Studies suggest that high levels of stress can lead to obesity and trigger a host of diseases – from heart attacks to ulcers. These and other stress-related diseases sicken millions of people each year in the USA, says brain researcher Bruce McEwen at the Rockefeller University in New York.
Up to 90% of the doctor visits in the USA may be triggered by a stress-related illness, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Elissa Epel, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues turned to women under a crushing burden of stress: mothers of sick kids. The researchers began to peer deep inside their cells to see if stress affected a key part of the chromosome called a telomere.
Telomeres are thought to be markers of aging, says co-author Richard Cawthon of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Telomeres cap the ends of chromosomes, which contain the body’s DNA.
As people get older, this cap gets ground down. When the telomere gets too short to work properly, cells all over the body start to sicken or die — and diseases of old age set in, Cawthon says.
The California researchers found that the longer women had been caring for a child with a serious illness, the shorter the telomere, a finding that suggests rapid aging.
But the toxic stress response wasn’t confined to caregivers: This study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that stress also affected mothers of healthy kids.
Most of the women in this group, the control group, didn’t report burn-out levels of stress. But those that did had the same response: shorter telomeres.
In fact, when the researchers looked only at stressed-out women in either group, they found a dramatic sign of damage. “They had lost the amount of telomeric DNA that one would expect to lose in 10 years of aging,” Epel says.
Researchers Ronald Glaser and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser at Ohio State University turned to a different group of people under stress: caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients, people who often put in 100 hours a week or more on care for someone who has this progressive brain disease.
The team began to look for a damaging substance in the blood called interleukin-6, or Il-6.
Il-6 levels go up as people get older. “But caregivers had levels of Il-6 that increased dramatically,” Glaser says. Overly ramped-up Il-6 might make caregivers vulnerable to diseases common among the elderly, such as arthritis, he says.
The average caregiver was about 70 but had Il-6 levels that looked like those of a 90-year-old, Kiecolt-Glaser says.
Caregivers in the UCSF study who viewed their situation positively didn’t seem to suffer the ill effects of stress, Epel says. A positive outlook on life and the support of friends might help buffer a damaging stress response, she says.
– Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Keith and Laurie Nemec’s comments on stress
In this research it showed that the study suggests high levels of stress can lead to obesity and trigger a range of diseases from heart attacks to ulcers. Up to 90% of doctors visits in the United States may be triggered by stress related illness says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How does stress work and how does it do damage? Very simply it’s a product of the hormonal system. When a person is under stress, they secrete more adrenaline, the fight flight hormone. This hormone enables you to run away from a tiger if a tiger was chasing you for survival. It shunts blood, or decreases blood flow to the digestive tract, it slows the immune system, but it increases blood to the arms and legs. The purpose, you don’t need to digest your food and you don’t need to take the tremendous amount energy and put it into the immune function, when you’re running away from a life threatening tiger. But after you have got out of the reaches of the tiger, then the body goes back into normal lower secretion or no secretion of adrenaline, which increases digestion and decreases blood flow to the arms and legs, and increases immune system response.
Now the problem is when we are running away from tigers, every hour of the day, the tiger can be the stress of job, the stress with family, financial stress, relationship stress, health stress. Any stress that we perceive in our mind will cause us to secrete adrenaline, just the same as if we were running away from a tiger. And if we were running away from a tiger, every waking hour, again our body would become sick, it would produce some disease eventually. Now the fascinating thing of this study showed that the stress effects, actual the DNA, the telomeres are thought to be a marker for aging, according to Richard Cawthon, of the University of Utah. Now the telomere length is related to aging. So as people get older, this cap, the telomere cap, actually gets smaller, and what they found was the longer people are under stress, the shorter the telomere becomes and in one particular California study found that the longer women had been caring for a sick, the shorter the telomere becomes and this suggests that they are aging more rapidly than should be. When they also looked at those under significant stress, they found that as this telomere shortened, the stress would be equivalent to ten years of aging. And this was, again, in mother’s taking care of either sick children, or mother’s stressed out just taking care of their children. The one’s that were stressed out and reported that at a high level where the ones that had the ten years of aging due to the shortening of the telomeric part of the DNA. The last part of the study showed that caregivers taking care of Alzheimer patients had about a twenty year increase in aging of the cells as seen with the shortening of the telomere part of the DNA. So, what does all this tell us? It tells us what stress does to the body, but what it doesn’t tell us is how to avoid this stress. And the basic way to do that is to become healthy. We do this with the 7 Basic Steps to Total Health™.