How Stress Accelerates Aging
We know instinctively that chronic stress is bad for us. It keeps us awake at night, makes us cranky, and increases risky behavior. Less known is that stress causes lasting changes to how the body functions, making us old before our time.
For example, stress causes telomeres, the protective caps on the end of DNA to shrink, resulting in cells losing their ability to divide further. Telomere length is associated with longevity—shorter telomeres are linked with greater disease risk and premature death.
Changes to telomeres are just the tip of the ice berg. Stress accelerates aging in every system in the body, altering hormone levels, affecting bone, muscles, and fat tissue, and encouraging the development of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
Unfortunately, studies show that stress may be more harmful as we age. This might surprise you since it seems logical that we would reach midlife with well-honed coping skills. However, due to a combination of physiological changes, older individuals may not cope with stress as well as they did in their younger years.
One example is how hormonal changes that occur with menopause impact women’s ability to handle stress. Estrogen and progesterone, the two hormones that regulate a women’s cycle, have a protective effect against the stress hormone cortisol. After menopause, women’s bodies become more stress reactive and they suffer a greater release of cortisol in response to physical and mental challenges. This has a variety of negative effects that accelerate aging and contribute to a poorer quality of life.
What Happens To The Body Under Stress?
When the body suffers stress, either physical (skipping breakfast, working out) or mental (fighting with a spouse, being stuck in traffic), our adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol. The primary function of cortisol is to convert fuel stores in the muscle and liver into glucose to give the body the extra energy it needs to overcome a challenging experience.
In hunger-gatherer times, stress was usually a result of hunger, starvation, or being attacked by a predator. The elevation in cortisol helped humans to survive food shortages or to escape a life-threatening danger.
Today, stress is an all-the-time experience and our bodies are constantly pumping out cortisol, accelerating the aging process and increasing physical ailments and illness. What follows is a list of some of the most harmful aging-related effects of high cortisol.
Obesity & Excess Belly Fat
Think of your favorite “comfort food.” It’s probably a high-carbohydrate, high-fat food like pizza, grilled cheese, berry pie, or a burger and fries. These are all foods that lead to a high release of the hormone insulin, which is a cortisol antagonist. As insulin goes up, cortisol and stress go down. Your comfort food cravings serve as a protective mechanism against cortisol and stress.
Unfortunately, high cortisol stimulates appetite, so that we often eat too much of our favorite comfort foods and end up gaining body fat. Elevated cortisol encourages the body to store fat in the abdominal area—what is known in everyday parlance as “belly fat.” Belly fat is especially harmful because it is metabolically active, releasing inflammatory compounds that contribute to heart disease and initiate cellular aging.
Neurodegeneration & Alzheimer’s
Excess stress negatively affects the brain in several ways. First, it causes depression and anxiety due to the fact that the body uses the same raw materials to produce cortisol as it does the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. The target of many popular anti-depressant medications nowadays, serotonin has anti-stress effects—it’s calming and promotes fullness and satisfaction around meals.
Stress also directly impacts the function of brain cells. Although an acute spike of cortisol may enhance cognition, chronically high cortisol accelerates the aging of brain cells and plays a role in development of Alzheimer’s disease, possibly due to how it affects blood glucose levels. Additionally, aging is associated with a loss of cortisol receptors in the brain, which leads the adrenal glands to release more cortisol in an effort to get a “response.” This may be responsible for the higher levels of cortisol in older people.
Increased Diabetes Risk
Diabetes is a disease whereby cells don’t respond efficiently to the hormone insulin, leading to high blood sugar levels and the development of inflammation. Scientists are still trying to pin down exactly how it develops but we do know that it appears to be caused by obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.
There are a couple of different ways chronic stress contributes to diabetes. As discussed above, high cortisol stimulates food intake making it easy to overshoot calorie needs and gain body fat. In addition, high cortisol makes us lazy, so we are more inclined to hang out on the couch than engage in physical activity. Cortisol also makes muscles and cells resistant to insulin, triggering blood sugar imbalances, which over time, contribute to the development of diabetes
Greater Risk of Heart Disease
There’s a reason people say, “Calm down or you’re going to have a heart attack.” For years, scientists have known that stress increases both risk of developing heart disease as well as risk of dying of a heart attack. Newer research shows that high cortisol causes the release of immune cells that increase the accumulation of fatty “plaque” deposits inside blood vessels. If plaque breaks loose from the walls where it is lodged, is can cause more extreme blockages elsewhere, leading to a stroke or heart attack.
Excess stress also impacts blood pressure, causing constriction of blood vessels and increasing the effort the heart must exert with each beat. Not only does this have a detrimental effect on your cardiovascular system, but high blood pressure impacts everything from walking speed to the appearance of wrinkles in aging skin.
Loss of Muscle and Bone
In athletes, cortisol has a notoriously bad reputation for its ability to inhibit muscle growth and delay recovery from exercise. Cortisol also leads to bone loss by breaking down bone to free amino acids for use as an energy source. Cortisol also blocks calcium absorption, which decreases bone cell growth. Even a short bout of elevated cortisol is associated with a decrease in bone mineral density and high cortisol levels over the long term are associated with a high prevalence of osteoporosis in the elderly.
What Can You Do To Combat The Aging Effects of Stress?
Good news is that there are several ways to combat the destructive effects of stress. Exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle factors all play a large role. I like to use a combination of habits that I practice every day to keep my stress at manageable levels combined with a few game-changing stress relievers that I save for when the going gets really tough.
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