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How Stress Harms Your Health And Aging

Mary was a thirty-nine-year-old patient who visited me complaining she felt burned out.  Her sixty-hour workweeks left her beyond fatigued, with frequent headaches, miserable colds, and raging tension that cut into her sleep. On top of that, she confessed that lately life had become meaningless, which she attributed to an early midlife crisis, and her libido had hit an all-time low.

Her struggles are hardly unique. Studies show that many people experience burnout as a late-stage stress manifestation in the U.S.[1] as well as worldwide.[2]

Stress is unavoidable, rampant, and growing. In itself, it’s not bad. Under normal conditions, your body produces a brief surge of cortisol – the hormone released when you’re under stress—that benefits and protects you, but ideally only does so infrequently. For example, let’s say someone veers into your lane onto the freeway. You become hyper alert to avoid an accident. Then your cortisol returns to a normal level. When your cortisol functions properly and proportionally, so does your internal alarm system, and harmony prevails.

However, for many women like Mary, that cortisol surge never turns off. The scientific term for stressed out is hyperarousal.[3] Far too many of us struggle with the effects of unrelenting stress and hyper-vigilance. Simply put, chronic stress, thanks to cortisol-beyond-its-prime syndrome, causes accelerated aging.

Beyond hopelessness and irritation, the manifestations of chronic stress appeared around Mary’s waistline. She painfully discovered too much stress made her fat, especially around her belly – and not just because she sometimes nose-dived into a gooey pastry and a latte to assuage her feelings. But because belly-fat cells have four times more cortisol receptors than fat elsewhere in the body.[4]

Not all stress-triggered accelerated aging becomes so obvious. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, chronic stress can shorten your telomeres, damage your energy-producing mitochondria, and generally leave your energy levels stagnating while your brain fog kicks into overdrive.

Chronic stress also cut into Mary’s sleep, potentially paving the path for numerous problems including cognitive decline, organ dysfunction, and chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, chronic inflammation, and respiratory issues.[5]

Mary also experienced what a meta-analysis of three hundred empirical studies found: a relationship between psychological stress and immunity. Although acute stressors—those that last only minutes—enhance natural immunity, researchers found chronic stressors suppress the immune system.[6] More stress equals more sickness.

My friend Dr. Mark Hyman says that 95 percent of disease is either caused by or worsened by stress.[7] The American Institute of Stress reports that 75 to 90 percent of all visits to healthcare providers are connected to stress-related condition.[8]

Never underestimate the power of stress. As Mary discovered, life’s constant stressors can biochemically alter your body in ways not always obvious. What frequently gets overlooked is how chronic stress messes with your hormones, gut health, inflammation, and your genes. Take a look at seven stress-related issues that often go unnoticed. 

  1. Growth hormone. Excess stress—(that’s you, cortisol)—crashes growth hormone (GH) as you grow older.[9] GH decline accelerates aging, decreasing muscle mass, increasing in adipose tissue, reducing libido and energy, and declining gonadal function and plasma levels of sex steroids in both women and men. These downturns reduce circulating levels of insulin-growth factor 1, the main mediator of growth hormone activity.[10] Improved GH is what made my body fat lower, my waist thinner, and lean body mass higher (a key biomarker of de-aging). As part of its fabulousness, GH promotes a healthy metabolism, while boosting energy levels.[11] So yeah, HGH is among my hormone besties. (Want to learn more about my research into GH? Click here).
  2. Gut bacteria. Stress can disrupt the number and type of bacteria in the gut, adversely impacting immune function and overall health.[12] Gut bacteria regulate immune function, digestion, and absorption of essential nutrients; plus they outnumber human cells ten to one.[13] Gut flora gone bad create numerous nasties such as bacterial and fungal overgrowth, weight gain, impaired glucose metabolism, poor digestion and absorption, and a weakened immune system.[14]
  3. Insulin. Cortisol’s main job is to raise glucose levels. Even small increases in cortisol can raise blood sugar and increase insulin resistance, a condition where cells that get too much insulin can become resistant to it. Chronically high insulin creates a vicious cycle that adversely impacts other hormones, with seemingly no end in sight.[15] Insulin resistance accelerates age-related diseases, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. Growing older dials down insulin sensitivity. Defects in insulin action and an age-related reduction in beta cell response to glucose uptake increase inflammation and reduce GH. Put another way: Want to really accelerate aging? Create insulin resistance.[16]
  4. Thyroid. Chronic stress delivers a serious whammy to your thyroid because excess cortisol dysregulates thyroid function. In other words, your body’s response to chronic stress is poorly regulated so that cortisol is either too high or too low.[17] The result? Widespread disaster for your energy, weight, metabolism, and, well, pretty much everything.
  5. Sex hormones. Excessive cortisol decreases the hormones necessary for sexual desire and function, such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen. Plus, when your level of cortisol gets too high, it can block cells from getting progesterone, which calms you down.[18] This effect alone gets me motivated to lower stress!
  6. Chronic inflammation. Inflammation that sticks around past its prime makes you fat and contributes to nearly every disease on the planet.[19] If your body stays in a fight-or-flight mode, a chain reaction of inflammatory responses occurs that spells trouble on the scale and on your overall health.
  7. Telomeres. Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes. Size matters here: Shorter telomere length signifies poor health and mortality. Chronic stress creates oxidative damage and free radical production, aging at the cellular level and shortening telomeres.[20]

Everyone has his or her own ways to dial down stress. For Mary, that included burst training, yoga, deep breathing exercises, and redeveloping some lapsed friendships. She learned to say no and create boundaries at work. She made getting at least seven hours—I was pushing for eight—of quality sleep nightly a top priority. During our follow-up visit three weeks later, she appeared more relaxed and more able to “roll with things.” She had had sex twice during the past week and actually felt more “in the mood” for it. She’s a work in progress, but aren’t we all?

Who hasn’t struggled with stress? You obviously can’t eliminate it (if you’ve found a way, contact me a.s.a.p.), but I’d love to know what strategies you’ve implemented to reduce stress in your life and therefore slow down aging. You can learn tons more in my book, Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years. In the meantime, share your tips in the comment section below.

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