Stress and Aging: Is Your Stress Aging You?

 

You wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and ask yourself “why do my eyes look so tired? Have I put on weight or why am I losing weight drastically? Am I getting dark circles around my eyes? Do I look older than I really am?”
I am sure you can relate to these thoughts, and at some point (more than once) you all have battled to answer these questions. We are aware of the negative connection between brain and stress, and how it can affect cognitive ability, but did you know that stress and aging are adversely related?

stress and aging

Stress and aging

Stress and Aging: What is stress?

Merriam-Webster has defined stress as:

“A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation”

It is evident that stress causes an imbalance in our body that affect the chemical balance. The effects of stress are not visible right away because they are more internal, but gradually if we are consistently stressed, we see it and we feel it. The adverse effects of stress alter our physical and mental state and the ramifications age us speedily causing avoidable problems in our lives.

Stress and Aging: Recognizing stress symptoms

We are living a robotic life, rushing to make our ends meet and complete our to-do lists for the day. Consequently, we strain ourselves to complete our lists, we juggle through our daily activities without pausing or taking a break to be aware of our internal or external state. Gradually, the rushing and the constant need to make things happen takes a toll on our lives and one day we find ourselves suffering signs of aging before we should.
Let’s answer a few questions to be aware of our stress levels:

1. Are you eating more than or less than usual?
2. Are you eating more than or less than usual?

3. Do you feel you are having anxiety or panic attacks?

4. Do you feel you have digestive problems?

5. Do you exercise regularly?

6. Are you experiencing frequent headaches?

7. Are you easily irritated recently?

8. Do you feel fatigue often?

If you have answered ‘YES’ to most of the questions, you are already dealing with stress and it’s time for you to take control of your life before it is too late.

Stress and aging

We now understand that stress and aging go hand in hand and there is an increase in the aging process. However, we are unaware of the science behind it.

The National Institute on Aging (NIH) have provided us with an insight on the connection between stress, body, and aging. According to NIH, stress has the ability to consume the energy produced by our food intake. Our food helps us to produce energy that is required for breathing, blood circulation, and other internal functions. Additionally, the combination of producing energy from food and respiration, allows our body to retain the glucose and oxygen levels. This process is called as metabolism, a term we have heard and used many times when we relate it to our weight gain or loss. However, through many studies and research, we are now conscious that when we are in a state of stress, our metabolism is altered and it goes through a process of metabolic stress. The metabolic stress further affects our internal organs, immune system, and normal body regulation. The negative effect that our body goes through is directly related to Glutathione (GSH) levels.

Stress and Aging: How can GSH lead to aging

Glutathione (GSH) is an antioxidant that provides protection to cells from many forms of stress.

Let’s analyze GSH major functions and its connection with stress and aging:

  • GSH is responsible for regulating protein and cell growth in our bodies.
  • Increasing the functions of the immune system required to fight diseases.
  • GSH is a powerful antioxidant that shields the cells against free radical damage.
  • Maintains the strength of the cell membranes. (read more about parts of the brain)
  • When you are stressed even if it’s a mild, your body has the ability to decrease GSH levels.

It has also been known that lower levels of GSH are responsible for accelerating the aging process.

We now know that stress has the ability to reduce GSH levels in our body and lower GSH levels negatively affect our biological aging system. In addition, we also have established that alteration in GSH levels affect our metabolism and our immune system which causes health related problems that also further the aging process well before it’s natural time.

If you’ve seen a picture of President Obama in 8 years ago and today, you would easily be able to see the aging. Scientists believe that heads of state actually age faster than the rest of the population due to chronic high stress. Take a look at the video below to learn more.

Stress and Aging: Reducing stress to reduce aging

One way of reducing effects of stress and aging is by making better choices for our body, mind, and soul. It has been known that excess stress causes fatigue which encourages people to make unhealthy life choices such as eating junk food, low physical activity, smoking and excess alcohol intake. Unhealthy habits have an effect on the body both internally and externally. For example, doctors have provided us with facts that state that tobacco smoking destroys collagen and elastin in the body. Collagen and elastin are essential for the elasticity of our skin, reduce levels of either one of the chemicals in the body causes wrinkles.

