When you are stressed, you certainly do not look (and feel) good! Stress has always been linked to unhealthy aspects such as a sleeplessness, obesity, heart diseases, upset digestive system, compromised immunity, impaired central nervous system and premature aging! Aging signs and symptoms like wrinkles and Grey hair develop due to stress but do we have some scientific proof about stress affecting aging process as a whole, right at your DNA level? Yes, there have been certain studies about stress and aging. And what have they established? Read for yourself!
Stress Releases the ‘Stress Hormone’ Cortisol
A hormone called cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands during the hours of sudden crisis such as accidents, physical assaults or even emotional losses or setbacks. It gives a boost to your various body functioning like blood pressure and immune system so that you can be able to fight off the crisis. It is a good thing but only when it is occasional. If you are always in a ‘combat mode’ (read stressful situation), you will need this cortisol or stress hormone almost all of the times. Chronically higher levels of cortisol for longer periods of time eliminate its all goodness and give rise to such problems as insomnia, weight gain, suppressed immunity and irregular heart beats and sugar levels. Chronic stress and high cortisol levels also lead to shorter telomeres that are indicative of premature aging. Now let’s understand how shorter telomeres are related to aging.
Shortened Telomeres = Shorter Life
What are these telomeres? Telomeres refer to the caps at the ends of chromosomes just like the plastic caps at the end of shoe laces (this comparison is just to have an imaginary picture of telomeres). Chromosomes, as you must be knowing, are the molecules that carry our genes. These telomeres keep our DNA strands together. Each time when a cell gets divided, telomeres get shorter. This is a natural process. When we age naturally, telomeres keep on getting shorter. And a time comes when they get so short that cells can no longer get divided and they die. This is why, with aging our muscles get weaker, there are wrinkles on our skin, our eyesight and hearing also get weakened, organs start failing and our brain also gets sluggish as our thinking ability diminishes. Now this is all a natural process. But how does cortisol or the stress hormone affect these telomeres?
Chronic stress can also shorten telomeres. Telomeres do wear down over time but stress speeds up this process. What is more worrying is that even when you anticipate stress, you are accelerating the aging process of your cells by making the telomeres short. Isn’t there any mechanism to stop the shortening of telomeres or to make them lengthier again? Yes, we have the enzyme called telomerase which helps in building telomeres again.
How does Telomerase Help Rebuild Telomeres?
Telomerase, also known as telomere terminal transferase, is an enzyme which elongates chromosomes. The activity of telomerase is regulated during development but body cells do not use telomerase often. As the cells do not regularly use telomerase, they tend to age. However, if telomerase is activated in the cell, it will keep on growing and get divided. It should also be noted that telomerase levels decline with age and this is yet again a natural process. So, are there any ways through which we can activate telomerase and help rebuild telomeres so that our age gets reversed?
Can Telomerase be Activated to Reverse Aging?
Nothing is still completely known as to whether telomere damage can be totally reversed or not. Many researches have been conducted and many more are being done regarding activation of telomerase. However, there are certain test-tube findings that show telomeres can be lengthened with certain manipulations. Certain foods and supplements are said to activate telomerase such as Silymarin from milk thistle, TA-65 from astragalus, ginkgo biloba etc. However, what is known exactly is that free radicals, stress, as well as sleep deprivation, all contribute to the shortening of telomeres. Here we come to our original point of discussion- how does stress affect aging!
Stress and Aging
From the above discussion, it is clear that stress contributes to the shortening of telomeres and thus leads to premature aging. Many studies have shown that psychological sufferings like stress or perceived stress, depression, anxiety, trauma etc, can shorten telomeres and push you towards aging a bit faster than you are destined to. However, it is still not clear how stress actually shortens telomeres. It might be due to high levels of cortisol hormone and oxidative stress. Oxidative stress refers to disturbed balance between the production of free radicals (reactive oxygen species) and antioxidant defenses. Certain laboratory studies have shown that cortisol and oxidative stress can dampen down and shorten telomeres.
How can you Protect Telomeres from Shortening?
Some studies have shown association between the length of telomeres and certain lifestyle factors like exercising, stress, nutrition etc. Laboratory tests have also shown, as we discussed earlier, telomerase can slow down shortening of telomeres and can even reverse the process. A study has stated the below factors that have shown to protect the telomeres from getting shortened. These factors can even lengthen the telomeres.
- Low fat diet
- Having less processed food and meat.
- Having less red meat
- Dietary supplements to activate telomerase
Vigorous exercises 4-5 times a week. This may include:
- Brisk walk
- Any exercise that makes you sweat and increases your heart rate
- Any other way that reduces stress.
Certain Natural Products
- Milk Thistle
- Ginkgo Biloba
If you are overweight,losing weight and reducing waist circumference can contribute in telomerase activation.
In short, you need to enhance your overall wellbeing by reducing stress and depression and by increasing your sense of self control over your own life which may include having a purpose in life. All this can go a long way in activating your telomerase and in turn slowing down your aging process.