How to Stop the Most Damaging Side Effect of Stress
These days, there are an infinite number of things that can stress you out. There’s “real” stress, of course, caused by a threat to your physical safety. But more often, people experience what’s known as “perceived” stress. That comes from, say, a looming bill due date and the fear that you won’t meet it, or crazy days at work and/or at home juggling never-ending must-do lists.
Your body has evolved effective ways of dealing with short-term stress, however, in today’s world, stress is rarely a once-in-a-while thing. Rather, a constant stream of stressors and an inability to effectively manage it all has made chronic stress an epidemic. And it can slowly and literally kill you — making you feel older than you actually are, contributing to illness, and ultimately shortening your lifespan.
Indeed, research has continually shown the link between stress and ill health and reduced lifespan. One study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, for example, examined mortality among 118,410 people who had “multimorbidity” — meaning they were generally unhealthy in a few different ways. Researchers found that the more stress a participant perceived, the greater their risk of dying during the study period.
Likewise, a recent review in the EXCLI Journal summed up the scary effects of stress this way: “Stress can exert various actions on the body ranging from alterations in homeostasis [balance] to life-threatening effects and death…. Stress can be either a triggering or aggravating factor for many diseases and pathological conditions.”
Keep reading to better understand how chronic stress can speed up the clock on the aging process, plus discover natural ways to both dial down stress and slow down the hands of time.
This Is Your Body on Stress
You’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight response. It’s how the human body evolved to deal with the acute stressors your primitive ancestors regularly encountered, such as a hungry wild animal. Here’s how it’s supposed to work.
Adrenaline spikes in order to mobilize extra resources to deal with the threat, such as glucose for quick energy to run away, and increased blood flow to enhance muscle function and hone the senses. Once the threat is gone, adrenaline levels fall and your system goes back to normal, distributing resources back to where they’re needed for healthy functioning and maintenance of your body’s systems. “Your body tolerates this short-term taxing of resources very well,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan.
Humans also evolved a way to deal with more long-term threats and stress, Dr. Rawls says, such as being lost for a week or more in the desert with little food and water. In this case, elevated levels of the hormone cortisol shift the balance of resources for the long haul. This has its pros and cons.
“When your body changes its chemistry and hormone balance, shifting all your resources from dealing with daily maintenance of your systems to dealing with the long-term stress, what suffers is everything else in your body,” Dr. Rawls says. “You don’t digest food properly, your immune system doesn’t work properly, and all of the messaging systems in the body get disrupted.”
This is a necessary evil when you’re faced with a long-term physical stressor and survival is your only goal. But in today’s world, where most long-term stressors are psychological and you have plenty of food and water to survive, the changes to your body can be incredibly damaging and may significantly impact your health and the rate of aging.
In other words, your body’s reaction to chronic stress can actually do the opposite of helping you survive, Dr. Rawls says. The chemical and hormonal shifts it causes are so damaging because they impact your health, body functions, and the rate of aging on multiple fronts.
How Your Coping Mechanisms Backfire
Because hormones act as messengers in the body, when stress throws off your body’s hormonal balance, it disrupts cellular communication and messaging systems. This in turn stresses and disrupts functioning in all 10 trillion of your cells, Dr. Rawls explains, and the subsequent fallout is what speeds the aging process in the following ways.
Mitochondria are the intracellular organelles that produce the energy your cells need to live and function. This process of generating energy creates a molecular byproduct called free radicals.
Under healthy circumstances, your body deals with the free radicals with little problem. But when you’re chronically stressed and mitochondria are pushed too hard to produce energy, they create an excess of free radicals that can cause mitochondrial damage and, eventually, total mitochondrial burnout. Excess free radicals from outside sources (poor diet; pollutants and other toxins) compound the problem and accelerate mitochondrial burnout.
Unfortunately, when a cell’s mitochondria burn out, the cell can no longer replicate itself, and so it dies. “Mitochondrial burnout is aging in a nutshell, and stress accelerates that decline,” says Dr. Rawls.
There’s always some degree of inflammation in your body, no matter how healthy and chill you are. It’s how your body does repairs and makes way for new cells and tissue: White blood cells produce free radicals that cause inflammation to break down and eradicate old, worn out cells and tissue and to clean up cellular and microbial debris. Think of it like a controlled burn to clean out the gunk in the pipes under your sink, Dr. Rawls says.
“But stress can push inflammation from a controlled burn to an out-of-control, land-decimating forest fire,” he says. “It sends a signal to white blood cells that they need to create more free radicals, and when you’ve got more free radicals, more breakdown occurs than is normal or necessary, and healthy tissue gets the collateral damage.”