Stress and Aging: How to Avoid stress and reduce aging

Stress and aging are highly linked. The Spectrum is a book authored by Dr. Dean Ornish which highlights his study on reversing the rate of stress and aging. According to the study, stressed participants were asked to consume a diet high in plant food, a 30-minute physical exercise (6 days a week), yoga, meditation, and joining support groups for three months. It was observed towards the end of three months, stress levels were reduced and chromosomes alteration that increases our biological aging had improved by 10%. Dr. Ornish also mentions that stress damages the cells that speed our aging process. To reduce stress and reversing cell alterations all we need to do is make small adjustments in our daily lifestyles.

1) Stress and aging: Be aware of what’s important: First and foremost it is essential to prioritize your life. Make a list of things that need to be done in order, from the most important to least important. Categorize your list, know it is OK if you can’t finish your list today. And the most important thing to remember what has gone is passed, you are in the present time and that is important.

2) Stress and aging: Exercise: Physical activity of any kind helps our body to stay fit both mentally and physically. Your stress levels might be making you lethargic and demotivating you to make an effort. But still, motivate yourself to go for a workout or even just a short walk in the morning. According to Anxiety and Depression Association Of America (ADAA), the effect of stress on our brain and nerve connections (parts of the brain), impact the overall body. Hence, physical exercise is a must for our mind and body to feel fresh and fit. Physical activity helps our body to produce endorphins, which are considered to be natural painkillers, help us sleep better which in turn reduce our stress levels. Many studies have also shown that exercising increases the immune system, improves focus and enhances cognitive functions. Make regular exercise a top priority in your to-do list, join a gym, scientists have found that even a five-minute aerobic exercise can reduce stress in our body.

Tips for how to start working out

3) Stress and aging: Yoga: Why is Yoga important? According to Mayo Clinic, Yoga is about balancing the mental and physical state of our body. It enhances our awareness and helps us in calming our body and mind which reduces our stress levels.

4) Stress and aging: Meditation/Mindfulness: Our body goes through chemical reactions when we are in stress. These chemical reactions affect our metabolism that further cause imbalance in our body. To maintain a positive balance it is important that we are aware of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self. Recent studies have suggested that Meditation or Mindfulness helps us maintain the chemical balance that we require to maintain our stress levels. Also in a study by D.r D.H Kim and colleagues, it was noted that Nitric Oxide (NO) is processed by the body through some complex reactions. NO helps the blood flow in our body, however, stress has the ability alter NO in our body and cause disturbances in the blood flow. D.r Kim furthered his study to provide evidence that meditation helps with the increase of NO in our body that helps our physical state. Therefore, practicing meditation helps reduce stress and helps us live a healthy and longer life.

How can mindfulness change your brain?

Stress and aging

Stress and aging

5) Stress and aging: Eat well: Yes! Eating well plays a huge role in reducing stress levels and increasing our GSH levels that have an effect on our aging. Add color to your plate, increase your intake of fresh vegetables and fruits. Even though all vegetables have the ability to increase your GSF levels, however, cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussel sprouts etc. are the richest source of Glutathione.

6) Stress and aging: Get the sleep you need: American Psychological Association have reported essential facts in relation to sleep and stress levels. It has been stated that adults who receive less than eight hours of sleep have higher stress levels. In addition, it was also reported that 45% of adults feel more stressed because of reduced and disturbed sleeping patterns. Therefore, there is an adverse connection between sleeping and stress levels. A calm and peaceful mind helps you relax and sleep better and further reduces your stress levels. Suffering from insomnia? See more about brain training for insomnia 

Dr. Epel, a specialist in stress and aging, has a few other tips to help you cope and reduce stress.

It’s easy to get worked up and get stressed from our daily activities but taking a step back will help us balance ourselves in a more peaceful manner which will positively enhance our health and our aging process. There is nothing more essential than you and your health.

Puja is a 2nd year Child and Human Developmental Psychology student at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City. She also has a B.A in Speech and Language Sciences and has gained experience within the field from London, U.K.
Puja is very passionate about making a difference and spreading the awareness to educate the general public. Her goal is to reach out to as many people as she can, she strongly believes that education has the ability to cause a positive ripple effect.