Stress is a normal part of life. From a quick surge of tension from work that subsides quickly to those months and years of lingering fearfulness – we all have had those moments at some point in our lives.
However, beyond what we perceive about stress, a psychological, mental, or emotional strain may cause more detrimental consequences to our overall health if it persists for a long time. This finding came to light as scientists discovered that stress might shorten our biological clock and accelerate the aging process.
This article provides a comprehensive overview of the destructive effects of stress on health and aging, how stress is the silent accomplice in age-related diseases, and how to slow down aging at a cellular level through stress management.
Aging is Faster Under Stress – Learn How to Slow Down Aging From Within
Stress Is Everywhere, but an Accumulation Makes It Worse
If truth be told, stress is present widely enough to accompany us in every stage of our lives. It is so boundless that even when we have tried everything to control it, it comes back, builds up, and smacks into our well-being.
However, the accumulation of stress over time aggravates its impact. If it does not fade away, it becomes chronic. Unfortunately, chronic stress is one of the biggest enemies of mental and overall health.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental crisis or receive a mental disease diagnosis. By the time a person reaches age 40, this number becomes 1 out of 2. Anywhere you go, stress is there to chase after you.
Stress also appears to be a big blow to how we age. According to a study by the Russian Academy of Sciences, chronic anxiety and accelerated aging have a connection.
Unlike our general belief, stress does not only cause us to get more signs of aging at a superficial level, such as wrinkles and fine lines. Instead, stress gets “under the skin,” placing us closer to a loss of physiological integrity through the hallmarks of aging.
How Does Chronic Stress Accelerate Biological Aging?
Telomere attrition and mitochondrial dysfunction are two of the nine hallmarks of aging, which refer to the biochemical changes occurring in an aging human. They explain why we age and experience impaired functionality with time.
The study by the Russian Academy of Sciences indicates that stress may cause people exposed to chronic stress to age at a faster rate by the following mechanisms:
Stress Damages the Telomere Structure
Telomeres are the DNA sequences at the tips of our chromosomes. They protect our chromosomes from being tangled or damaged when a cell divides. However, as we age, telomeres become shorter, making the cell unable to multiply, and eventually, the cell dies.
While telomere shortening is natural and every organism experiences it, stress further exacerbates the damage to the telomere structure. Research shows shorter telomeres are associated with psychological stress, including perceived and chronic stress.
Compared to those with low stress, those with higher levels have at least 10 years shorter telomeres. As a result, the entire structure may collapse when telomeres become critically short, leading to a DNA damage response that triggers senescence or apoptosis.
Stress Induces Mitochondrial Dysfunction
Mitochondria are the organelles that play a critical role in generating cellular energy. These “powerhouses” are where the ATP is generated. However, like telomeres, mitochondria experience dysfunction with age due to membrane degradation.
Research shows that psychological stress may adversely affect mitochondria by causing molecular and functional “recalibrations” among these organelles. Also, mitochondrial membranes can become swollen and distended under psychological tension.
Surprisingly, mitochondria are the only organelles that do not have telomeres. Also, the fact that mitochondria are more susceptible to damage than other organelles explains why they are more subject to damage due to aging and chronic stress.
Does Chronic Stress Affect Age-related Diseases?
Stress can be even more far-reaching than just causing us to be closer to aging. It can result in age-related diseases involving cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurological health.
Stress can increase inflammation, which causes high blood pressure and decreases “good” HDL cholesterol levels. For example, while high blood pressure can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, low HDL levels may make room for more “bad” LDL cholesterol to dominate, raising the threat of coronary artery disease.
Stress also stimulates the release of cortisol – the stress hormone. Because cortisol makes the arteries narrower by promoting the buildup of plaque deposits, the heart must pump harder and faster. Also, cortisol triggers the body’s tendency to overeat, contributing to higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Obesity and Diabetes
The link between chronic stress and obesity has long existed. For example, chronic stress can trigger “comfort eating,” which entails consuming excessive amounts of foods heavy in fat and sugar. This eating pattern results in weight gain and obesity.
Meanwhile, although stress alone does not cause diabetes, there is a clear connection between it and the disease. When under psychological tension, the body releases chemicals that stimulate the release of glucose, raising blood sugar levels.
High levels of stress hormones may also cause the pancreas’ insulin-producing cells to malfunction and produce less insulin. High stress can also result in unhealthy lifestyle choices, like smoking or drinking alcohol, raising a person’s risk of diabetes.
