One of the things I get on a regular basis is my patients and clients telling me about their experience with brain fog. And often, they have gone to see a ND and been told that this symptom is caused by adrenal fatigue and they need to take supplements and possibly adrenal hormones to get rid of it. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple, But the adrenal fatigue theory isn’t totally off the mark either. Let me explain….
Studies have now proven that our brains are super sensitive to stress hormones. And that we have different sensitivity levels to stress on a brain level at different points in our lifespan. Chronic low grade stress is almost universal in hectic modern lives these days, and no one wants to admit they are suffering, because it’s so common that ‘stressed and overwhelmed’ is the new ‘normal.’ especially if you want to keep up with your peers and do it all.
Stress over a lifetime can really add up by the time we are in in are late 20s and early 30s and many of my clients who are young and ‘quote’ ‘healthy’ come to me feeling like they live in a ‘brain fog’ most of the time, they need caffeine to get going and be productive during the workweek, and they have trouble shutting off their brains before bed.
And this doesn’t just start when we get a job or become adults, this stress starts young for many of us. Research has shown that in pregnant women who had stress, anxiety or depression, their babies had increased baseline activity of something called the HPA axis—which stands for the hypothalamic adrenal axis—the main pathway connecting your stress hormones and adrenals to your bRAIN.
This increase in HPA axis activity lasted 10 years later when they did a follow up with those kids. The reason this matters is that we know that changes in the HPA axis and too much stress hormone can actually affect brain development. This doesn’t mean you should start panicking if your mum was stressed or you are pregnant and constantly stressed because luckily our brains are very resilient or neuroplastic.
In fact, we can change the brain profoundly as adults to recover from these early setbacks, but only if we make a few small daily changes to our habits now. What this really tells us is that chronic stress is now an epidemic for our entire generation.
Even if you had an awesome start in life, but you have a stressful job, work long hours and feel like you are juggling lots of different things at once, chances are your brain is feeling the effects of chronic stress. And we now know that low grade chronic stress or even just subjective ow self esteem causes your hippocampus to get smaller.
The hippocampal neurons are the most sensitive to low grade stress, and these sensitive little guys are what help you to learn and remember things. This is why if you are chronically stressed and at risk for burning out, like many of my clients by the time they get to me, you feel like you have ‘brain fog’ or ‘foggy brain’ or have difficulty retaining information and forgetting things often, especially mundane but important things!
What this actually means in plain english is that chronic stress is TOXIC to parts of our brain involved in learning and memory. Chronic stress also activates areas of the brian involved in fear—like the amgyldala. So not only do you have ‘foggy brain’ but you may feel overwhelmed and ‘on edge’ a lot of the time.