The Secret to Aging Gracefully: Reduce Stress
You know the stereotypes of growing old. They include waning health, lack of energy, a near-zero libido, and countless hours watching television during your last days. The get-older narrative says your knees should ache, your memory and concentration should decline, and you should creak and groan getting out of bed in the morning.
Certain things slow down as you grow older, and you can’t reverse aging, but you can be in peak mental, physical, and emotional health no matter what stage of life. You have significant power to create your very best self in your 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond.
“The fact is that scientists have found new ways for us to take control of our genes,” says Sara Gottfried, MD, in Younger. “For example, the naughty aging genes usually associated with fat and wrinkles can be altered with diet, exercise, and other lifestyle choices. Simply put, by turning your good genes on and your bad genes off, you can actually prevent aging—no matter how old you are.”
You don’t need to understand genetics to age gracefully, but you have plenty of strategies within your control to do it well. Healthy aging and cultivating a vibrant, happy life requires a healthy diet but also effective lifestyle strategies including managing stress.
How Stress Affects Your Health
There are many types of stress. Chronic stress is when it affects and derails your daily joy. The effects of stress can become far-reaching including getting sick more often, social isolation, and accelerating the aging process.
“Stress is probably the single most potent enemy of longevity on the planet,” says Jonny Bowden, PhD, in The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer, who notes that stress contributes to nearly every disease. “Stress can and will shorten your life.”
He names stress among “The Four Horsemen of Aging”— free radicals, inflammation, and glycation — that can curtail aging gracefully and longevity.
Research confirms that stress contributes to the development of chronic conditions and diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
Stress can also make you sick more often. One meta-analysis of over 300 empirical articles spanning 30 years found a relationship between psychological stress and immunity. Researchers found acute stressors (such as taking an exam) and chronic stressors (like constantly worrying about your job status) had different impacts on your immune system.
More specifically, researchers found that acute stressors, such as fight-or-flight situations, can potentially benefit your immune system. Think of those stressors as building resilience. Chronic stressors, on the other hand, can detrimentally impact your immune system.
A healthy human body is amazingly adept at handling stressors, yet as you age, studies show your immune system becomes less resilient to these stressors. This can make you less able to respond to, for example, vaccines and immune responses, and potentially creating early mortality.
“Chronic stress causes your brain to shrink and your belly to grow,” says Mark Hyman, MD, in The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. “That’s because the main stress hormone, cortisol, damages the brain, making the memory center (the hippocampus) shrink. Stress shortens our telomeres, the little end caps on our chromosomes. The shorter your telomeres, the shorter your life.”
While hormonal imbalances underlie stress-related problems — including estrogen, testosterone, and insulin — cortisol is a major player.
“Cortisol is a hormone that’s released during times of stress, whether physical or psychological,” says Jason Fung, MD, in The Complete Guide to Fasting. “This activates the fight-or-flight response— it’s a survival adaptation.”
Being chronically stressed keeps cortisol ramped up, which ages you more quickly.
In Younger, Gottfried describes how we become less resilient to stress as we grow older — a poor night’s sleep has a more detrimental impact as you age. She calls the process inflammaging: “the unfortunate hybrid of increasing inflammation, stiffness, and accelerated aging.”
“Too much cortisol and you become insulin resistant and store belly fat,” says Hyman.
Growth Hormone: The Key Hormone to Aging Gracefully
Another key hormonal player involved in stress-aging is somatotropin, more commonly known as growth hormone, which Bowden calls “the ultimate anti-aging hormone.”
Low levels of growth hormone become a surefire way to age you. Research shows side effects include decreased muscle mass and exercise capacity, more visceral fat, impaired quality of life, increased cardiovascular disease risk, decreases in bone mass, and higher mortality. In other words, deficient levels of growth hormone become a practically guaranteed way to not age gracefully.
One study found chronically stressed older caregivers had lower growth hormone levels. Researchers believe those levels partly explained why they responded poorly to the influenza vaccine and suffered delayed wound healing.
“Replacing growth hormone in older people with low levels has significant anti-aging benefits,” says Fung, who adds that growth hormone replacement therapy has unwanted side effects. Instead, you want to naturally boost growth hormone. ‚— more ways to do that in a minute.
Balance becomes key to managing and optimizing cortisol, growth hormone, and other hormones. Learning to roll with stress becomes a crucial way to do that.
Simply put, when you’re stressed out, your hormones become imbalanced, which accelerates aging. The good news is that you have plenty of tools to manage stress and age gracefully.
12 Stress Management Tips to Age Gracefully
A key component of growing old gracefully is learning stress management. How to deal with and relieve stress plays a significant role in healthy aging.
“The key point is that the right food, sleep, exercise, and detoxification can reverse many hormone problems associated with aging,” says Gottfried in Younger. Here are 12 ways to manage stress and age gracefully.
1. Eat more fruits and vegetables
One Australian study with over 60,000 adults over 45 found increasing fruits and vegetables might help reduce psychological distress in middle-aged and older adults. Among their benefits, a wide array of antioxidant-rich, colorful produce including leafy green vegetables and berries can reduce the oxidative stress that Bowden says accelerates aging.
