When women come to see me, stress is one thing I talk to all of them about. That’s because stress is present for everyone, whether we know it or not, and it’s a critical factor in the quality of your health.
In the past few months, I haven’t had to prod women to tell me about their stress levels; it comes pouring out as soon as they get me on the phone. The impact of the coronavirus is wide reaching, and the increase in stress levels of everyone I talk to is a serious matter.
Whether they have any personal experience with the actual virus or not, it’s so difficult to avoid feeling stress about it. Jobs have been impacted, children are home, finances may be precarious. People are angry and arguing. People are terrified and hiding. People are trying to go about their daily lives and hit with reminders that life is anything but normal everywhere they go (if they are going anywhere at all).
I’m afraid that stress isn’t going away any time soon, so it’s essential that women understand how it can impact them. I’ve had a sharp increase in the number of women reporting both high stress levels and chronic symptoms they’ve never had to deal with before.
Brain fog and memory problems are a great example. I had a woman tell me the other day that she’d been frantically looking for her glasses everywhere around her bed for five minutes before her husband quietly said, “They’re on your face.” She was mortified! That was the kind of forgetfulness she’d come to expect from her aging mother, but how could it be happening to her so young?
I reassured her that an episode or two like that were nothing to be overly concerned about, but it shouldn’t be ignored either. Symptoms are messages, and this message was her body trying to tell her STOP! Though many women don’t realize it, stress is one of the most common reasons for unexpected brain fog, memory loss and other changes in brain function.
The impact of chronic stress on your brain
Cortisol is a hormone often known as the “stress hormone.” It’s an essential hormone, and in true emergencies it’s what kicks your body into action to avoid the danger. But constant stress triggers your adrenal glands to release cortisol too frequently, and that can result in severe symptoms if it goes on too long – including memory and other cognition problems.
This happens for a number of reasons, and it doesn’t matter where the chronic stress is coming from. Even positive stress (like the excitement of a new relationship, or an exhilarating motorcycle ride) can disrupt cortisol production. That’s because your body can’t tell the difference. The same stress response, including the release of cortisol, is triggered. Chronically high levels of cortisol can have a serious effect on brain functioning, including:
Disruption in the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help regulate cognitive function and our moods.
Changes at a cellular level in the hippocampus – this is the part of the brain that controls memory and learning.
Decreased ability to clean up inflammation and free radicals which can lead to accelerated brain aging.
You Can’t Stop All Stress – So Here’s What You Can Do to Combat It
As we are all learning right now in dealing with the pandemic, there is a lot of stress we have no control over. Women were already dealing with increased responsibilities, a constant barrage of information, and high expectations from themselves and those around them.
Now, many women are home with their families all day, every day. Their to-do lists are longer than ever – but they’re feeling unable to tackle any of it because their heads are so fuzzy. They can’t focus on tasks like they used to, and sometimes they get to the end of the day and can’t think of a single productive thing they’ve done. And then there’s the guilt as they ask themselves, “With all this time at home, why aren’t I doing more?”
But there’s a solution for all that brain fog and lack of focus. Decreasing stress will have a positive impact on your memory and cognition. And as an added bonus, when you reduce the amount of stress you’re dealing with, it’s likely that other areas of health will improve as well.
The last thing I want to do is pile another “should” on you; I’m trying to help you get rid of stress, not add more! So, as you read these suggestions, please remember that everyone has their own ways of coping with and managing stress. There’s no one right answer for everyone, but the following tips have helped many of my patients regain clarity and feel like themselves again.
Try a “brain dump”
One of the most effective tools for beginning to reduce stress is to discover exactly what’s causing that stress in the first place. When you have all the things you “should” be doing combined with all the things you are anxious about swirling around in your head, it’s no wonder you have trouble focusing.
A brain dump is exactly what it sounds like. Take a piece of paper, and dump all of those thoughts out onto it in writing. Don’t censor yourself, and don’t dismiss anything as silly; get it all out.
When you’re done, sift through the list and mark the ones that cause you the most stress. Having a clear idea of where your stress is coming from can make thinking about solutions easier.
