We all know that stress isn’t good for you, but there’s growing evidence that stress can age you prematurely.
Elizabeth H. Blackburn, co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology / Medicine, researches telomeres at the University of California, San Francisco. Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. Chromosomes carry our genetic information. Telomeres are formed by telomerase, an enzyme that repairs the telomeres when they wear down. As cells replicate themselves, the telomeres tend to get shorter, resulting in the aging of the body.
Dr. Blackburn discovered that chronic stress accelerates the shortening of the telomeres, resulting in premature aging. The longer the duration of the stress, the shorter the telomeres and the more reduced the telomerase activity. The aging can take many forms, but Dr. Blackburn and her fellow researchers found that it commonly resulted in cardiovascular disease and impaired immune response.
In other words, stress can prematurely age the cells in your body and cause disease. Blackburn’s research indicates that among the diseases that may be encouraged by shortened telomeres is cancer. Telomere maintenance is essential to cell division. When the telomeres are not well maintained, it causes disruption of cell division and prevents the immune system from working efficiently, promoting cancer. In addition, a poor immune system can provoke inflammation, which also promotes cancer.
So what can you do about it? Apart from avoiding the things that we know cause cell damage, such as smoking, you can take steps to actively reduce stress. The less stressed you are, the more active your telomerase and the more efficient the telomere repair process.
It’s important to note that many people do not know when they are stressed. Chronically stressed people often are unaware of the stress they experience all the time, because that feels “normal” to them.
Even people who are not chronically stressed can experience stress and not know it. Personal example: I was sitting at my computer, reading some background material. I was using SweetBeat™, the iPhone stress management app from our company, SweetWater Health. There was nothing in the material that was particularly stressful. I felt relaxed and comfortable. Here’s a graph of my session:
Unfortunately, the chart is hard to read as a jpeg, but it gives you an idea. The gold line is stress. The blue line is heart rate, expressed in beats per minute. The green line is heart rate variability (HRV). My heart rate stayed at its usual resting rate, somewhere in the high 40’s. My HRV is high, especially for someone my age (early 60’s), which is good. But my stress went from very low to extremely high.
I was completely unaware that I was stressed. I still don’t know what caused the stress, as I was reading a paper about the relationship between food sensitivities and weight gain—not calculated to cause alarms and upset in most people, but I guess it is somehow scary to me!
Occasionally, people who start using SweetBeat to monitor stress are dismayed because they are “always in the red” on the stress scale. These tend to be chronically stressed people, whether they know it or not. Being “in the red” all the time is discouraging, so sometimes they stop using SweetBeat altogether because “it must be wrong.” Instead, you can use SweetBeat to overcome chronic stress by doing the following:
- Set your stress sensitivity to 1, which is the least-sensitive reading. This should prevent you from being in the red all the time.
- In the app settings, set your stress alarm to red, which means that you won’t be notified that you are stressed until you reach the highest level.
- When you receive a stress alarm, SweetBeat will automatically bring up the Relax screen with a breath pacer (this can be turned on and off in the app’s settings).
- Use the breath pacer in the Relax screen to bring your stress down. The breath pacer is precisely timed to balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to reduce stress.
Consistent use of SweetBeat over time will decrease your stress levels and also train you how to proactively reduce stress. Eventually, you can up your stress sensitivity level until you are at level 5 without always being in the red. At this point, your chronic stress is under control and you can stop worrying about your telomeres!