4 Solutions to Chronic Stress You Should Know

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Chronic stress can lead to premature aging and disease

Stress is a natural reaction to the things we experience in our daily lives, which leads to both physical and mental responses. The ability to be acutely stressed out can save us from stepping off the curb and being hit by a car, or avoid a similarly dangerous situation. Your ears perk up, your heart rate and breath quicken, and your muscles tense up; you're ready to react.

This primordial response goes back to our ancestral days living in the savannas where you'd have to make a split-second decision to either fight off a tooth-baring animal or make a run for it; sometimes, this reaction is referred to as a "fight or flight" response.

Nowadays, the stressful situations we're in look a little bit different - traffic jams, upsetting news stories, overbearing bosses, fights with spouses, money trouble. However, the biological stress response we experience is still the same.

While our ancestors would experience a short-term stress response, in this day and age, our stress never really goes away. This chronic stress is a major cause of several chronic health diseases and premature aging, on both a cellular and physical level. When we are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, every organ and system in our bodies are affected. And it all comes down to cortisol.

Chronic Stress: The Basics

Cortisol is our main stress hormone, and it's released by the adrenal glands. While this chemical is a natural part of your endocrine system, cortisol can become dangerous when its levels are constantly peaked.

When our fight-or-flight system gets engaged, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands to release cortisol to give you that burst of energy you need to be on high alert. After that happens, though, it can take hours for some people's metabolism to return to normal levels after a stressful event, which may result in an elevated stress response all day long.

Other than stress, many other things can lead to cortisol being elevated throughout the day, including:

  • Excessive or long-term caffeine consumption
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Prolonged physical stress
  • Exercising too intensely.

If you're one of the 77% of Americans who experience the symptoms of stress on a regular basis, keep reading to find out just how much it's affecting your health and aging process, and what you can do today to reduce your stress levels.

How Chronic Stress Ages You

Chronic stress can prematurely age you on both the inside and the outside. From the inside, for instance, our telomeres are affected by chronic stress. Telomeres are the "end caps" to our chromosomes that protect them from degradation; their lengths are commonly used as a proxy for biological aging.

While chronological age is based on your birth date, your biological age (physiological age) can be altered and can be approximated by telomere length. Commonly analogized as the plastic tip covering the end of a shoelace, you can easily imagine the degradation of telomeres, and how it could affect the underlying "shoelace" (your chromosomes), should these "caps" become too short and can no longer protect chromosomes.

Telomeres are the protective end caps of chromosomes that shorten with cellular age

The enzyme telomerase is a primary contributor to maintaining and protecting telomere length. Chronic stress and high cortisol are a significant contributor to lowered telomerase activity, thus leading to shorter telomeres, reduced cellular lifespan, and premature aging.

Telomeres shorten with each cellular division; when they reach the end of their "shoelace," cells enter a senescent state in which they irreversibly stop dividing.

A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in March 2017 found that those who produced more cortisol in response to stress testing had both shorter telomeres and quicker telomere attrition than those who were considered "non-responders" to cortisol after two years of follow-up. The difference in telomere length between the two groups was equivalent to two years of biological aging.

Chronic stress also shows itself on a physical level. You're not just imagining that your stressful job is causing gray hair - it actually can! It also shows up on our skin with increased wrinkles, decreased elasticity, and increased thinness. Aged skin has higher amounts of senescent cells, which indicates shorter telomeres.

How to Reduce Chronic Stress

1. Mindful Meditation

Meditation and mindfulness can lower cortisol and chronic stress

Although meditation is becoming increasingly popular, it's actually been utilized for centuries to calm down the nervous system and maintain a relaxed state. Mind-body practices, including meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga, are all great ways to reduce cortisol and chronic stress.

Not only do these relaxation techniques feel good, but they can actually slow down aging. Research has shown that meditation has beneficial effects on maintaining telomere lengths and reducing the arousal states associated with the stress response. A specific type, transcendental meditation, can change brain connectivity between areas that play a role in modulating emotions, including anxiety and stress.

Similarly, a yoga practice can provide benefits for both stress reduction and aging. A study published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity in September 2017 found that a 12-week yoga and meditation program led to significant reductions in cortisol and markers of inflammation and oxidative stress, while levels of telomerase activity, sirtuin-1, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels were significantly increased, all of which indicate that cellular aging was reduced.

If you don't want to develop a full-on meditation practice, regular deep breathing can give you similar benefits. Also known as relaxation response techniques, such practices can lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and turn off the adrenaline-pumping side of the fight-or-flight response. Try breathing in through your nose for four seconds, holding your breath at the top for seven seconds, then breathing out through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat until you're relaxed!

2. Regular Exercise

Getting adequate physical activity can keep your stress levels down over time, although higher-intensity exercise does spike cortisol in the short term. If you have issues with high cortisol, you may want to stick to more gentle exercises, like walking, biking, or swimming.

A study published in PLoS One in November 2011 found that patients with coronary heart disease who had low physical fitness had two-fold greater odds of having telomere lengths in the lowest quartile, compared to those who had high physical fitness, as measured by a treadmill test.

Maintaining good physical activity levels is also important for other aspects of aging, like preventing sarcopenia (muscle wasting) and frailty, while maintaining cardiorespiratory and cognitive health, as detailed in this February 2015 review published in Rejuvenation Research.

3. Eat Right

A healthy diet builds a solid foundation for mood stabilization, stress reduction and healthy aging. It's well-known that a diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables can improve health, due to their high amounts of antioxidants, polyphenols, and dietary fiber.

Maintaining balanced blood sugar throughout the day can stabilize mood. You can achieve this by limiting added sugars and processed foods while focusing on healthy fats and protein. Even though you may want to reach for the cookies or ice cream when you're feeling stressed out, those foods can make things worse when you get a blood sugar spike followed by a steep crash.

Make sure to include omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, which are found in oily fish, like salmon and sardines, or in supplemental form. A November 2018 study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that lower levels of omega-3 fats in the blood were linked to higher levels of cortisol and inflammatory markers.

In terms of what you drink, you may want to ditch the caffeine. While coffee does have some benefits, like antioxidants, caffeine can be a big trigger for increasing cortisol and stress levels. If you're prone to feeling stressed out or anxious, try eliminating all caffeine to see if your emotional stress symptoms improve.

4. Get Quality Sleep

Sleep deprivation - both in the short- and long-term - has many associations to worsening health, including increased stress and signs of aging. Stress and sleep are a closely linked vicious cycle, as poor sleep can lead to more stress and high stress can lead to poor sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, try not using technology like smartphones, computers, or TV for two hours before bed, utilize meditation and deep breathing techniques, eliminate caffeine and keep your bedroom pitch black once you go to bed.

Your Takeaway

  • Chronic stress can lead to high cortisol levels, which speed up the aging process by shortening telomeres, the end caps that protect our chromosomes.
  • High cortisol and stress levels can reduce immunity, increase aging of the skin and graying of hair, and contribute to chronic disease.
  • Reduce chronic stress by meditating or doing relaxation techniques, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, limiting caffeine, and getting plenty of sleep.
Show references

Daily Life. The American Institute of Stress website. https://www.stress.org/daily-life

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