Eat on a schedule
Eating at regular intervals is as important as eating healthy food that will supply your body with all the essential nutrients you need. All too often, the first thing a woman will skip is a meal when she’s scurrying to get things done. And that’s a big mistake!
Eating often enough will keep your blood sugar stable which keeps your brain functioning efficiently. Eating three meals and two snacks per day will keep your brain fueled for learning, paying attention and remembering! Be sure to include lean protein, carbohydrates and good quality fats every time you eat.
Again, we’re all individuals, so your schedule may vary slightly. If an intermittent fasting regimen works for you, feel free to continue skipping breakfast or dinner as usual. But if you notice that your brain fog is worse when it’s been a long stretch between eating, you might want to adjust accordingly.
Follow an established sleep routine
Sleep is truly non-negotiable when you’re striving for good health, especially proper brain functioning. Ample research has been conducted on the impacts of sleep deprivation on the brain. In one small study in 2017, researchers found that when sleep deprived, brain cells have difficulty communicating properly, leading to temporary effects on memory and visual perception.
It’s likely you’ve experienced the groggy feeling resulting from a night of inadequate sleep. If sleep patterns are disrupted day after day, the stress piles up in your body – and brain cells – making clear thinking very difficult.
Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. It’s best to have an established bedtime routine and try to go to bed and rise at the same time every day – including weekends!
If falling asleep, or staying asleep, are a problem, herbs can be helpful. Passionflower, valerian root and chamomile are all good options for soothing you to sleep. Turning electronics off at least an hour before going to bed and setting up a quiet, dark sanctuary in your bedroom are also good ways to prepare your body for sleep.
Exercise is absolutely an important element for overall health. But exercise can also be stressful, especially if you’re overdoing it. And if you are forcing yourself to exercise in ways that you hate, you are absolutely adding to your stress load.
Gentle exercise can be as beneficial (even more so sometimes) to your health as vigorous exercise. This is especially true when starting a new routine; don’t try to go from sitting on the couch to running five miles all at once!
Finding exercise that you love is key in creating an exercise regimen that will reduce, not increase, stress. When I’m ballroom dancing, for instance, it doesn’t feel like exercise at all – I’m just have a blast!
When and where you exercise might also be important. If you trek across town after work to attend a particular class, you may be too drained to enjoy it – and even more stressed when you don’t get home until late in the evening. When looking for the right physical activity for you, it’s important to be sure it fits easily into your lifestyle – especially if you already feel too busy!
Give your body some extra support
Stress can make it even more difficult than usual to get the nutrition you need from food alone. Your body is working harder when it is under a lot of stress, and the demand for essential nutrients increases to help your body – and brain – function optimally. I recommend that all women take a high quality multivitamin and omega-3 supplement (Marcellepick.com has specially formulated products to offer). Stress can also impact a wide range of additional hormones in your body. For initial healing, you may also need targeted supplements to support all of the problems chronic stress can create.
Don’t forget to breathe
I know it’s tough to remember to pause when it feels like you can never get ahead. I’ve been there myself, getting so caught up in an endless to-do list that I don’t stop for even a minute until late into the evening. But breathing is the easiest change to make and you can do it anywhere! Use the time at a stoplight to take a deep breath in through your nose, hold, and exhale through your mouth. Find other moments like that several times throughout the day to breathe deeply and mindfully. Deep breathing in through your nose can engage your parasympathetic nervous system which may help keep your brain calm.
Seek out herbal support
You may want to consider herbal support to help decrease the impact of stress on your brain and body. Siberian ginseng, astragalus root, cordyceps, and rhodiola are all good choices.
You can conquer chronic stress
As you can see, chronic stress does more than leave you feeling exhausted at the end of a long day. It can cause physical and mental changes that have a huge impact on your life. But there IS something you can do about it. When you learn to recognize and address the stress your body is under at every level, you can emerge with a clear head, ready to face the world head on – no matter what it throws at you!
For more information on this topic, read my articles, “Am I Losing My Mind? What You Can Do About Fuzzy Thinking”, and “Stress and Memory: What’s the Connection?”.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD