The word stress is so overused today that it has nearly lost its meaning. So, I want to introduce some new words.
First, say hello to norepinephribem, epinephrine, cortisol, vasopressin, and aldosterone. These are all hormones your body releases when a psychological or physical challenge suddenly confronts you. These chemicals play a major role in the inflammation we’ve taking about in previous blog posts. Recall that this inflammation damages cells, leading to a host of health problems. Every time you are scared, pressured, angered, or frustrated, your body releases chemicals that lead to inflammation, and this is one of the major harms caused by acute stress.
But there is new news in the world of stress. To understand it, you first need to know that there’s a second type of stress that’s much more problematic than the type caused when someone shouts an insult at you. Chronic psychological stress is when troubles gnaw at you persistently over time. Think of ongoing financial woes, mean-spirited bosses, out-of-control children, tough daily commutes, and underlying sense of insecurity, and even deep resentments about politics or neighbors. It turns out that chronic stress ages you cell by cell. It does so by literally shortening a part of the cell called a telomere.
Telomeres are caps on the end of the cell’s chromosomes that help keep the chromosomes stable, just as the cap on a pen prevents ink from leaking. Every time a chromosome unzips to make copies of its genetic material so the cell can divide, however, the telomere gets a tiny bit shorter. The shorter the telomere, the worse the cell functions. Studies link shrinking telomeres to numerous age-related conditions, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, insulin resistance, and early death, primarily from infection and cardiovascular disease.
Telomeres get some help in maintaining their length from an enzyme called telomerase, which is released by the immune system cells. Telomerase builds up telomeres after replication, keeping the cell alive longer and functioning better. Eventually, however, the telomere gets so short it disappears, and the cell self-destructs and dies.
The new discovery: Chronic psychological stress can shrink telomeres the same way hot water shrinks a wool sweater. It also seems to lower the amount of telomerase that immune cells release. And, in a vicious cycle, the less telomerase you have, the greater your body’s response to stress and the more inflammatory chemical are released.
These findings are important because they show how psychological issues like stress have a harmful effect on our cells. The findings also provide crucial good news: It’s how you perceive stress, rather than the actual cause of the stress, that leads to the harm.
Would you like to find out what you can do to perceive stress in a non-harmful way? Read my blog post on Wednesday to find out.
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