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The Stress Effect: How Chronic Stress Impacts Your Health

This week we took a deep dive into stress reactivity and in the process were introduced to a researcher who quite literally wrote the book on stress and human health. Here we review some key concepts that are important for understanding the link between stress and health. We’ll also examine science-backed techniques that can reduce our stress levels and in turn our risk for chronic disease.

The Man Who Helped Shape the Stress-Health Narrative

Dr. Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinology researcher, professor, and author. Currently, he holds a position as a professor of biology, neurology, and neurological sciences at Stanford University. Over the past three decades, Dr. Sapolsky has broadened our understanding of stress reactivity and its effects on human health. According to his research, “fight or flight” evolved as a survival mechanism, but has since become a process that has the potential to cause harm. If the ancient world was adapted for the survival of the fittest, our modern world has adapted for convenience. Gone are the days when we needed to hunt or gather our food. Now we take a trip to the market or even order our groceries online and have them delivered to the front door. In industrial nations like the US, our communities are the safest they’ve been at any point in human history—we’ve insulted ourselves from the threats to survival that our ancestors dealt with—warring tribes, animal attacks, food or water scarcity. Now that we’re mostly safe and well-fed our basic needs are met; we’ve gained the luxury of time. So, instead of spending our days looking for food or fighting off predators, we’ve developed social hierarchies that come with a new wave of psychological, emotional, and social stressors. 

Despite how much our environments have changed, the thing that remains constant is our biology. We still have a fight or flight response. The difference is that now that system is activated by factors that aren’t threats to our survival—bills, traffic, an annoying coworker, public speaking, university exams, etc. And while short term exposure to stress hormones isn’t a problem, long-term exposure is detrimental to human health.

Go Deeper: Watch Dr. Sapolsky’s lecture on the role of stress reactivity in human health. 

Don’t have 90-minutes to spare? Check out this short video to hear Dr. Sapolsky explain the role social hierarchies play in priming our bodies for disease. 

Homeostasis, Stress, and Health

Our bodies exist in homeostasis, a state of equilibrium that allows our body systems to function properly. Any disruption to homeostasis is a form of stress because it alters our equilibrium. At its core the acute stress response involves several brain regions, hormonal responses, and immune reactions that coordinate together to produce physiologic changes in our bodies. When a threat presents itself (whether physical or psychosocial) our cerebral cortex recognizes the threat and sends a signal to the limbic system—a midbrain structure that houses the hypothalamus and the amygdala. Together, these three brain regions stimulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which initiate “fight or flight”. The hypothalamus then stimulates the sympathetic nervous system as well as the adrenal-cortical system, both of which release hormones and neurotransmitters that cause physiologic changes to the body like increased heart rate and respiration, venous constriction and increased blood pressure, dilation of the pupils, cessation of all non-essential body functions (e.g., digestion, elimination, reproduction) and increased muscle tension. To resolve the response, the body produces and releases a class of hormones called glucocorticoids (e.g.: cortisol) that circulate in the blood and return the body to a resting state.

Fight or Flight Response

Source: HowStuffWorks

While stress can occur due to a number of internal and external factors, all stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, exercise is a physical stressor that increases your heart rate, your breathing, and your blood pressure. It disrupts homeostasis; however, we know from research that exercise confers numerous health benefits and improves our chances of survival into old age. Conversely, we also have psychosocial stressors that elicit physiologic changes but offer no benefits. Even worse, there is often no “off switch” for psychosocial stress. Instead, we ruminate on our problems and continue to expose ourselves to primary stress mediators like cortisol. Long term exposure to these mediators can cause immune dysfunction and make us susceptible to chronic diseases such as CVD, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and obesity.

