SLEEP, STRESS AND AGING: PART 3
How stress and poor sleep affect aging
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.
THREE WAYS TO BETTER MANAGE YOUR STRESS:
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.
THREE WAYS TO IMPROVE 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.