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How Stress Makes You Stupid

Brought to you by Tonic AUGUST 05, 2021

How Stress Affects Brain Health

Our stress response helps us make quick decisions and take life-saving action as soon as a threat is perceived. We perceive the threat, stress hormones rush through us, heart rate increases, and our primal brain takes over. Great for when the building is on fire, not so great for living your daily life.

While our bodies’ ability to react and adapt to acute stress is a magnificent thing, modern life has definitely pushed our stress response to its limits. Ideally, your body begins to recover once the stressful situation is over. A majority of US adults experience chronic stress, meaning we are staying in that ‘fight or flight mode for too prolonged a time period. Chronically elevated stress hormone levels can have serious impacts on your brain, including shrinkage!

Habit Brain vs Decision-Making Brain

Stress enlarges your “habit brain” (primal brain) and actually shrinks your decision-making brain. Your habit brain lives in the limbic system, while your decision-making brain lives in the cerebral cortex. Our limbic systems are activated during our stress response because our survival instincts need to kick in. There’s no time to sit and ponder the theory of fire safety while the building is on fire.

The problem is that, for most of us, the building is not on fire. We are dealing with chronic psychosocial stress rather than acute bouts of physical danger but to our brains, it's the same. An inability to reach the recovery phase of the stress response means overactivation of our limbic system and underactivation of our cerebral cortex. Stress puts us in “survival mode” and pushes luxuries like high-level cognitive functioning to the side.

Survival favors quick action over creativity and abstract thinking. Your brain is going to default to the path of least resistance in order to save time and energy in the interest of “safety”.

So, let’s think about how this affects everyday life. Let’s say you are trying to live a healthier lifestyle and cutting down on alcohol intake. But, when you get home and walk into the kitchen, you almost automatically go to the fridge and reach for that beer. Stress is not only driving you to seek short-term “relief”, but it is also making it more difficult for you to flex your willpower or adopt new behaviors. because that is what you have done every day before that.

Your decision-making brain allows for rational, logical decisions that are based on long-term outcomes, while your habit brain makes reflexive decisions that are emotionally driven.

Stress erodes important neural connections in the brain

In a recent study, researchers discovered that a single psychosocial stress event could kill new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is one of the regions of the brain heavily associated with memory, emotion, and learning. It is also one of the two areas of the brain where neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells, occurs throughout life.

Neurogenesis is a super important component of healthy brain function. We need to be able to form new brain cells and make new neural connections to store new memories and learn new skills. Reduction of neurogenesis can be a cause of depression, according to researcher Daniel Peterson, Ph.D.

A weakened hippocampus also explains why stress makes us forgetful. Think back to taking exams at school. You’ve been stressing about the test for a week. You studied and studied, but come exam time your heart is racing and you find yourself unable to recall the information you know you read the night before. Your brain isn’t going to learn the information being studied as well if you’re studying while stressed. Even if you are studying calmly, if that stress response kicks into overdrive at test time it will be difficult to retrieve that information.

Chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation

It may be obvious that chronic inflammation affects your physical health. Inflammation is the root of all diseases, as they say. But, the effect that inflammation has on your mental health shouldn’t be overlooked.

Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. This has a lot to do with the elevated cortisol levels present during stress. Cortisol triggers that fight or flight response, putting us into survival mode. Favoring our habit brain over our decision-making brain isn’t the only way that survival mode ignores “non-essential” functions. The rush of cortisol and subsequent stress response also suppresses immune response and digestion while boosting blood sugar production and blood flow into lean muscle tissue.

Inflammation is the body’s response to a threat, whether the threat is a foreign invader (bacteria or virus), or a psychological or emotional stressor. Once the threat is detected, the immune system sends out an army of chemicals, called pro-inflammatory cytokines, to attack the invaders.

Pro-inflammatory cytokines usually do their job and then disappear, but when stress is chronic, they are upregulated in your system — meaning the cycle of stress and inflammatory response gets habituated in the body. Over time, these cytokines may perpetuate themselves and an ‘inflammatory response’ turns into ‘chronic inflammation.

The blood-brain barrier usually protects against molecules like cytokines entering the brain. It is the final frontier between the brain and harmful toxins or inflammatory signals.

Under repeated stress, though, that barrier becomes compromised. A weakened blood-brain barrier allows for inflammatory proteins like cytokines to enter the brain. When unwanted substances enter the brain, they can cause brain inflammation linked to conditions such as depression, anxiety, brain fog, ADHD, even Alzheimers.

