Every adult, and increasing numbers of children and adolescents, are familiar with stress. Merriam-Webster defines it succinctly as, “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc., or something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety”.
People encounter stress and stressful situations in almost all aspects of their lives, from work, to school to home life. What makes it ubiquitous is the way that stressors vary from one individual to another. What is considered a stressor to one person may not even register to another. For example, some people cannot handle running late, and a simple inconvenience like a traffic delay will cause their stress level to rise tremendously. Someone else in the same situation may relish the delay in the start of their workday, and not feel stressed about being stuck in traffic at all.
One thing that all of us have in common, regardless of the origin of our stress, is the body’s reaction to it. People can demonstrate a wide range of symptoms in reaction to stress. (1) These symptoms can be generally be grouped as physical, emotional, cognitive or behavioral. Physical symptoms of stress include aches and pains, loss of sex drive, frequent colds, nausea and dizziness. Emotional symptoms include feeling overwhelmed, moody, agitated or depressed. Cognitive symptoms can manifest as an inability to concentrate, racing thoughts, memory problems or poor judgment. Behavioral symptoms include changes in appetite or sleep patterns, isolation or attempts at self-medication via drugs or alcohol.
Stress and Aging
While these symptoms are familiar to many, there is emerging research that confirms stress can manifest itself in another way – aging. People have long complained of stress causing wrinkles or grey hair, now there is proof that those gripes are more than old wives’ tales. Some of the first studies linking stress and aging date back to 2004. New research has established a connection between stress and changes in human brains, bones, DNA and chemical structures.
In a study published in 2012, researchers examined over 2,900 Finnish men and women of working age, assessed their level of work-related stress and then determined their relative leukocyte telomere length. (2) Leukocyte telomere length is a possible measure for a cell’s biological age. Shorter telomere lengths have been found in several populations at risk for shortened lifespans including obese individuals, smokers and the elderly. They are associated with an increased risk of chronic age-related diseases like heart disease, stroke and cancer.
This study is significant because no one has previously made a link between work-related stress and telomere length. The researchers were able to establish that individuals who suffered from work-related exhaustion did manifest shorter telomere length. Although further study is warranted, this study does, “suggest that work-related exhaustion is related to the acceleration of the rate of biological aging.”
Another study, published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in 2012, links shortened telomeres with the anticipation of stress. (3) Dr. Elissa Epel and other researchers at the University of California looked at 50 women and evaluated their reactions to anticipated stressful activities like public speaking, the laboratory and in solving math problems. They found that those who were most threatened by the anticipated stresses had shorter telomeres. Notably, about half of the research subjects were caring for relatives with dementia, and these caregivers anticipated more threat than the subjects who were not caregivers. This suggests that chronically stressed individuals may be susceptible to cellular aging as a result of higher levels of anticipated threat in daily life.
Furthermore, stress and adrenal fatigue can cause people to make bad lifestyle choices that in turn further contribute to aging. As touched on above, people suffering from stress often seek to relieve their symptoms through smoking, drinking, the use of stimulants like caffeine, illicit drug use or overeating. Besides increasing the risk of mortality, these activities are known to make people look and feel older. Tobacco smoke alone contains over 4,000 chemicals that wreak havoc on the body internally and externally. These chemicals destroy collagen and elastin, which can lead to saggy skin and deeper wrinkles.
What Can Be Done To Reduce Cellular Aging?
In addition to establishing the links between stress and cellular aging, other recent studies have shown that the aging caused by stress can be reversed. In one case, a separate group of researchers from the University of California studied 35 men who had been diagnosed with localized early stage prostate cancer. (4) Ten of the test subjects were asked to incorporate lifestyle changes like moderate exercise (180 minutes of walking over 6 days per week), adopting a plant-based diet, participation in weekly support groups and stress-reduction activities like yoga and meditation. The remaining 25 subjects were not instructed to change their lifestyles.
Telomere length was again used as the measure of cellular aging. Over the 5-year study, researchers found that those men who undertook lifestyle changes increased their telomere length by 10 percent, a significant amount. These conclusions will also require further study. However, because researchers studied telomeres from the participant’s blood – and not from their prostate tissue – they are encouraged by the implications for the general public.
In the meantime Dr. Dean Ornish, lead researcher on the 5-year study, advocates that people adopt the lifestyle changes from the study. In a recent interview in Shape magazine, he recommended eating whole foods and taking up yoga. He also emphasized the importance of social connections, noting that, “A supportive community can help reframe the reason for making changes. You’re not doing it for fear of dying, which is not sustainable, but rather for the joy of living, which is.” The supportive community he is referencing can be created by spending time with friends, family and loved ones as a way to buffer stress.
Every one of us, whether we are under chronic stress and adrenal fatigue or not, should look to make lifestyle changes like exercising more, eating more healthily, adopting stress management techniques and improving our social connections. Also note that these measures have countless other benefits beyond simply reducing stress or slowing the aging process.
References and Further Reading
- HelpGuide.org. “Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes”. http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm.
- Ahola et al, 2012. “Work-Related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-Based Study”. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0040186
- O’Donovan et al, 2012. “Stress appraisals and cellular aging: a key role for anticipatory threat in the relationship between psychological stress and telomere length”. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22293459.
- Ornish et al, 2013. “Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study”. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045%2813%2970366-8/abstract.
- Shape Magazine, 2013. “Real Proof You Can Reverse Stress and Aging”. http://www.shape.com/blogs/shape-your-life/real-proof-you-can-reverse-stress-and-aging.