Stress—possibly the worst thing nearly all of us experience on a daily basis, which can end up doing significant damage to our health.
Now, to be clear, it isn’t acute stress we’re talking. No, the short period of time during a CrossFit workout, when you feel like you might die—that’s actually beneficial for your body. We’re talking about chronic stress. The constantly-feeling-overwhelmed, no-energy-for-anything, pull-your-hair-out type of stress. The kind that’s a definite killer.
What’s particularly insidious about stress, though, is that it hurts your body in total silence. You’ve probably already adapted to that stressful morning commute, the boss you can’t stand, and the demanding significant other—but your body and brain sure haven’t. The extra stress you’ve learned to deal with every day may be leading to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, or even a heart attack. Yikes.
Let’s take a look at how daily stress is making us wrinkly and older-looking sooner than we should—and four ways we can reverse it.
4 ways stress makes us age more quickly
One obvious way that you can see the effects of stress is on your skin. Chronic worry triggers four distinct processes in the body that can cause premature aging.
1. Spikes inflammation
When the body is put under stress, whether physical or psychological, it starts to release cytokines, immune chemicals that activate responses against infection. These cytokines can be both pro- and anti-inflammatory, and can be beneficial when there is actually an infection or disease to fight.
The problem occurs when the body produces the compounds over long periods of time. This over-activation of the immune system can trigger autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, and skin problems. You can see this physically on your skin when wrinkles appear. Imagine this unseen inflammation as the feeling of a flu coming on. You feel sore, achy, and a little run-down. Now imagine this feeling is instead going on inside your very cells. Not good.
2. Disrupts sleep
Turns out that getting your “beauty sleep” is a cliche for a reason. One of the sneakiest and most powerful ways stress hurts us is by interfering with our body’s ability to repair itself through sleep. When you’re unable to fall asleep and rest well overnight doesn’t just leave you jonesing for cup after cup of coffee the next day—it also damages your skin. Poor sleep shows up on our faces as inflammation—this could mean acne, increased sensitivity, dryness, and much more. Overnight, your body also produces new collagen that repairs wrinkles and plumps up your skin. And the rise in growth hormones during sleep allows damaged cells to repair themselves. This just doesn’t happen if you’re only getting the bare minimum number of hours.
3. Increases cortisol
When you feel stressed, your body produces the hormone cortisol—essentially the biological version of sounding the alarm in a “fight or flight” response. Cortisol slows down the immune system, disrupts digestion, inhibits growth, and causes the skin to produce extra oil. Hello, breakouts.
4. Impairs cell division
Telomeres—the protective casings on the end of each strand of DNA—are crucial to the aging process. When cells divide to form new ones—the process that keeps skin young—the telomeres get slightly shorter each time. This is normal. The body naturally produces enzymes to repair the telomeres—unless we’re stressed. Stress inflames the system and inhibits the production of these restorative enzymes, and over time the telomeres shrink, causing skin to look aged and wrinkled.
How to reverse the damage
At this point, you might feel that stress is out to get you. That’s not to say that these effects are irreversible. Though some of these strategies might seem pretty obvious, following them day in, day out will get your system back on track.
1. Eat a balanced diet
If you want to age more gracefully, a healthy diet is one of the most important choices you can make. Eating plenty of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals gives your body the fuel it needs to fight free radicals. Proper collagen production also requires a large amount of nutrients.
So what foods should you eat? Healthy protein sources are essential—think grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs, and wild fish. Also take in lots of healthy fats like coconut oil, avocados, and olive oil. Vegetables should make up the majority of your carbohydrate intake, and dark green vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and kale will give you the best bang for your buck by packing in the vitamins and minerals.
2. Drink plenty of water
Nearly 75 percent of Americans are chronically dehydrated, and this spells big trouble for our skin. Loading up on the water can actually reverse the havoc that stress wreaks on the largest organ in the body. Drink at least 64 ounces per day. If you’re a regular coffee drinker, you need even more, since coffee has a mild diuretic effect.
3. Rest up
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” How many times have we heard this maxim? It’s time to start taking your beauty rest seriously, as it’s crucial for skin regeneration and preventing breakouts—the National Sleep Foundation recommends at least 7 to 9 hours every night.
4. Get enough exercise
Exercise is not only an excellent stress reliever—it’s great for your brain’s health, too. Make sure you are hitting the gym at least a few times per week and getting your heart rate up. And don’t forget about the weights! Strong muscles give you a more youthful appearance and help your skin maintain its elasticity.
The bottom line
Don’t let stress get you down. While stress and aging are a normal part of life, that doesn’t mean you have to let them take hold earlier than they should. To stay “younger” longer, follow a healthy lifestyle, full of nutrient-dense foods, restful sleep, and stress-busting exercise. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho