The Holiday Hangover Brain

Imagine it: Pounding headache, sour stomach, and fatigue like a heavy blanket willing me to close my eyes. Fifteen minutes before I needed to be at the office; enough time to stop for coffee. The decaf latte would be more a distraction than a caffeine rush but hopefully help me snap out of it.

No, I didn’t have a hangover. Well, not from drugs or alcohol. Though I did have a hangover of sorts – a stressful holiday hangover. It felt like I had been running fast and hard since Thanksgiving. All through the holidays I rushed from one event to another, herded the kids around, and attempted to create some fun family memories amidst it all. Christmas was a blur. The joy of the holiday break had rushed by, leaving me frazzled in the wake of celebration. But now at last I was looking forward to a peaceful day of recovery at work.

Wait, what? Yes, compared to the stress of the holidays, a late-December work day would bring singular focus, quiet intentionality, and a sigh of relief. I sipped the steaming latte and reminded myself, ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!’ Yet I had a nagging suspicion I was fooling myself.

We’ve all heard the dangers of stress and anxiety, such as high-blood pressure, depression, and heart disease. Stress can increase levels of cortisol, and while this hormone provides benefit to the body, we weren’t created to be constantly flooded with it. Even small, consistent doses of stress hormones can cause changes in the brain, as confirmed through functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

According to an article in Biological Psychiatry journal, repetitive episodes of stress can cause inflammation and impair the immune system. The research, conducted with mice, revealed a communication between cells in bone marrow (monocytes) and cells in the brain (neurons), via cells of the central nervous system (microglia). The negative ‘messenger’ response to stress in the microglia endured even 24 days after the initial exposure to the anxiety-inducing situation. In other words, if those little mice were still carrying inflammation-inducing and immunity-destroying communication cells after a stressful incident…how much more must my body be racing with those bad boys after the crazy-busyness of the holidays!

Evidently those inflammatory cells are reproducing even faster when I am stressed out AND crabby. The November issue of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity included a research study on the inflammatory impact of mood, referred to as negative or positive affect. Blood levels of those with higher negative affect (crabby mood) contained more inflammatory indicators.

Even more convicting, Neurology recently published an article on the cognitive and physical correlates of high levels of cortisol, this time with young to middle-aged human research participants. Scientists concluded, “Higher serum cortisol was associated with lower brain volumes and impaired memory in asymptomatic younger to middle-aged adults, with the association being evident particularly in women.”  Which can be translated into: apparently, the stress in my life isn’t just making me sick and inflamed, it is also making me stupider (is that even a word??) and reducing the size of my brain, particularly because I’m a woman! Clearly it is way past time to deal with this issue.

Now please trust me, I’m not trying to bring more anxiety into your life…but you will just have to wait for next month’s installment to hear about how these stress-busting strategies are going. As a researcher, I’m generally my own best lab-rat, so I am personally examining what science has to say about dealing with chronic stress. For now, it is time to shut down the computer and do a few deep breathing exercises… (hint, hint)

By Terissa Michele Miller, MS Psy

Check out the original research:

This article was originally published in Modern Brain Journal.

About the author:
Teri Miller is a mom of nine and child development researcher with a Masters of Science in Psychology. She is a Research Associate at Gibson Institute of Cognitive Research, co-host of the podcast Brainy Momsand the Managing Editor at Modern Brain Journal.