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Modern society seems to specialize in creating stress for its inhabitants. Last month we coped with holiday stress. This month we’re still faced with workplace stress, the stress of commuting and financial stress (some of it the lingering effects of those holidays). There’s no question that all of these stresses can wreck your health and make you prone to debilitating disease. And medical research shows that stress wreaks its havoc at the cellular level. Luckily, the tools you need to de-stress are absolutely free for the taking.
Stress does more than make you feel worn out. It can kill. When researchers at Oregon State University measured the stress levels of about 1,000 men for 18 years, they found that the ones who experienced persistently moderate or high levels of stressful life events suffered a 50 percent higher mortality rate.
According to this study, the men who lived longer in the face of stress were in good health, married, didn’t smoke and drank moderate amounts of alcohol.
“Being a teetotaler and a smoker were risk factors for mortality,” says Carolyn Aldwin, lead author of the study and a professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State. “So perhaps trying to keep your major stress events to a minimum, being married and having a glass of wine every night is the secret to a long life.”
This study found that stress that was ongoing and prolonged for a continual period of time was the most destructive. “People are hardy, and they can deal with a few major stress events each year,” Aldwin notes. “But our research suggests that long-term, even moderate stress can have lethal effects.”
Stressed Out Cells
Within the body, stress can cause damage by altering the behavior of immune cells. When Canadian researchers examined immune cells called monocytes in people who were under the stress of caring for a relative with cancer they found that these white blood cells created more inflammation than they would under normal circumstances. That type of excess inflammation may be linked to a greater risk of chronic diseases like arthritis, depression, cancer or heart disease.
According to researcher Gregory Miller, Ph.D., “…something goes awry in (these) white blood cells so they are not able to ‘receive’ the signal from cortisol (a circulating hormone) that tells them to shut down inflammation.” Cortisol is a hormone that normally regulates inflammation, increasing or decreasing its occurrence. But in these stressful situations, even though the hormone is telling the monocytes to calm down, the monocytes don’t get the message.
Miller notes that “… people have traditionally thought that higher cortisol is the reason that stress contributes to disease, but this work shows that, at least in (these cases), it’s actually the opposite — there’s too little cortisol signal being heard by the cells, rather than too much.”
Allergic To Stress
If you suffer from allergies, the effect of stress on the immune system can make allergic reactions worse. When scientists at Ohio State University put people in stressful situations, they found that their allergic sensitivity increased by an average of 75 percent. In addition, their allergic reactions were still worsened a day later.
“The results of this study should alert practitioners and patients alike to the adverse effects of stress on allergic reactions in the nose, chest, skin and other organs that may seemingly resolve within a few minutes to hours after starting, but may reappear the next day when least expected,” observes Gailen Marshall, a co-investigator on the project and professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Mississippi.
The researchers also noted that if you suffer allergies that are linked to asthma, stress not only makes your allergies stronger and longer-lasting, they may endanger your chances of a deadly asthma attack.
If you’re feeling stressed out, you don’t have to give in to anxiety; you can fight back.
Meditation represents one of the most well-known methods of stress relief. Meditation can consist of simply sitting in a peaceful place and calming your thoughts, focusing on controlling your breathing or mentally repeating a word to yourself over and over again. Research shows that these techniques produce physiological changes that can offset the harm caused by stress.
In a study of college students at American University who spent 10 weeks practicing Transcendental Meditation™, researchers found that the youngsters habituated more quickly to stressful stimuli and reported less sleepiness.
Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that looked at “mindfulness meditation” found that this technique improved people’s immune responses. In addition, the mindfulness technique, which entails focusing your attention “on the moment” for a period of up to one hour a day, also increased electrical activity in a part of the brain associated with lower anxiety and more positive emotions.
Exercise Exorcises Stress
Exercise has long been touted a stress-relief mechanism, and research confirms this benefit. A study at the University of Colorado at Boulder found that exercising regularly in moderation can help guard against the negative effects of stress on immunity. In a laboratory study, researchers found that an aerobic exercise like running kept the immune system functioning at full capacity.
“This suggests that what we need to do is keep our exercise programs going and keep moderate, regular and voluntary exercise going,” says Monika Fleshner, the researcher who led the study. “Then when we are hit with our deadlines or stress at work, marital stress or loss of a loved one, we may be able to better buffer those negative effects of stress on the immune system.”
Other research shows that an exercise like yoga can also offset the harmful results of stress. A study at Ohio State found that 20 minutes a day of yoga combined with mindful meditation reduced people’s perceived stress by more than 10 percent. The folks who did the yoga and meditation also reported that they fell asleep more easily and experienced less anxiety.
As much of this research shows, stress isn’t all in your head; it infiltrates your body, disturbing your physiology in unhealthy ways. But get it under control, filtering out its harmful effects with physical activity and meditation, and you can stride forward to a less strident, healthier future.