Last time we learned that our DNA is protected by structures called telomeres, and that stress can cause these telomeres to shorten. This causes the cells to reduce their activity to a bare minimum to keep the cells alive. Injuries don’t heal as quickly, cells don’t replenish as quickly, our immune system reduces in activity and we are more vulnerable to disease. Our ageing process has been accelerated due to stress.
I also told you about another exciting piece of research where Professor Blackburn sent Group A – The Stress Group away for a week-long relaxation retreat and looked at their DNA again afterwards. And, would you believe it – their DNA was longer again! How did that happen?
The length of the telomeres is held in a careful balance by two opposing processes. On one hand, each time a cell divides the telomeres get shorter. On the other hand, an enzyme called telomerase adds extra bits on to the end of the DNA to restore some of the telomere. In a normal cell under normal conditions, the balance will be tipped slightly towards cell divisions, so that each time a cell divides the telomere will get shorter and the enzyme will add on almost all of what was lost, but not quite all. Overall, this makes the telomere only a little shorter.
However, when a person gets stressed their stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) completely knock out the activity of the enzyme telomerase. This means that each time a cell divides, there’s no enzyme there to add on what was lost and so the telomeres get shorter and shorter much more quickly.
This explains what happened in Professor Blackburn’s research, for which she won the Nobel Prize. People who were under long-term stress, and had no telomerase working in their cells, were sent on a relaxation week. During that week, their telomerase levels rose so much that, for a short time, the balance was slightly tipped towards their telomeres getting longer.
So what are the implications for us?
We know that stress affects health in a wide range of ways, even down to the DNA in our cells. Of course, not all stressful situations can be completely avoided but Dr Albert Ellis, who developed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) once said “man is not disturbed by events, but of the view he takes of them”.
More and more research is showing the positive benefits of reducing stress in day to day life, and developing a mindful, positive attitude. In fact, one study has showed that belonging to a faith-based community (features of which are a strong support network and a positive frame of mind during stressful situations) can increase your life expectancy by 4-14years!
Here are some practical tips to help:
- Cliched as it may sound, it helps to talk. If you have a close friend or relative who would be able to listen and support you, arrange to meet up and talk it through.
- Counselling may also help, if you need someone to listen and give professional advice
- Many online or app versions of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) are now available
- Research has shown that belonging to a faith-based community can increase your lifespan by between 4-14years and can also increase quality of life. It’s thought that this is due to the combination of a strong support network and regular prayer or meditation.
- Learning a relaxation technique such as mindfulness or anchoring can be helpful in the midst of a stressful situation, to keep you calm.
- If you feel you may have anxiety or depression, then having a chat with your GP about medication may be helpful. Having said that, research has recently shown that regular aerobic exercise is more effective for combating mild depression and anxiety than any prescription medication, and has many other health benefits too.