How Depression and Stress Make Us Age Faster
Our biochemistry is dramatically affected by our thoughts and emotions. Stress and depression can produce high cortisol levels that might shorten your life. Here’s how it works and what to do about it.
IT’S DEPRESSING to think that my bouts depressive mud wrestling have contributed to making me older. I envision those sweet, little telomeres shrinking with each desultory thought.
As I wrote about here, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn won a Nobel Prize for her research demonstrating that chronic stress shortens life. Whether it’s stress or depression, pervasively negative thoughts are quickly infused into emotions that kick off a panoply of biochemical reactions, one of which causes telomerase from keeping telomeres from prematurely shortening with each cell division.
What the heck am I talking about!?
I’m talking about understanding that thoughts affect you biochemically. Good ones get that feel-good hormone dopamine firing, and all is love. Bad ones generate cortisol, and all is shit.
Telomeres tell the tale.
Information about telomeres attracts my attention because telomere length is a strong indicator of lifespan. I like lifespan, something I attempt to extend in keeping with my “live long and strong” moto. So, a recent BBC News article written by Michelle Roberts and entitled, Depression ‘makes us biologically older’ peaked my interest.
In the article, Ms. Roberts writes:
“Telomeres cap the end of our chromosomes which house our DNA. Their job is to stop any unwanted loss of this vital genetic code. As cells divide, the telomeres get shorter and shorter. Measuring their length is a way of assessing cellular ageing.
People who were or had been depressed had much shorter telomeres than those who had never experienced depression. This difference was clear even after lifestyle differences, such as heavy drinking and smoking, were taken into account.
Furthermore, the most severely and chronically depressed patients had the shortest telomeres.”
Telomeres look like this:
You can see that they are the short DNA sequences on the end of chromosomes. To help maintain their length, telomeres must be nourished by a ribonucleoprotein enzyme called telomerase, as described in Three Months to Longer Life.
Among those harmful biochemical reactions formed by stress and depression is the “fight or flight” steroid hormone known as cortsiol, or in the vernacular, the “death hormone”.
Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal cortex, which is located on top of both kidneys. Your pituitary gland, located in the brain, determines how much cortisol is released in relation to what’s happening to you in the moment.
In a healthy, non-stressed person, the benefits of cortisol include blood pressure management, reduced inflammation and a stronger immune system. When under a physical or psychological stress evoked by some traumatic event, cortisol converts protein into fuel.
Once your brain no longer perceives a situation as threatening, your cortisol level is supposed to return to normal. But under chronic stress conditions, or when depressed, high, damaging cortisol levels are maintained.
The Five Negative Effects of High Cortisol Levels
As enumerated by Dr. Brent Barlow, persistently high cortisol levels have these four negative effects on your health:
- High cortisol decreases immunity. Cortisol is a corticosteroid and like prednisone, cortisone, and beclomethasone, it inhibits the actions of white blood cells. Initially, this usually leads to increased susceptibility to infections. Eventually, this may actually lead to long stretches of time without colds because the immune system is so weakened.
- High cortisol increases abdominal fat deposition. For reasons still unknown, high levels of cortisol induce the body to lay down adipose tissue in the abdomen and upper back/neck. In fact, for those people affected it is next to impossible to lose abdominal fat without addressing stress.
- High cortisol breaks down muscle, bone, and connective tissue. Cortisol is a gluconeogenic hormone. Gluconeogenesis is a process that creates sugar from existing tissue. Cortisol promotes the breakdown of muscle, bone, and connective tissue to increase blood sugar for the brain.
- High cortisol inhibits thyroid hormone activation. The thyroid gland makes 2 major hormones; thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyroine (T3). It predominantly makes T4, which is actually an in-active hormone. T4 is carried in the bloodstream and eventually hits a receptor on or in a cell and becomes activate to T3. High cortisol inhibits this conversion and thus creates a form of hypothyroid. (Source)
And now, thanks to Dr. Blackburn’s research, we can add another, a fifth, perhaps the most pernicious negative health effect of all, a prematurely shortened lifespan:
5. High cortisol shortens telomeres, a major predictor of lifespan. With each cell division, telomeres naturally shorten, but under sustained stress too much cortisol is produced and hinders the cell’s ability to use telomerase to keep telomere length. People under chronic stress, such as long-term care givers, such as those with both elderly parents and children for which to care, can have shorter telomeres and therefore less active immune systems.
What To Do If You’re Depressed Or Stressed?
The fastest, best way to reduced stress/depression is to go get a hug. Hugging someone you care about makes your brain produce dopamine. Dopamine is the “love hormone” and, as you might expect, makes you feel better.
The next thing to do is to read some of what I’ve written on the topic.
What follows are some snippets of articles dealing with stress and depression. I urge you to read those that are appealing, but know that no amount of reading will magically evaporate negative emotional reactions to the vagaries of life.
If you’re consistently depressed, seek help. Begin with a friend or loved one. He or she can help either soothe you, or help you seek professional help. Remember to get a hug, too.
Your telomeres will appreciate it.
Here’s a sampling of what I’ve written about stress and depression. Surely, one will be useful to you.
I know you’re human, because no other creatures can read, and you’re reading this, so you’re human. Since you’re human, you get depressed from time to time. Me too! Here are 11 actions to beat your depression into submission. Collectively, they address the dimensions within which we live our lives.
Using antidepressants are not the only way give relief to mild from moderate depression. Dr. Weil has four suggestions, I’ve written about 10. Here’s how a little walk with Rumi can help relieve the blues.
The Journal of the American Medical Association provides evidence that says, antidepressants, on average, may be little more effective than sugar pills in treating depression. Here’s why.
The science is in – for mild to moderate depression, pharmaceutical antidepressants are no more effective than placebos. But the science also says that there are four steps you can take that are effective to reduce depression. Reducing or eliminating mild/moderate depression is all about anti-inflammatory foods, supplements, exercise and a shift in cognition (perception).
Yes, stress is a super ager, but it’s manageable and the benefits of doing so are huge. Watch SciShow’s Hank Green present some details, and Physicist Michio Kaku dive into how stress messes with genetics.
Where do you spend most of your time each day? I don’t mean physically… I mean, where’s your head? Turns out, to be happy there’s only one place to be.
Meditation delivers better health, emotional resiliency and brainpower. All you have to do is… to do it a bit each day. The science is clear – -meditation builds a better you. Here are seven benefits of meditation.