Stress Can Age Cells, But a Healthy Lifestyle Can Prevent It
If you research ways to relieve chronic stress, you’re almost certain to see three particular suggestions included over and over: get more sleep, eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise. Of course, these are great suggestions for overall health, whether or not chronic stress is a problem. But they are also great ways to counter some of the most common physical symptoms of stress, such as low energy levels, digestive problems, frequent infections and insomnia.
New research from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) now suggests that these three behaviors can help to counter physiological effects from stress that we are not aware of on a day to day basis. Specifically, the results of the study show that a healthy diet, regular sleep and exercise can help to slow the shortening of telomeres that in turn leads to cellular aging and cell death.
The UCSF study drew two main conclusions: first, it showed that the accumulation of stressful elements produces a corresponding increase in the speed with which telomeres weaken and shorten. Second, it showed that the three healthy behaviors can slow this deterioration even when the same stressors remain present.
Stress Can Accelerate Telomere Shortening
Telomeres are caps composed of DNA and proteins that are located on the end of chromosomes and help to protect them and keep cells from aging. When these telomeres begin to weaken and shorten, cell aging and death happen more quickly.
In a study involving 239 postmenopausal women, the UCSF researchers examined the affect on telomeres of life stressors that occurred throughout the course of one year. They took blood samples from the women at the beginning and the end of the 12-month span, and also had the women report on stressful events that occurred within the time frame.
The results of the study showed noticeable reductions in telomere length for each additional stressor reported over the course of the year. Telomere length decreases naturally as people age, but the relationship between more stressors and faster shortening suggested that stress plays an active role in telomere weakening and cell aging.
Telomere Shortening Slowed When Healthy Behaviors Increased
However, there was also good news. The researchers tracked the diet, exercise and sleep habits of the 239 women, and found that those who got more physical activity, ate healthier diets and got regular sleep were able to reduce the speed at which their telomere length shortened. They were able to reduce the physical impact of the stressful events in their lives without actually eliminating any of those stressors from the picture.
This isn’t a tremendous surprise, since these and other healthy habits are known to reduce the more readily visible physical signs of stress. Even so, it is an interesting revelation of the impact that stress can have on a person’s long-term health even when that person manages to avoid the visible symptoms.
It also emphasizes the importance of diet, sleep and exercise during stressful events, even if these events don’t appear to be having an immediate negative impact on well-being. Even when people believe that they are coping well, negative physiological impacts such as telomere shortening or others that may still be unidentified could be degrading physical health more rapidly without the protection of healthy habits.
The UCSF team, led by assistant professor of psychiatry Eli Puterman, PhD, published their findings in July 2014 in the peer reviewed medical journal Molecular Psychiatry.