The mechanism explaining how chronic stress leads to chronic disease is found in something called allostatic load, a term coined by researcher and neuroendocrinologist

Dr. Bruce McEwen. Put simply, allostatic load is “the wear and tear on the body” that accumulates with frequent exposure to primary stress mediators. When stress levels are low so is the allostatic load; the likelihood of damage from stress mediators is minimal. When stress is high, the allostatic load increases and the likelihood of damage is high. Several studies have demonstrated a link between increased allostatic load and disease progression. For example, this study showed that allostatic load is associated with an increase in the incidence of coronary heart disease. Another study suggests that chronic stress exposure decreases neuron excitability and size, changes the structure of the hippocampus (a memory center), decreases glucose transport to the brain, and inhibits the formation of new memories. Chronic stress exposure has also been shown to negatively alter immune cell function, shifting the ratio of T-cells in the body which can lead to hypersensitivity reactions and autoimmune disorders. Additionally, these studies (here and here) showed that chronic psychosocial stress is associated with decreased telomere length and telomerase activity as well as increased oxidative stress, suggesting that stress actually accelerates the cellular aging process independent of your chronological age.

Cortisol as a biochemical marker of chronic stress

Source: Lee, D. Y., Kim, E., & Choi, M. H. (2015). Technical and clinical aspects of cortisol as a biochemical marker of chronic stress. BMB reports, 48(4), 209–216.

Go Deeper: Check out these additional resources on allostatic load 

Five Science-Backed Solutions That Can Help

Although psychoscial stress contributes to negative health outcomes and chronic disease, research has identified ways that we can combat the stressors we encounter every day. Here are the top five that we found in the literature:

  1. Socialization—Human are social creatures. From birth we’re incorporated into communities and for most of us that’s something that lasts for the entirety of our lives. We have parents, sibling, extended family, friends, and our community. Because our modern lives are so connected, we often forget the important role socialization play not only in human development, but also in human health. Research suggests that social isolation increase pro-inflammatory factors in our bodies; by engaging in frequent social activities, particularly ones that foster a sense of altruism (e.g., volunteering) we can combat the long term exposure to cortisol and other stress mediators caused by chronic psychosocial stress.

  2. Music—Music and musicality is something that’s innate to humans. Nobody teaches us to make noise and dance, but anyone who’s put on a song with a baby in the room knows that music and movement is in us. Aside from being enjoyable, listening to music has been shown to increase activity in the autonomic nervous system allowing us to recover from stress events faster.

  3. Exercise—A type of stress in and of itself, you might be surprised to learn that exercise is a great way to reduce circulating cortisol levels. In fact, this study suggests that exercise is a beneficial means for preventing and improving the metabolic and psychological comorbidities induced by chronic stress exposure.

  4. Spiritual Practices—Spiritual practices like meditation, prayer, and yoga can help decrease negative affect and promote relaxation. This study in yoga practitioners showed that meditation is associated with increased alpha wave activity in the brain and a downregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Essentially, spiritual practices slow your brain waves and reduce the production of pro-inflammatory biomarkers like cortisol, making them an ideal addition to your stress management protocol.

  5. Laughter—They say that “laughter is the best medicine” and according to science that’s actually true. In 1989, Loma Linda University (yes, like the Blue Zone) was the first to publish a study on the stress mitigating effects of laughter. Since then laughter has been shown to decrease circulating cortisol and IL-6 levels which reduces systemic inflammation and lowers your risk for developing a chronic disease. 

Our Takeaway

As modern humans, we’re stressed in ways out ancestors likely never imagined. Because of this we need to find ways to build stress management into our daily lives. The above five strategies are some of the most researched ways to attenuate the negative effects chronic stress has on our lives and can easily be incorporated to your longevity protocol to extend your healthspan and keep you free of age-related disease.

Go Deeper: Learn more about stress reactivity and health with these additional resources

What do you do to combat stress? Have you tried any of our solutions? Let us know:

This content is general in nature and for informational purposes only. Nowgevity content is not intended to constitute medical or other professional advice and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, procedure, or treatment, whether it is a prescription medication, over-the-counter drug, vitamin, supplement, or herbal alternative. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have on Nowgevity’s website or emails. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk. 

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