By Sarah A LoBisco, ND

image photo : Christmas cat

Phew, it’s the holiday season. I’m a December baby, so I have a double reason to love this time of year.  To me, this season is a time were the world gets softer and embraces quiet. Even amidst some not friendly shoppers, there’s an overall feeling that cuts through the materialism and lightens the hearts of many.

However, I am aware this may be a “Pollyanna” version of the holidays, but it is the perception I wish to hold. And, as I’ve spoken before, stressful thoughts and negative perceptions affect our biochemistry directly. By modulating the cellular environment through the signaling molecules the brain releases, stress and negative thought patterns impact our health.

image photo : Too many thoughts!

In fact, one recent study from Columbia University found that being stressed and anxious is as much a predictor of a heart attack as smoking five cigarettes a day!

image photo : Heart under attack

Think of how your body is impacted by hearing joyous vs. negative news. Did your heart race and mood drop when you learned of the recent events in Connecticut? Was your immune system impacted or your ability to focus at work sidetracked by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy?

It would be silly to gloss over the recent events with a positive thought. That’s not empathic or compassionate. I am too keenly aware of the many who are impacted and how the compounding stress of the holidays increases their grief.

Therefore, I felt called to reiterate in this blog exactly how thoughts and stress affects our body. Later on, I will also provide tools which empower us to focus on new solutions (vs. repeating the same behaviors and thought-patterns) to life’s struggles. In fact, it is only when one will take a deep breath and step back that true and innovative solutions have space to come through.

Chronic Stress and Brain Remodeling (The “WONK-FACTOR”)

image photo : Thoughts in man's head

As I was researching the biochemistry behind brain smarts and stress, I came across a study by of all names, Nguyen et al. It showed that rats who produced a stress response (by releasing glucocorticoid hormones, such as cortisol), produced less of the inflammatory signal IL-B (which also regulates pain sensitivity and immune response) in comparison to control rats. This study provides an insight on how stress contributes to an inflamed brain and body.

Another rodent study utilized a technique to locate and measure DNA and RNA fingerprints in rat brains to assess stress impacts. Their results demonstrated how stress decreases our capacity to remember things. Specifically, brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) (a chemical that is important for neuronal survival and plasticity), is decreased with acute stress in the memory region of the brain, the hippocampus.

Now the proof doesn’t end with rats!

One study reported that stress on a mammalian brain affected memory capacity. It lead to decreased neurogenesis (building new brain pathways) and created negative changes in mood.

image photo : Woman with stress in the office

The Reaction-Response:  The “Wonky Brain Effect”

This section is dedicated to my fellow patients and colleagues who belong to my “biochemistry medical geek team.”

Those who are less interested in the body effects keep scrolling down for solutions….

1. Stressful thoughts trigger the release of stress hormones (such as cortisol and other glucocorticoids), and various neurotransmitters (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine).

image photo : Fight or Flight?

2. The hormonal and neurotransmitter modulation triggers a “fight or flight” response. This shunts nutrients and biochemical mediators away from assimilating and utilizing nutrients in the body for reproduction, digestion, and rebuilding.

(Do keep in mind that the body does need some stressors in life in order to stay alert, balance immune and inflammatory response, and clear debris after disease processes).

3.  As a result, long term stress can lead to hormonal imbalances. Specifically, the ratio of estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and DHEA becomes less bio-available. The  adrenaline rush further signals the thyroid to slow down, so your body doesn’t go into overdrive”. These imbalances have an effect on fatty acid metabolism, glucose and nutrient use, weight management, mood, skin, hair, and immunity. Furthermore, blood sugar deregulation from cortisol excretion can wreck havoc long term on blood vessels.

image photo : Sympathetic system

4. If that’s not enough, here’s where your brain literally goes off track to the back road. Stress side-swaps your chill-out neurotransmitters such as GABA and glycine (from signaling imbalances in electrolytes that excite the NMDA receptor).

These effects increase your anxiety but also serve to make you more alert yet a chronic insomniac (“tired and wired”).

Your limbic brain (the primitive and emotional component of the brain involved in survival) then takes over and trumps your rational and executive functioning (prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate gyrus).


The result can include, but is not limited to, inflammatory emails, excessive chocolate consumption, and reactionary texts going viral!

image photo : Chocolate

4. Finally, after enough depletion by stress, you get sick (either through an autoimmune response, allergy, or cold). Initially, the body reacts by suppressing inflammation; however, long term, it decreases your bodies capacity to deal with environmental stressors and bugs.

The FINAL Result:

You become not only diagnosed with “wonky brain” but are also nutrient deprived, bloated, moody, and “sick and tired.” Not cool!

image photo : Bloated profile

Note: The reverse can also be true! Stress on the body in the form of toxic exposures, bad diet, lack of movement, smoking, and other negative habits, can create the same unpleasant effects.

Ouch, my Brain!

image photo : Overload training

Now, what to do?

Click here to read more about “wonky brain” and how to support yourself in stressful times.


Richardson, S. et al. Meta-Analysis of Perceived Stress and Its Association With Incident Coronary Heart Disease (abstract). American Journal of Cardiology. Volume 110, Issue 12 , Pages 1711-1716, 15 December 2012

Kim E. Innes, MSPH, PhD; Heather K. Vincent, PhD; Ann Gill Taylor, MS, EdD. Chronic Stress and Insulin Resistance–related Indices of Cardiovascular Disease. Part I. Altern Ther Health Med. 2007;13(4):46-52.)

Smith, MA, Makino, S, Kim, SY, & Kvetnasky, R. Stress increases brain-derived neurotropic factor messenger ribonucleic acid in the hypothalamus and pituitary (abstract).Endocrinology September 1, 1995 vol. 136 no. 9 3743-3750. doi: 10.1210/en.136.9.3743

Exposure to Acute Stress Induces Brain Interleukin-1? Protein in the Rat (abstract).The Journal of Neuroscience, 15 March 1998, 18(6): 2239-2246