Holidays. Family Responsibilities. Economic downturn. Demanding jobs or unemployment. Health concerns. Stress has become a common part of American lives.
Holidays. Family Responsibilities. Economic downturn. Demanding jobs or unemployment. Health concerns. Stress has become a common part of American lives. Some sources of stress are out of one's control. The 2015 Stress in America™ survey found a greater percentage of adults reporting extreme levels of stress than in 2014. Overall, adults are reporting that stress is negatively impacting their mental and physical health.
The report also reveals that a considerable amount of adults feel they are not doing enough to manage their stress.
Well, the adults have a point there. Life's stressors can accumulate over time and they can accelerate the aging of our cells (more on what "cellular aging" is and how it can affect you later in this article). Thankfully, a study from UC San Francisco is the first to show that a healthy lifestyle (including a healthy diet, exercise, and sufficient sleep) can lessen the damaging effects of stress.
Your Cells Under Stress
What exactly happens when stress cuts into our cells? Recent research shows that chronic stress is linked with shorter telomeres.
What are telomeres? At the ends of DNA strands are these protective caps that affect how quickly cells age. These are tiny bundles of DNA and proteins that protect the ends of chromosomes and help them stay stable. We like to think of them like the plastic caps at the tips of shoe laces that help shoelaces stay intact.
If these telomeres shorten, which they do as we age and also as we stress, their structure weakens, the cells age, and the cells die quicker or they become pro-inflammatory. Numerous recent studies reveal that shortened telomeres are related to many age-related diseases, including obesity, stroke, dementia, osteoporosis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and many different types of cancer.
Stress Damage Control
In one study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, 239 postmenopausal, nonsmoking women were followed. Researchers closely examined three behaviors - physical activity, dietary intake, and sleep quality - as well as reports of stressful events over the course of 12 months. Blood samples were taken at the beginning and end of the 1-year study to measure telomere length.
Results revealed that women who had less healthy behaviors - less exercise, less sleep, less nutrition - had a significantly greater decline in the length of immune cell telomeres. Women who had active lifestyles, healthy diets, and better quality sleep did not show greater telomere shortening despite being exposed to similar levels of stress as the women whose telomeres shrotened greatly.
While these results are purely observational, they do bring out several notable points. Stressful events in as little as one year can have such a significant impact on the length of telomeres, shortening them and rendering them less stable and less likely to protect cells from aging and death.
The good news these results bring is that staying active, eating well, and sleeping sufficiently during periods of high stress can help reduce the cellular damage stress can cause.
2015 Stress in America Snapshot. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2015/snapshot.aspx
Molecular Psychiatry (2015) 20, 529–535.