Scientists have made an alarming discovery—higher stress levels can cause acceleratedshortening of telomeres.
In a recently published study, researchers found that depression-related stress results in the significant shortening of telomeres—the caps at the ends of chromosomes—an indication of accelerated aging!
The publication of this study emphasizes the importance of minimizing the impact of internal and environmental stress on the body. An estimated 75-90% of visits to primary care physicians are now related to the effects of stress, and this new study documents how lethal stress can be to our well-being and longevity.
Telomeres, Stress, and Aging
Telomeres are protective DNA molecules. Often compared to the plastic caps on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres are found on the ends of coiled pieces of DNA known as chromosomes. They keep the chromosome material from deteriorating, or fusing with other chromosomes.
Every time chromosomes divide, the telomeres at the ends shorten.As telomeres are increasingly consumed, they can be replenished by an enzyme called telomerase reverse transcriptase.
The eventual shortening of telomeres is correlated with cellular senescence—and aging.
Ultimately, the telomeres become so depleted that the cell can no longer divide (known as the Hayflick limit), and that cell dies (apoptosis).
Scientists have discovered that the multiple biochemical pathways of chronic stress dampen telomerase and accelerate telomere-shortening. The most recent study found that the telomeres of patients with depression-related stress were over 5% shorter than the telomeres of those who had not been diagnosed with depression.
Stress and Homeostasis
Described as “our leading health problem,” sustained negative stress is now acknowledged as a key driver behind many of today’s health complaints, both psychological and physical.
Because the term “stress” has long been incorrectly used, it lost its medical meaning. People often use the term to describe any situation they don’t like. For this reason, neuroscientists have recently clarified the term to mean:
Chronic negative stress triggers a number of critical changes throughout the body that act along multiple biochemical pathways, including the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems.
As long as stress levels are low, the effects of stressors are modulated by homeostasis, the body’s ability to maintain harmonious equilibrium by constantly readjusting its physiological processes. Cells and tissues exist in a constantly changing environment, but homeostasis keeps steering internal biochemical and bioelectrical levels back to their near-optimum points.
However, when stress is severe, chronic, or multi-layered, numerous biochemical changes overwhelm the body’s homeostatic mechanism (“environmental demand exceeds the natural regulatory capacity”). Studies have found that these harmful effects can persist long after a stressful situation has been normalized. As a result, key biochemical levels can remain for too long at suboptimal levels. This is called homeostatic imbalance.
Some of the many disease states associated with stress-induced homeostatic imbalance include obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, gastric ulcer, cancer, gastrointestinal complaints, skin issues, neurological disorders, sexual dysfunction, psychological problems, suppressed immunity—and reduced telomerase and shortened telomeres and, as a result, accelerated cellular and tissue aging.
Scientists have long known that homeostasis can be supported through the use of natural extracts called adaptogens. But to be effective against the onslaught of chronic stress, these pro-homeostatic botanical extracts would need to be combined so that their various mechanisms of action would complement each other to modulate the multiple pathways of stress.
Based on research from a variety of disciplines, researchers have discovered how extracts such as Holy Basil,Bacopa, Cordyceps, and Ashwagandha may protect against a broad range of chronic stress effects.
Full appreciation of the enormity of this finding requires an understanding of the multiple pathways through which stress disrupts homeostasis.
The Multiple Pathways of Stress
Job pressure is recognized as the leading source of stress,13 but whatever the stressor, the cascade of physiological responses is the same.
First, within seconds of the stressful event, various chemicals—neurotransmitters and hormones such as cortisolare released into the bloodstream. They launch the initial fight-or-flight, stress-adaptation responses in which blood glucose rises, blood vessels constrict, the heart races, and blood is diverted away from the digestive system. These responses originate at the cellular level and within every key body system, including the neuroendocrine system, thehypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the immune system, and the primary (endogenous) antioxidant enzyme system.
Second, within minutes of the stressful event—and possibly lasting for several hours, weeks, or longer—specific biochemical pathways are activated within these systems, disrupting the body’s natural homeostasis. If the body cannot restore equilibrium quickly, permanent damage occurs. The end result is a vast spectrum of chronic diseases.
The biochemical effects of stress can be complicated and diverse, but basically, they contribute to the development of or create imbalance in the following:
- Cortisol (steroid hormone)
- Neurotransmitters (noradrenalin, dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, GABA)
- Hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis regulation
- Glucose (blood sugar)
- Primary antioxidant activity (e.g., superoxide dismutase, catalase)
- Immune activity
- Amyloid (linked to 20 serious diseases including Alzheimer’s)
- Inflammation (e.g., cyclooxygenase, or COX enzyme)
- Gastric ulcerations
- Lipid peroxidation (e.g., hepatic)
- Plasma creatine kinase (enzyme)
- ATP (adenosine triphosphate)
- Cognition and memory function
- Sexual response and function
Scientists are finding that stress-induced imbalances in levels of cortisol and other stress-affected substances may be seriously damaging important areas of the brain.
In an alarming development, scientists have discovered that higher stress levels can result in the accelerated shortening of telomeres—an indicator of accelerated aging.
The good news is a formulation comprised of four broadly-acting adaptogenic extracts—Holy Basil, Bacopa, Cordyceps, and Ashwagandha—has been developed that may work to modulate multiple stress pathways. Scientists have shown in controlled human studies—including patients who were chronically stressed—that these pro-homeostatic extracts result in experiential improvements in mental and physical health.
Holy Basil, for instance, improved stress management scores by 39% more than placebo—in just 6 weeks. Bacopa improved mood scores, particularly depression, by 30%.