Before we answer that question, we need to understand that stress is supposed to be good for us.
While many may find that hard to believe, the stress response is an adaptive response designed to protect us in times of hardship. This may be an increased storage of calories for a famine or a heightened immune response to fend off an infection.
In addition, the acute stress response produces a sharpening of the neurological system. Makes sense—you really wouldn’t want to lose focus when chased by a saber-toothed tiger.
Either way, that was then. This is now.
Acute stress no longer has a place in the world we live in. Sure, we get cut off in traffic or pissed off on the phone with the cellular phone company, but rarely do the majority of us have to deal with life-threatening situations that require a true acute stress adrenaline surge.
Rather, our lives seem dominated by chronic stress that never seems to have an end. But what does this do to our brains and does this have an impact on the development and further risk of seizures?
In my book, Migraines and Epilepsy, I point out that acute stress is protective for our brains and against seizures, while chronic stress destroys our brains and promotes seizures.
This particular article goes a long way towards explaining how this may happen. But first, a primer on adrenal hormones and stress.
The outside part of the adrenals, called the cortex, produces 3 hormones: cortisol, aldosterone and DHEA. Aldosterone helps to conserve sodium to keep our blood pressure elevated. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. DHEA, dehyrdoepiandrosterone, is used by our bodies to make other steroid hormones like testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. When we experience chronic stress, the cortex of the adrenal glands can only make so much end-product and the default choice is cortisol, leading to lower levels of aldosterone and DHEA. So what happens now?
Researchers looked at what role DHEA played at the synapses of brain cells (the gap between two neurons where messages get passed along). Specifically, the transfer of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate in seizures. In general, the more glutamate that is present in the synaptic cleft between the brain cells, the more the brain cells fire, potentially perpetuating a seizure and creating a massive amount of damage to the cells.
Giving DHEA to rats who had seizures induced by iron led to an increase in the transporters responsible for getting the glutamate out of the synaptic cleft. Less glutamate means that those brain cells are going to fire less. This is a very good thing and goes a long way towards understanding how adrenal health and stress contribute so massively to seizures.
For this reason, stress management HAS to be a major tool for anyone dealing with epilepsy and seizures.
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