitive impairment.
  • Since sleep increases our bodies’ ability to handle the challenges in the day, and stress hormones are highly biologically active, sleep research is expected to deliver exciting results.

Elevated allostatic load has actually long been associated with cognitive decline. Click To Tweet

Previously Recommended Resources

Prof Zoltan’s Research Portfolio:

Episode 11 Articles and Publications:


Sweedish Study:

  • OverKalix Study:  A Sweedish transgenerational study 
    • “The Överkalix study (Swedish: Överkalixstudien) was a study conducted on the physiological effects of various environmental factors on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. The study was conducted utilizing historical records, including harvests and food prices, in Överkalix, a small isolated municipality in northeast Sweden. The study was of 303 probands, 164 men and 139 women, born in 1890, 1905, or 1920, and their 1,818 children and grandchildren. 44 were still alive in 1995 when mortality follow-up stopped. Mortality risk ratios (RR) on children and grandchildren were determined based on available food supply, as indicated by historical data.” Wikipedia” Wikipedia 

You can reach out to Prof Zoltan on his university’s research website to get an idea of his work and it also includes his email.

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