Stress is good for you, at least that is the message underlying the ever-present push for greater productivity. Yet there is a delicate balance of chemistry in the body and brain that has dramatic effects on state of mind and body regeneration. When the balance is disrupted, whether from work stress, a specific genetic profile, natural body changes, or the development of certain mind habits, the results can be seen in a cascade of problematic changes. This blog is a brief look at how body and brain chemistry affect the mind, and touches on what can be done when the result is less than satisfactory.
'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' the saying goes. Some even talk about 'post-traumatic growth'. Yet the impact of stress continues to show a dark side in our society. Just recently the World Health Organisation officially recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon based in workplace stress that is poorly managed, with real consequences for health and efficiency.
Mind is that strange, untouchable quality that makes us, well, us. It is our centre-point of identity and reality, and based just as much in the shifting chemistry of body as in the physics of electricity, or electromagnetism to be more precise. Within the brain there are chemical lock and key mechanisms that control thresholds, which in turn affect how and when the nerve-based 'wiring' communicates.
These keys are chemicals secreted and moved about in the brain, but the body also makes some of these. For example, the gut produces more serotonin than the entire brain. And the vagus nerve, which ramifies like a tree throughout the abdomen and up into the head, affects GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) production in the brain. This is the chemical that initiates brain calming.
Such interaction of chemicals with nerves is normal, but things can go wrong. For example, in autism spectrum disorder there is often a disruption of a signalling hormone that produces an aversion to social interaction and bonding, and in turn increases repetitive behaviours. Research is demonstrating that the supply of such chemicals back again, as a nasal spray, may improve the sense of reward gained from being with other people and help meet this challenge.
For the majority of us, a useful example of disruption is the overproduction of cortisol, the stress hormone secreted to message the body and brain that it needs to respond with fight, flight or freeze responses. This works well as one-off episodes to get us out of trouble, but produced in higher than average levels long-term and we have a problem. For example, cortisol inhibits testosterone production.
Certainly, people can live without the pleasure of a sex drive, but testosterone also facilitates body healing, and yes, it is present in women as well as men, albeit in lower concentrations. Actually, it is the major hormone present in postmenopausal women. Importantly, it affects confidence and motivation.
Similarly, oestrogen levels interact with stress hormones. This sex hormone has many roles outside of sex. For example its protects brain tissue. A drop in oestrogen titre has been linked to lower brain activity in certain regions during pre-menopause and menopause for women, which may even act as a trigger for later emergence of dementia. This is reason enough to watch problematic menopausal symptoms and treat them early rather than stoically suffer through.
Intriguingly, although hot flashes occur when the brain senses a drop in oestrogen, it may be the high cortisol causing the issue. Although increased production of cortisol can shut down sex hormone production, it can also cause resistance to hormones that blocks their perception even when present. Here the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is the culprit, and importantly, cortisol levels that are too low can be as much of an issue as those that are too high; a 'normal' level of fluctuation is needed for good health.
To address lower than normal levels of sex hormones there are medical practitioners who prescribe dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which is a precursor for the making these chemicals, however there is debate about its usefulness and addressing stress appears to be a preferable path to balance. It may though, play a helpful role through localised application in women undergoing breast cancer treatment, which rapidly and radically reduces sex hormone levels, bringing on early menopause.
It is also perhaps worth noting that oestrogen (estradiol) plays a role in building men's mental sexual desire, along with testosterone, in an intricate balance. An important paper on the topic is available here.
High cortisol levels affect the brain is other ways too, driving addictive behaviours including increased alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, its consumption then goes on to increase risk of triggering breast cancer. And in turn, drinking alcohol, can increase cortisol levels. This is a nasty spiral. Understanding how chemical disruption drives us towards choices that make matters worse is an important first step. For more on the topic of the chemistry of states of mind see my upcoming book.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb