Stress, Exercise Fatigue & Your Suffering Brain

Chronic stress can lead to increased inflammation in a variety of tissues in the body. Chronic stress includes relationship stress, money stress and work- or school-related stress.

Working out too much, too long or without adequate rest or regeneration is also chronic stress.

In the modern era of “more is better,” we often substitute a higher quantity of exercise volume in place of a better quality of movement, training & exercise.

In addition to putting the body’s joints, muscles & soft tissue at greater risk of injury, you may be doing damage to your brain.

That’s right, your exercise habits may be giving you brain damage. Well, sort of.

As with so many other aspects of life, it’s most likely an imbalance causing the issue. Too much activity with not enough or low quality rest & recovery can create chronic stress on the body’s systems.

Chronic stress (as well as acute injury or infection) creates cytokines in the bloodstream. These cross the blood-brain barrier and signal the immune cells in the brain, the microglial cells, to create MORE cytokines, leading to a neuroinflammatory response. (Pretty good explanation here:
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stress-dangers/)

So what, you ask? That neuroinflammatory response changes your brain chemistry. It changes the electric and energy balance in your brain reducing GABA (an inhibitory neurotransmitter) and increasing glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter.)

Studies have shown that the electro-chemical and bio-energetic imbalances that result can significantly impact cognitive function, behavior, perception and even sensory processing.

For example, in one study, a group of runners was asked to estimate the angle of a hill before running up the slope. Later, the same group was put through a run of several miles at a brisk running pace. When immediately asked to estimate the slope of another hill which had the same angle, the estimates were significantly higher than when they were not fatigued.

Researchers used bloodwork to confirm cytokines & other fatigue & inflammation markers in the group after the run. This helped the researchers back up their observations.

Tests run on mice have shown that the presence of cytokines in the blood are a corollary to stress & fatigue. Mice with elevated cytokines displayed reduced aptitude in spatial maze test. Some even displayed reduced socialization ability & increased aggressiveness.

Bottom line – Chronic stress & the inflammation that comes with it has a significant negative impact on your brain. You lose problem solving ability and spatial memory. Decision-making suffers and you are likely to be more agitated, less social and even to have problems with sensory processing.

This study has some fascinating results in this area:

https://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/jmld.2016-0066

So when you’re tempted to fall into a “more is better” mentality around fitness & exercise, remember that your brain is counting on you.

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