Making things worse, the additional breakdown of tissues creates more debris that needs to be cleaned up by — you guessed it — free radicals and inflammation. “It’s a vicious cycle that continues to damage healthy tissue and cells and accelerates the aging process.”
A Compromised Immune System
Your immune system depends on a sophisticated network of messages, signaling, and communication between cells to function optimally. But stress disrupts cellular communication by shifting the balance of hormones, which directly impacts how your immune system behaves and responds.
“If the immune system isn’t talking to itself, and there’s poor communication between cells, then the microbes that live in tissues throughout the body are allowed to flourish,” Dr. Rawls says. These microbes also break down tissue to use it for resources and survival, further increasing the degree of inflammation and speeding aging.
A Disrupted HPA Axis
Stress and stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are regulated by what’s called the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis, which also plays a role in controlling and monitoring circadian rhythms, hunger signals, blood glucose levels, and more. When you’re in a chronically stressed state, the HPA axis becomes preoccupied with managing stress, and other functions slow down or are thrown out of whack.
For example, when your body senses stress, the HPA axis helps send out a signal that you need high-energy food (a.k.a., carbohydrates) to deal with the stressor. That can lead to sugar cravings, so you load up on simple carbs like baked goods, packaged treats, and sugary drinks.
While the occasional high-carb treat is fine, consuming excess sugar over time can contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance, and it can impact your immune system and ability to fight off viruses and microbes. Not only does this contribute to disease, it adds even more stress to cells and mitochondria, stoking the fire of inflammation and causing mitochondria to burn out faster.
A high-sugar diet also causes a process called glycation. “Glucose sticks to collagen and elastin, which serve as support structures in the body, causing them to break down,” Dr. Rawls says. This concept is easiest to visualize in the skin, which has a lot of collagen. Glycation weakens collagen, which ages skin and contributes to wrinkles.
Sleep issues can also occur as a result of stress-related disruptions in the HPA axis. And that can be especially problematic when it comes to aging, because sleep is vital for managing stress. “Sleep is also when your body handles a lot of basic repairs,” Dr. Rawls says. “If those aren’t happening, your body will age and break down faster.”
6 Natural Ways to Stop and Reverse the Aging Effects of Stress
Priority number one: Address the major sources of chronic stress in your life. If you — like most people — can’t just up and quit your jobs or stop worrying about big concerns like medical issues on a dime, consider talking to a therapist or devising a long-term plan for minimizing the most stressful triggers in your life.
Those things take time, of course, and in the meantime, there are other, more immediate ways to better manage stress, repair the damage done, and reset the rate at which your body is aging. Here are six of the most powerful aging decelerators.
1. Move More.
Exercise is about the closest thing you can get to a miracle antidote for stress and all its nasty side effects. It produces endorphins that help clear your mind, reduces stress on cells, and normalizes stress hormones like adrenaline. The key is to not go too hard.
“If you’re really stressed, difficult and exhausting workouts aren’t always going to work,” Dr. Rawls says. “For example, some people try to deal with a very stressful life by training for marathons, but that’s just adding stress to an already stressed body.”
A better idea: Engage in light to moderate physical activity — and lots of it. This might mean that you walk more, garden regularly, do some yoga poses or stretching throughout the day, and/or bike around town. Aim to spend a few hours total throughout the course of the day simply moving your body, Dr. Rawls says.
Research has shown time and again the youthfulness-promoting power of physical activity. For example, in a recent study comparing older adults who are lifelong exercisers to sedentary adults, exercisers didn’t show many of the common hallmarks of aging that nonexercisers did, such as loss of strength and muscle mass, plus their body fat, cholesterol, and testosterone levels remained steady. The active adults also made as many specialized immune system cells called T cells as younger adults.
As far as managing stress, studies show exercise helps buffer the physical and mental effects of chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. Case in point: Chronic stress can weaken connections in the brain and have a direct impact on memory, but a moderate exercise routine seemed to protect those connections and brain function in a study in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.
Other research in the journal PLoS ONE found that women who exercised and were stressed had longer telomeres compared to women who were stressed and didn’t exercise. These tiny caps on the ends of DNA seem to predict longevity.
2. Prioritize Sleep.
Sleep is essential for effectively managing stress and reducing its aging effects on your body. At night, while you doze, your body goes to work repairing itself.
What’s tricky is that high levels of stress hormones disrupt sleep, and when you can’t sleep, it adds to your stress. That no-sleep, high-stress combo can be a literal killer, aging you and your systems fast.
