Do you try to avoid stress at all costs? Contrary to popular belief, not all stress is bad. You’re probably familiar with at least one type of good stress – exercise. A sweaty workout that elevates your heart rate places your body under considerable duress, but exercise-induced stress is short-term. In response to that stress, assuming it occurs on a regular basis, your body adapts in a number of ways and becomes more resilient. That’s why exercise makes us stronger and healthier. Preliminary studies even show that other types of short-term stress may be beneficial. For example, some research suggests that intermittent fasting, depriving your body of food for 16-24 hours, on occasion, can improve metabolic health and even aid in cellular repair.
The key to these forms of stress is they’re of limited duration. If you were to exercise for hours on end, the effects wouldn’t be positive and would likely be harmful. Likewise, depriving yourself of food for days wouldn’t be therapeutic either. Short-term, acute stress and chronic stress are two different beasts. Studies have linked chronic stress with a higher risk of developing heart problems and high blood pressure – but the impact may extend to other diseases as well. Chronic stress weakens immunity. In fact, according to the Stanford Medicine Newsletter, suppression of immune function by stress may accelerate the growth of cancers and by boosting the ability of tumor cells to proliferate and spread.
Chronic Stress and Aging
You also might wonder what role stress plays in the aging process itself. If you’ve looked at photos of past presidents of the United States and compared their appearance before they took office with afterward, you’ll see how much older they look after dealing with the challenges of running a country. This would suggest that stress does, indeed, accelerate the aging process at the superficial level and, possibly, more deeply at the cellular level.
One way chronic stress could accelerate aging is by increasing oxidative stress, the production of free radicals, that damage cells and the genetic material inside called DNA. Oxidative stress triggers inflammation and we know how damaging inflammation is to cells and tissues. For example, oxidative stress and inflammation can injure the inner walls of blood vessels and increase the risk of a plaque rupturing and triggering a heart attack or stroke. In fact, some experts believe that inflammation is more important in the etiology of cardiovascular disease than cholesterol. So, if chronic stress triggers inflammation, it likely raises the risk of chronic health problems in which inflammation plays a role.
As far as the superficial aspects of aging, the wrinkled skin and weight gain, chronic stress plays a major role here too. Inflammation damages the proteins, collagen, and elastin, that help keep your skin firm and wrinkle-free. In addition, ongoing stress elevates cortisol, a stress hormone that reduces insulin sensitivity and makes it easier to store fat in the belly region. Chronic stress and cortisol can also alter body composition and lead to increased fat storage around the tummy and loss of muscle tissue, thereby hastening sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle tissue.
Aging and Telomere Length
One of the most compelling links between aging and stress is the impact chronic stress has on telomere length. Telomeres are “caps” of genetic material at the end of chromosomes. These caps encase the ends of the DNA that makes up the chromosome and stabilizes it so that it doesn’t unravel when the DNA replicates itself. But, as the DNA continues to duplicate itself, the telomeres shorten to the point that they can no longer stabilize the DNA. At the point, the DNA can no longer replicate and the cell dies.
It makes sense that if you have longer telomeres, the DNA can divide longer before the telomeres are “used up” and the cell dies. Studies suggest that telomere length is one marker of cell aging. Longer telomeres equate with reduced mortality and greater longevity. In contrast, shorter telomeres suggest shorter survival.
Interestingly, chronic stress, including psychological stress, is linked with shorter telomeres. For example, a study of telomere length in African grey parrots found those who were socially isolated had shorter telomeres than those that lived with a partner. In humans, untreated depression and phobic anxiety are also associated with shorter telomeres.
Lifestyle Choices and Aging
It’s likely that chronic stress DOES accelerate aging and increases the risk of age-related diseases. What’s more, ongoing stress is linked with shorter telomeres, a marker of more rapid aging. But, studies also show that lifestyle interventions, including dietary changes, exercise, and stress management techniques, help reduce the body’s stress burden.
Even more amazing is the fact that research shows lifestyle changes may lead to longer telomeres. Such is the power of lifestyle. This isn’t surprising since we know that lifestyle changes can impact the expression of genes that control a variety of functions related to health and aging. We now know that genes aren’t destiny as they can be turned on and off based on environmental exposure, a phenomenon known as epigenetic regulation. In fact, some studies show that lifestyle changes can alter gene expression in a short time – within a few hours. Pretty remarkable, right?
In fact, some studies link exercise and following a Mediterranean diet with longer telomeres. In one study, runners had telomeres that were 40% longer than their more sedentary counterparts.
A Dose of Mindfulness
It’s important to exercise and eat a healthy diet but no less important to have strategies for managing mental stress. A dose of mindfulness may help as well. Engaging in quiet, mindful activities like meditation may help take the edge off chronic stress. Some studies show that mindfulness practices can trigger epigenetic changes that slow aging. So, it’s more than just diet and exercise!
The Bottom Line
Yes, chronic stress does seem to accelerate the aging process at the cellular level. But, there’s much you can do at the lifestyle level to reduce physical and mental stress and, potentially, slow cellular aging. Don’t underestimate the importance of lifestyle for helping you stay young!
Stanford Medicine Newsletter. “Good Stress, Bad Stress”
Biomed Res Int. 2014; 2014: 615312.
Psychology Today. “Emotional Distress Can Speed Up Cellular Aging”
UCSF. “Brief exercise reduces the impact of stress on cell aging, UCSF study shows”
Live Science. “Mediterranean Diet Linked to Slower Aging”
Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Aug; 1172: 34–53.
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