We all are familiar with “stress.” Stress is our body’s natural response to an acute threat. This “fight-or-flight” response is driven by the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. When we have to give a speech in front of a crowd, slam on our breaks in an abrupt traffic jam, or wake up late to our alarm, adrenaline and cortisol levels skyrocket quickly in our bodies.
However, our bodies are adaptable machines and are able to quickly compensate in stressful times. After a short period of time, our blood pressure and heart rate lower back down to base. But what other degrees of stress are there? What are the long term effects of chronically elevated stress, and how we can learn to reduce it?
The Different Levels of Stress
“Distress” is an uncomfortable emotion we may feel when we experience something out of our control. When a family member or friend becomes hospitalized, when we lose a loved one, or something devastating happens in our lives, we may become distressed.
Despite feeling like we are unable to change the circumstance, support from family and friends can balance our emotions and improve our overall resilience to these events.
But what if we lack a support system? What if something happened to us early in life that affected our self-esteem, judgment, or overall capacity to develop good impulse control?
When a distressing event occurs in our life, the level of stress we may experience can reach a “toxic” level. The inability to cope with this “toxic” level of stress can unfortunately have major implications on our behavior and body.
Effects of Chronic Stress
Our brain is the ultimate regulator of stress. Our brain decides if we perceive something as stressful or not and directs other systems in our body to respond accordingly. When stress is sporadic, our brain and body are highly resilient. This is great news! Better yet, regular physical activity can actually improve our brain’s capacity to rebound and respond to short episodes of stress!
However, when our brain is under constant (and chronic) stress, irreversible damage can occur. Our brain is at a higher predisposition of developing:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Posttraumatic stress disorder-like behavior
- Social avoidance
- Social defeat
- Impaired memory
- Sleep disturbance
Our metabolism is another component within our body that becomes affected by stress. Let’s take a brief step back into middle school biology class. Do you remember learning about mitochondria?
Mitochondria are organelles within our cells that help create energy for our bodies to function. They play an essential role in our metabolism. Unfortunately, when our stress levels are high (when cortisol levels are elevated), our mitochondria become less efficient and dysfunctional.
This dysfunction can lead to an increase in free-radical production. Free radicals are unstable molecules in our bodies that can cause damage and harm to our cells and our overall health.
In addition to these effects, high levels of our stress hormone can promote weight gain which can increase our risk of developing obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Our immune system is our body’s natural defense against becoming sick. When we experience a short dose of stress in our lives, our immune system is activated. This is our body’s initial approach at defending itself (ie: fighting an infection or repairing a wound). There is no foul harm to our overall health when our immune system is activated by a mild dose of stress.
But let’s say you’re in the “toxic” stress category and have been stressed at a high level for weeks on end. You may:
- Experience anxiety or depression
- Struggle with insomnia
- Overindulge in junk food beyond what your body needs
- Smoke or drink alcohol excessively
- Avoid friends
- Take time off work
- Stop exercising
- Spend more time on the computer doing sedentary activities
Perhaps you have Crohn’s Disease or arthritis. These chronic diseases induce stress throughout our entire body. As a means to feel better, we often gravitate toward taking medications. Unfortunately, these treatments are only band-aids to a bigger problem.
Over time, as our body is working hard to battle these chronic stressors, it begins to break down. Think of it this way- how would you feel if you worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month, 12 months a year x multiple years without PTO or holidays??
Often, we become so consumed by the stressor(s) in our lives that we lose awareness and mindfulness of how our body is holding up. Meanwhile, beneath our skin, our body is slowly de-compensating.
Research has demonstrated associations between chronic levels of stress and pre-mature aging of our cells (aka- overall shorter lifespan). Chronic forms of severe stress include:
- Caregiver of chronically disabled children or Alzheimer’s patients
- Extreme poverty, low income, hunger
- Exposure to violence: family violence, family conflict, physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Parental abuse of alcohol and drugs
- Death of a loved one
- Job loss
The MESA study (Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis) followed 2231 adults ages 45-84 years old without cardiovascular disease over 10 years. They collected blood samples and looked at the overall health of their cells and how they reacted to stress by examining the patients’ telomeres.
Telomeres are protein-bound DNA complexes inside of our cells. Think of telomeres as the protective book covering to the sacred chapters of DNA text in each of our individual cells. As our “book covers” become tattered and worn, we begin to age. Chronic stress can speed up this process leading to premature aging in addition to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
The MESA study considered both individual and neighborhood-related stressors. Neighborhood stress included:
- Trash/ litter on streets
- Safety (ie: walking during the day or night and violence)
- Social cohesiveness (ie neighbors willingness to help, getting along, trustworthiness, and sharing the same values)
Here’s what the MESA study results showed:
- Greater long-term stress was associated with increased aging
- When one’s stress level changes from LOW to HIGH, telomeres shortened by 6% (ie: our cells aged 6% faster)
- Increases in stress at the individual level was associated with increased aging in women
- Increases in stress at the neighborhood level was associated with increased aging in men
- Over 10 years, those with decreasing levels of stress age slower than those with increasing stress levels
Dealing With Stress
Stressful relationships, experiences, environments, and circumstances are omnipresent. So how do we prevent ourselves from letting stress affect our health and wellness? Here are 3 of the most important ways:
- Clean Eating
- Avoiding Sedentary Behavior
Choosing foods that are clean and minimally processed significantly reduces our blood sugar levels. With well controlled sugar levels, we are better able to think more clearly and have stable and sustainable energy throughout the day. This helps regulate mood, temperament, and hormonal balance.
However, eating clean can be TOUGH. It is not uncommon to struggle with how to eat clean, meal plan, food prep, cook, and stay engaged in the kitchen.
If you need personalized help with the intricacies of meal planning, getting creative with your cooking, or staying consistent on meal prepping, 1:1 PA Health Coaching may be a great solution for you.
If you need intensive accountability, then the 12 Week Weight Management Program is exactly what you need. Clean eating, movement, and mindfulness are the core pillars of the Program. With hard-work, action, and a private support group 100% behind your back, we’ll work together to help you accomplish your lifelong health goals.
By prioritizing clean eating, movement, and mindfulness, you will be amazed at how your stress can be more appropriately managed. Not only will you feel, move, and think better, but you’ll likely see improvements in chronic inflammatory diseases like arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn’s diseases etc.
As we’ve learned, long-term stress is detrimental to our health in many ways. Keep your brain, metabolism, immune system, and overall longevity in check by prioritizing your health. Let me guide you step-by-step in the 12 Week Weight Management Program.
Cellular Response to Chronic Psychosocial Stress: Ten-Year Longitudinal Changes in Telomere Length in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Helen CS Meier, Mustafa Hussein, Belinda Needham, Sharrelle Barber, Jue Lin, Teresa Seeman and Ana Diez Roux. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2019-09-01, Volume 107, Pages 70-81, Copyright 2019 Elsevier Ltd.
Neurobiological and Systemic Effectsof Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). McEwen, Bruce S. 2017 Jan-Dec;1 doi: 10.1177/2470547017692328. Epub 2017 Apr 10.
Systematic Review of the Association Between Chronic Social Stress and Telomere Length: A Life Course Perspective. Bruna Silva Oliveira, Maria Victoria Zunzunegui, Jacklyn Quinlan, Hassan Fahmi, Mai Thanh Tu and Ricardo Oliveira Guerra. Aging Research Reviews, 2016-03-01, Volume 26, Pages 37-52. Copyright 2015 Elsevier B.V.