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The Role Stress Plays in Aging

Stress is a normal part of life that we all deal with – and can even be a good thing. Stress can lead to true transformation, motivating us to make change. Short-term stress, that is. Long-term, chronic stress, however, is the kind of stress we need to watch out for and manage – because it is chronic, long-term stress that affects us mentally and physically – especially in accelerating the aging process, both inwardly and outwardly.

On the outside, we are familiar with the aging process. We know the signs of aging on the skin, hair, energy levels, and so forth. But when we talk about the effects of chronic stress on the inside, what do we mean, and what are we measuring? Scientists know that long-term stress can wreak havoc on metabolism, telomere length, mental health, inflammation, insulin levels, and beyond. As a holistic nutritionist, I believe that managing your stress level is every bit as important as the food you put in your body. Yes, you heard that right! Let’s talk about why stress affects health and what you can do to mitigate – or even reverse – the negative consequences of long-term stress.

The stress response: from a biological perspective

No matter how far back in time, acute stress is a state that humans are biologically and psychologically wired to experience. When encountering a stressful situation (think hunting in the early days or a big work deadline today), our bodies respond by triggering a series of internal chemical processes that provide the needed energy and resources. Epinephrine and norepinephrine raise blood sugar levels for energy, increase heart rate for extra oxygen, and send additional blood to vital organs like the skin and digestive system. It’s incredible that our body can jump into action unconsciously, without us having to do anything other than feel stressed (and the reason many of us perform well under pressure)!

If these responses seem helpful, then why is chronic stress so damaging? Unfortunately, our bodies have more than one stress response. The short-term stress response is usually a good thing, but because the body can’t sustain high levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine for extended periods, long-term stress will trigger a different set of chemical processes. The chronic stress response is known as the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) System. When the short-term stress response can no longer be sustained, the pituitary gland secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone or ACTH, which signals the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. You’ve heard me talk about cortisol, the primary stress hormone. A large release of cortisol raises blood sugar, increases inflammation, and suppresses immune function. We know any one of these three factors can lead to accelerated aging over time. Can you imagine what all three of these factors can do to health long term?

Preventing the HPA stress response

Managing stress is easier said than done. Many of us know or have heard that journaling, meditation, and yoga are beneficial tools in the effort to relax. But if you’re anything like me – all three of those strategies feel damn-near impossible when experiencing a prolonged high level of stress! The secret is starting small. When a 10-minute meditation exercise feels out of reach, try three deep breaths. If you don’t have the energy for a yoga class, then try a few rounds of cat/cow. I promise, any effort to balance your breathing will do your brain – and therefore your body – good.

In addition to the above exercises, there are several nutritional supplements that are highly effective at mitigating the accelerated aging effects of chronic stress (or even prevent us from even getting to that point in the first place):

Try stress-relieving adaptogens: Adaptogens are plants and mushrooms that help our bodies respond to stress by regulating the above hormone responses. Used in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, science has proven that adaptogens are aptly named, because they adapt to individual hormone levels in the body to achieve homeostasis. For example, when your stress hormones are high, taking an adaptogen helps lower them. When too low, say during a period of burnout, that same adaptogen can increase them to achieve balance. I recommend trying Thorne’s Rhodiola – a gentle brain adaptogen known for balancing neurotransmitters and stress relief and a great one to start with. Thorne’s Phytisone is a fantastic option if you’re looking for a multi-adaptogen supplement. It includes ashwagandha – one of my all-time favorites.

A high-quality B complex: A good multi-B vitamin formula is often one of my first recommendations when a client tells me they are dealing with lots of stress. That’s because each B vitamin is crucial to the body when it comes to stress regulation. As we age, our levels of these vitamins tend to decrease (because our ability to absorb them decreases).  Thorne’s Stress B-Complex is my go-to product recommendation because of the level of research behind all of Thorne’s products, their use of folate in its active form (L-5-MTHF), and their top-quality sourcing.

Take Thorne’s Stress Test: When stress becomes a way of life, it can be hard to realize the toll  this state of mind has on our body. If you experience any of the following, then Thorne’s Stress Test is for you: you feel “tired but wired;” you can’t wake up without coffee; you have late sugar cravings; you’re irritable or moody way too often. Thorne’s Stress Test measures your cortisol and adrenal hormones through a saliva sample. You then receive an improvement plan with health recommendations based on your results!

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Stress isn’t always a bad thing, but chronic stress is. Its impact on your health spans far and wide, and it accelerates the adverse effects of aging at an alarming rate. If you know me, then you know I’m not afraid of aging. I see aging as a beautiful process we need to learn to embrace better. The reason I’m not afraid isn’t because I don’t care about what happens to me or my health. It’s because I believe we have greater control over the aging process than we are made to believe, and through simple, mindful habits and strategies, you can relax and enjoy the beauty that comes with aging, too! If you feel extra stressed lately or want to learn how to take control of your health and the aging process, then book a one-on-one with me today!

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