One of the best natural ways to break the vicious cycle of stress and sleeplessness is by ensuring good sleep hygiene, which starts long before you start getting ready for bed. For example, avoid caffeine starting at midday, and get some of that moderate exercise recommended in step 1, above.
“Exercise generates adenosine, which is the chemical that builds up in your brain as the day goes on and helps initiate sleep,” Dr. Rawls says. At night, make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool. And keep the same sleep-wake schedule throughout the week.
Sleep-supporting, calming herbs such as bacopa, passionflower, motherwort, and cannabidiol (CBD) from hemp can also be helpful. Full-spectrum CBD oil is especially useful for both sleeplessness and stress: A new study in The Permanente Journal found that after a month of taking 25 mg of CBD per day, 79% of patients experienced a reduction in anxiety, while two-thirds showed improved sleep scores.
3. Balance the Stress Response with Herbs.
“What’s really nice about herbs is that they’re not targeting or affecting only one neurotransmitter in the brain,” Dr. Rawls says. Instead, he says, herbs work on the brain as a whole.
“Comparatively, [anti-anxiety] pharmaceutical drugs usually only ping GABA receptors, which can be highly habituating and cause problems,” explains Dr. Rawls. Why? Because when those drugs are used regularly, your body may reduce production of natural GABA, making you dependent on the medication.
One of the best herbs for chronic stress is ashwagandha. “It has a lot of different beneficial chemicals, some of which target the hypothalamus to balance the negative feedback it’s getting due to stress, which helps normalize cortisol,” Dr. Rawls says. “Ashwagandha also acts on the brain by affecting GABA receptors, which is calming.”
In fact, people who were chronically stressed and took ashwagandha supplements saw significantly lower levels of cortisol — an up to 30% reduction — compared to those taking a placebo, reports a study in the Journal of the American Neutraceutical Association. The ashwagandha group also had lower blood pressure and markers of inflammation.
Adaptogen mushrooms such as cordyceps and reishi also help balance the stress response and support healthy function of the adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones and play a role in your energy levels. These mushrooms also protect your immune system and have properties that may help boost energy and counter fatigue associated with physical or psychological stress, according to a review in the journal BioMed Research International.
4. Fill Up on Fiber-rich Fruits and Veggies.
Sticking to a healthy diet containing plenty of produce can help you manage the aging effects of stress. Not only do foods high in fiber like fruits and veggies keep inflammation in check, they also nourish the good bacteria in your gut and strengthen the gut barrier. That in turn helps reduce stress on cells and ease the burden on mitochondria. One study involving more than 65,000 adults found that those who ate the most produce had the lowest risk of dying of any cause during the follow-up period.
A healthy diet may also help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. A recent study in the Journal of Physiology found that animals given short-chain fatty acids — what your gut bacteria produce when digesting fiber — exhibited fewer behaviors linked to stress and anxiety.
Other research found that intake of raw fruits and veggies was associated with better mental health than processed produce, reports a study in Frontiers in Psychology. On the flip side, unhealthy diets (lots of French fries, fast food, and sugar, for example) are closely associated with feelings of psychological distress, new research from Loma Linda University finds.
5. Get Plenty of Omega-3s.
Along with fruit and veggies, consider adding more fatty fish like salmon and sardines to your diet or supplementing with krill oil to up your intake of omega-3s. These healthy fats do all sorts of good things: They’re antioxidants (which help undo free radical damage), they keep inflammation in check, and they have been linked with improved mood and longevity.
For example, a study in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that medical students who took omega-3 supplements showed a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms and lower markers of inflammation compared to the placebo group. In another study of 2,500 people, those with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids were 33% less likely to die during the study period compared to those with the lowest levels. In fact, omega-3 levels ended up being a better predictor of mortality than cholesterol levels.
6. Support Your Immune System and Mitochondria with Glutathione.
Immunity takes a major hit when you’re under stress. You may have noticed that during stressful times, you’re more likely to come down with a cold or take longer to recover from one, for example.
Glutathione not only helps support the white blood cells essential to a healthy immune system, it’s also a powerful antioxidant your body uses to help protect mitochondria and temper inflammation. Dr. Rawls recommends taking 675 mg, twice a day.
Chronic stress should not be a normal or necessary part of life. And if it is, truthfully, you can expect life to be shorter and harder. But with the right lifestyle habits and natural remedies, it’s never too late to reduce stress and slow or even reverse the course of stress-related aging effects.
That’s not to say that by taking these steps, you’ll never endure stress or hard times again. But overall, you’ll feel better mentally and physically, your days will seem more relaxed — and you’ll have a lot more of them to enjoy.
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