2. Drink more green tea
Green tea might be the perfect way to reduce stress and age well. Among its benefits, researchers show the polyphenols in green tea can protect your skin against premature aging, and the L-theanine can lower stress levels. Look for organic green tea, and if you’re caffeine-sensitive opt for decaffeinated varieties.
3. Get the right nutrients
Researchers find foods rich in polyphenols can protect against age-related diseases including atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia. Resveratrol, a polyphenol found in grape and blueberries, has beneficial effects as anti-aging compounds through modulating oxidative damage, inflammation, telomere attrition, and other hallmarks of aging. To get therapeutic amounts of resveratrol and other potentially anti-aging nutrients, you’ll probably want to supplement. Talk with your chiropractor or other healthcare professional to incorporate the correct doses of resveratrol and other anti-aging, stress-lowering nutrients into your diet
4. Nix the sugar
Sugar should be avoided for stress management and healthy aging. Blood sugar spikes and crashes, which causes mood swings and low energy levels — but that’s only part of the problem. Glycation, which Bowden says contributes to aging, occurs when excess sugar “gums up” up your proteins, making them sticky and ineffective to do their jobs. Glycation creates advanced glycation end products, appropriately called AGEs, that contributes to many conditions including skin aging. Sugar comes in sneaky forms — even in healthy foods including almond milk — so read labels and ingredients. If it has more than five grams of sugar per serving, put it back.
5. Lower inflammation
Research shows many Americans eat 20 times or more inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids than anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. The results appear around our waistline and overall health. Studies link inflammation to many diseases, including obesity. Inflammatory foods include potential food sensitivities —like dairy and gluten — as well as foods heavy in omega-6 fatty acids, like vegetable oil. Instead, focus on anti-inflammatory, nutrient-rich foods including wild-caught seafood, freshly ground flaxseed, chia seeds, berries, and leafy and cruciferous non-starchy vegetables.
6. Try meditation
One of the benefits of meditation is stress reduction. A study among 40 secondary school teachers who taught children with behavioral problems found that Transcendental Meditation helped reduce psychological distress in teachers and support staff.
7. Stay flexible with yoga
Among its benefits, research shows yoga can enhance muscular strength and body flexibility, promote and improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life. Like with meditation, many forms of yoga exist, including gentle yoga, Vinyasa flow, and hot yoga. Finding the style that works for you might include sampling a few classes or trying out some workouts online. A key component of yoga is breathing, which also reduces stress and helps you age gracefully.
8. Lift weights
“As we grow older, we lose muscle—it just disappears,” says Hyman in Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?. “It happens because our bodies produce less testosterone and growth hormone, and higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.” Weight resistance becomes an excellent way to counter muscle loss, reduce stress, and get (and stay) lean into midlife and beyond. You don’t need much time to get these benefits. Even 15–20 minutes a few times a week can produce stellar results. Form is important, so please work with a personal trainer especially if you’re new with weight lifting. Injuring yourself will only create more stress!
9. Get more sleep
Growth hormone is primarily released during the deepest sleep levels. If you’re not regularly getting deep, replenishing sleep, you may not be making enough of this hormone. Additionally, sleep loss can keep cortisol levels high the following evening and affect the resiliency of your stress response. Getting sufficient sleep — around eight hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep — requires solid sleep hygiene. This includes turning off electronics an hour or two before bed and eliminating anything stimulating that could interfere with sleep.
10. Try intermittent fasting
You can effectively raise growth hormone without a potentially dangerous hormone replacement. “The most potent natural stimulus to growth hormone secretion is fasting,” says Fung. “In one study, over a five-day fasting period, growth hormone secretion more than doubled.” If you’re a new to fasting, try intermittent fasting a few times every week. Have dinner, close up the kitchen for the night, and push breakfast as late as possible the next morning. You’ll get a 14-hour or longer fasting window that will naturally boost growth hormone and can help you lose weight
11. Eat more quality protein
“Protein is required to maintain and build muscle, and with loss of muscle (sarcopenia) come age-related hormonal changes, higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol, and lower levels of anti-aging hormones like growth hormone and testosterone,” says Hyman in Food. “That’s why studies show that as you age you need more protein to prevent disease and death.” Smart protein sources include free-range poultry, grass-fed beef, and wild-caught seafood. Vegans and vegetarians can get good amounts of quality protein from foods like legumes, nuts, and seeds.
12. Visit your chiropractor
One of the best ways to lower stress and reduce or reverse many components of aging — including inflammation, oxidative stress, pain relief, and a strong immune system — is to visit your chiropractor. Chiropractic care provides an optimal way to age gracefully and reduce stress. Along with addressing vertebral misalignments, your chiropractor can develop an individualized protocol that helps you stay healthy, lean, and vibrant as you grow older.
Chronic stress can sabotage your life in so many ways, including aging you faster. Self-care including learning how to handle stress is not a luxury if you want to age gracefully. With these 12 key strategies, you’ll have everything you need to grow older feeling like your best self.