Stress is also associated with memory problems. For example, research shows that people who suffer from late-life depression are two times more likely to have dementia. Also, in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, patients who scored the highest for “distress proneness” were 2.7 times more likely to receive a dementia diagnosis.
On the other hand, increased stress exacerbates Alzheimer’s by speeding up the disease’s development. This two-directional relationship has been described as the “Vicious Cycle of Stress.” Accordingly, stress drives disease, and disease causes stress, which feeds back to speed up the disease development.
How to Slow Down Aging and Fight Stress at a Cellular Level
Protect the Telomere Structure
Telomere Protection by Nutrition
Research shows that telomere length is inversely correlated with a diet of alcohol, red meat, processed meat, and sugary drinks but positively with legumes, nuts, seaweed, and fruits.
While understanding the effects of particular foods is vital, understanding how specific diets’ total nutrient content affects telomere length is even more crucial. For example, telomere length is negatively impacted by the typical Western diet, which includes a high intake of refined grains, red or processed meat, and sweetened beverages.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean diet can prevent telomere shortening and lower mortality risk in older people due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This diet contains a high amount of vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals, and fish, with a low amount of saturated fats but a high amount of unsaturated fats.
Telomere Protection by Physical Activity
Due to its stimulatory effects on the enzyme that maintains telomeres, exercise has been linked to longer telomere length and protection against age-related telomere attrition.
While higher levels of exercise may not produce extra advantages, moderate levels are sufficient to protect the integrity of telomeres. For example, a study compared the telomere length of 19 inactive people and 18 endurance runners and found no differences.
However, another study showed that a high-intensity cycling exercise (75% VO2 peak) increased telomere length more than a moderate-intensity exercise (50% VO2 peak) after the same duration. Another study investigated if the telomeres of older and younger people might respond to exercise differently and found a favorable outcome in the latter group.
Preserve Mitochondrial Function
Mitochondria Preservation by Nutrition
Research shows that CoQ10, α-lipoic acid plus acetyl-L-carnitine, resveratrol, and vitamin E are the best nutrients for supporting the mitochondria.
CoQ10 is highly recommended since it transports high-energy electrons. A deficiency results in electron loss, which leads to oxidative damage and lower ATP production. CoQ10 is also a powerful antioxidant that aids in the mitochondria’s protection against oxidative stress.
Meanwhile, acetyl-L-carnitine and α-lipoic acid can boost ATP generation. Also, while vitamin E protects mitochondria from oxidative stress, resveratrol stimulates ATP synthesis and helps remove β-amyloid from cells affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Mitochondria Preservation by Physical Activity
Research also shows that physical activity stimulates various pathways that facilitate the production of mitochondria in an intensity-dependent manner.
Mitochondria benefit from aerobic exercise or physical activity that uses oxygen and lasts for at least five minutes. The type of impact it has on mitochondria, however, will vary depending on the level of exercise. For example, a high-intensity workout increases the size of the mitochondria, while low-intensity exercise increases the number.
In contrast, anaerobic training, or training without oxygen (like a 60-second sprint), may not affect mitochondria because it does not involve the body’s energy-producing mechanisms. But this exercise may still be beneficial in an indirect way as it develops the muscles, which is crucial for enhancing the capacity for aerobic endurance.
Epel, E. et al. (2004). Accelerated Telomere Shortening in Response to Life Stress.
Pizzorno, J. (2014). Mitochondria: Fundamental to Life and Health.
Picard, M. and McEwen, B. (2018). Psychological Stress and Mitochondria: A Systematic Review.
Justice, N. (2018). The Relationship Between Stress and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Balan, E. et al. (2018). Physical Activity and Nutrition: Two Promising Strategies for Telomere Maintenance?
Yegorov, Y. et al. (2020). The Link Between Chronic Stress and Accelerated Aging.
Sorriento, D. et al. (2021). Physical Exercise: A Novel Tool to Protect Mitochondrial Health.
If you have questions about how to slow down aging or any health problems discussed here, connect with us and learn more.
At Peak Human, our team of healthcare professionals is dedicated to helping you reach your ‘peak’ health with a custom whole-person approach. Using the most cutting-edge, science-backed biohacking and aesthetic tools, technologies, and treatments available today, we help you achieve the highest physical/cognitive performance state, leading to an improved overall quality of life.
Don’t hesitate to contact us for questions or to book an appointment. Get personalized support and insight from expert physicians.