A hug for your brain

CBD and adaptogens like ashwagandha have one very important thing in common: they strengthen your inner forces against the influence of outer forces. What does that mean? It means that they increase your capacity to deal with stress. They help you adapt to stress to avoid being crushed by it. CBD and ashwagandha aren’t the only soldiers we deploy to help you conquer stress, though. Lemon balm, passionflower, and black seed oil play an important role as well.

Here is what each of these powerful ingredients brings to the table:


Despite their combative stance towards cannabis, the US government actually has a patent on cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants. They name CBD specifically as a promising intervention for inflammatory and ischemic disease.

Studies have shown that antioxidants may help to counteract the unstable molecules that comprise free radicals, counteracting negative effects of oxidative stress such as memory loss. Neuroprotectants work to minimize damage and prevent further injury to partially damaged nerve cells.

CBD has been shown to spur neurogenesis in the hippocampus of adult brains. Meaning that CBD has the ability to counteract, or repair, the damage that stress does on the hippocampus. It is important to note, though, that the research is based on consistent CBD use. If you’re taking a dose of CBD every once in a while, then that won’t be enough to get these results.

CBD’s influence on neurons in the hippocampus is directly related to its anxiety-relieving effects.

Another important way that CBD helps improve brain health is by influencing serotonin activity. Serotonin is dubbed the “feel good” neurotransmitter because it affects mood, anxiety, appetite, and sex drive. But, serotonin also plays an important role in cognition.

Low levels of serotonin can be linked to memory loss and Alzheimers. CBD provides a natural way to boost serotonin production and receptivity, functioning similarly to commonly prescribed SSRIs.


Ashwagandha has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic traditions and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The powerful adaptogen affects multiple systems throughout the body with the ultimate goal of restoring and maintaining balance, or homeostasis.

Daily ashwagandha supplementation has been proven to significantly lower cortisol levels, allowing for a calmer mind that can access higher cognitive function.

Like CBD, ashwagandha helps boost neurogenesis. By regenerating parts of nerve cells in the brain and repairing the sites where those cells communicate, ashwagandha is able to boost memory and restore neural networks affected by neurodegenerative disease.

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in memory, learning, and cognition. Ashwagandha allows acetylcholine to be more active in our systems by blocking out the enzyme that breaks acetylcholine down.

Ashwagandha is found in The O.G. TONIC and Chill TONIC. We love The O.G. for daytime stress relief and a boost of mental clarity to power through the workday.

Lemon Balm and Passionflower

Like ashwagandha, lemon balm and passionflower play a big role in breaking the cycle of chronic stress, getting us out of fight or flight, and boosting brain function. Lemon balm and passionflower are both calming herbs, widely used to address anxiety and insomnia.

Both herbs get their calming powers from their effect on GABA levels. GABA is a neurotransmitter that signals your nervous system to relax. The transition from fight or flight to rest and digest is marked by a reduction of excitatory neurotransmitters like adrenaline and cortisol, and an influx of inhibitory neurotransmitters, like GABA. Low levels of GABA in the brain’s frontal cortex have been linked to poor cognitive performance.

Lemon balm and passionflower are found in Chill TONIC, making Chill a more calming option than The O.G.

We recommend Chill for times of moderate-severe anxiety or in the evening to help you unwind and relax into a more restful sleep.

Stay sharp

At the end of the day, we are all just nervous apes doing our best to survive this wacky world. We’ve all been made stupid from stress from time to time, and there’s no shame in that. But, we hope that understanding what stress actually does to your brain can help you make a couple of extremely important realizations:

  • Taking a break is actually productive. When you’re feeling stressed and can’t focus, stressing out about focusing isn’t going to help. Instead, get up and change your scenery for a few minutes. Take 10 deep breaths. Stretch. Take a dose of The O.G. Whatever feels best to you.

  • Investing in your mental health and is an investment in your long-term success. If you were physically injured, you would understand that you need proper recovery in order to come back stronger than you were before. The same goes for mental health. You can’t just push through it. Your performance will suffer.

Along with regular TONIC intake, try to work some more mindfulness into your day to avoid brain burnout. Take time to check in with yourself, be open to what your body is trying to tell you, and show yourself enough love to actually listen.

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