How stress and poor sleep af­fect ag­ing

Great Health Guide - - CONTENTS - Gauri Yardi

Be­tween work, fam­ily, friends and other com­mit­ments, our lives have be­come in­creas­ingly busy and stress­ful. But is chronic stress af­fect­ing the way we age? A grow­ing body of re­search says yes.

When we be­come stressed, our bod­ies go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Hor­mones such as adren­a­line are re­leased which in­crease our heart and breath­ing rates, di­vert our en­ergy to­wards our mus­cles and prime our brains to make quick de­ci­sions. This ‘fight or flight’ sys­tem is de­signed to help us deal quickly and ef­fec­tively with acute threats. Once the threat has passed our hor­mones are dis­persed and

Chronic stress af­fects the way we age.

we are sup­posed to re­turn to a re­laxed state.

What hap­pens when we are chron­i­cally stressed? More fre­quent ex­po­sure to stress hor­mones causes changes to our bod­ies which af­fect age­ing. Re­searchers are only just be­gin­ning to un­der­stand how these changes af­fect the way we age, but a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence sug­gests that chronic stress ac­tu­ally causes changes to our DNA.

Our DNA stores all our bi­o­log­i­cal in­for­ma­tion – the ge­netic in­struc­tions our body needs to carry out a great many of its vi­tal func­tions. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in age­ing are the sec­tions of our DNA known as ‘telom­eres’. Telom­eres pro­tect our DNA from dam­age and en­sure that our ge­netic in­for­ma­tion re­mains in­tact. Our telom­eres nat­u­rally be­come shorter with time and this is a nor­mal re­flec­tion of age­ing. How­ever, the rate at which our telom­eres shorten may have an im­pact on how well we are as we age.

Take job stress as an ex­am­ple. Re­searchers have found that peo­ple with work-re­lated ex­haus­tion tend to have shorter telom­eres. Short­ened telom­eres can cause dam­age and even death to cells and have been as­so­ci­ated with many of the chronic dis­ease of age­ing, in­clud­ing type 2 di­a­betes, Parkin­son’s dis­ease, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and cancer. Re­search sug­gests that even an­tic­i­pat­ing stress, such as wor­ry­ing about giv­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion can speed up age­ing at a cel­lu­lar level.

In ad­di­tion to its di­rect ef­fect on our bod­ies, chronic stress also af­fects our abil­ity to treat our bod­ies well. Chronic stress is as­so­ci­ated with eating poorly, ex­er­cis­ing less and drink­ing more al­co­hol. Each of these habits is as­so­ci­ated with in­creased body weight and in­creased risk of chronic dis­ease.


1. Learn to med­i­tate. As well as help­ing you man­age your stress, med­i­ta­tion can im­prove your sleep and in­crease your emo­tional and phys­i­cal well­be­ing. Down­load a med­i­ta­tion app, en­roll in a med­i­ta­tion course, or find guided med­i­ta­tions on YouTube.

2. Ex­er­cise. Ex­er­cise is well known for re­duc­ing the symp­toms of stress and help­ing dis­perse adren­a­line. Pre­lim­i­nary re­search even sug­gests that mod­er­ate ex­er­cise may in­crease the length of your telom­eres. Any form of ex­er­cise can help, but con­sider yoga, walk­ing in a green space such as a park, swim­ming or any form of ex­er­cise that in­creases your heart rate.

3. Get help. If you’re hav­ing trou­ble han­dling your stress, get help. There are many health prac­ti­tion­ers who are skilled in as­sist­ing those with chronic stress and trauma re­lated symp­toms.

It is not just our stress lev­els that can neg­a­tively im­pact age­ing. Poor sleep of­ten a con­se­quence of chronic stress, has been linked to chronic dis­ease. Stud­ies have shown a link be­tween in­ad­e­quate sleep and an in­creased risk of heart at­tacks, heart dis­ease, di­a­betes, obe­sity and cancer. In­ad­e­quate sleep can in­crease

blood sugar lev­els and also in­crease in­sulin re­sis­tance - even if you are thin.

Ad­di­tion­ally, sleep­ing poorly in­creases your ap­petite. One of the ma­jor hor­mones that con­trols ap­petite, lep­tin, drops with lack of sleep, leav­ing you hun­gry, par­tic­u­larly for high calo­rie foods. Long-term, poor sleep can there­fore lead to sig­nif­i­cant weight gain. Some re­search has even sug­gested that women who get more sleep tend to gain less weight as they age – re­gard­less of how much they eat.

Sur­pris­ingly, there is ac­tu­ally some sci­ence be­hind the con­cept of ‘beauty rest’. Stud­ies in­di­cate that peo­ple who only get four or five hours of sleep per night un­dergo meta­bolic changes that are sim­i­lar to those that oc­cur in nor­mal age­ing. This is thought to be due to lower lev­els of growth hor­mone, which are pro­duced by the body dur­ing deep sleep to aid tis­sue re­pair.

Growth hor­mone is re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing mus­cles and skin healthy. If you’re start­ing to look a lit­tle ragged around the edges, it could be time to im­prove your sleep.


1. Lower your chronic stress, us­ing the tips above. Poor sleep is of­ten due to ex­cess worry or height­ened stress. Un­der­stand­ing the causes for your stress can help to im­prove your sleep.

2. Im­prove your ‘sleep hy­giene’. Sleep hy­giene refers to the qual­ity of the habits you have around bed­time. Cre­at­ing a con­sis­tent bed­time rou­tine, in­clud­ing a reg­u­lar bed­time, can im­prove your sleep dra­mat­i­cally.

3. Get help. If you’ve been strug­gling with poor sleep for a while, it may be time to seek help. Your doc­tor can rule out some of the more se­ri­ous causes of poor sleep, such as sleep ap­noea or gas­tric re­flux upon ly­ing down.

Ag­ing is in­evitable; we can­not con­trol the march of time how­ever we can con­trol our stress lev­els and de­velop good sleep­ing pat­terns; healthy ag­ing is pos­si­ble.

Gauri Yardi is a Natur­opath with a spe­cial in­ter­est in treat­ing stress and anx­i­ety, di­ges­tive con­di­tions such as ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome (IBS), bloat­ing and re­flux and skin con­di­tions such as acne and eczema. She is pas­sion­ate about help­ing peo­ple shift to­wards a diet and life­style that will sup­port and nour­ish them long-term. Gauri can be con­tact through her web­site.

Poor sleep of­ten a con­se­quence of chronic stress, has been linked to chronic dis­ease.

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