Sunday, 17 April 2011

Why being stressed makes you old

A few years back I was at a presentation by the excellent Dr Jeffrey Bland on developments in nutrition and health and he mentioned something I'd never heard of before which really caught my attention - and that was Telomeres.

Jeff described telomeres as fuses on the end of your chromosomes, however in last weeks Economist they were wonderfully described as 'to chromosomes what plastic caps are to shoelaces - they stop them fraying at the ends'. I loved this description which gives a great analogy for explaining their importance - telomeres protect your chromosomes from damage, but they are constantly shortening over time and when they run out the chromosomes can no longer replicate.

This is why controlling the rate at which the telomeres 'burn' is the key to slowing down the ageing process and keeping your body young through your cells replacing themselves.

It has been known for some time that chronic stress causes accelerated shortening of the telomeres, however what warranted a mention in the Science and technology section of the Economist is the recent suggestion by a group of researchers from the University of California that active stress management not only stops the telomeres from shortening but it can even lengthen them again. The supplement Resveratrol, derived from grapes, has already been shown to do this, but the idea that non-food/drug related telomere regeneration is possible is very significant.

It's very early research, so not conclusive, but it suggests that talking therapies such as counselling can actually lengthen the telomeres. So by neglecting to address stress or anxiety you can speed up the ageing process, but if you make a conscious effort to manage your stress you can also slow it down.

The impact of your state of mind on your health is well documented which is why I often make recommendations to clients that have nothing to do with nutrition but a lot to do with stress management. These include breathing exercises, scheduling 'me time', identifying the stressors in their lives and making changes to avoid or minimise them, as well as counselling for anxiety or depression.

Whilst talking therapies still might have some stigma attached to them, I hope that more research in this area will lead to greater emphasis on the importance of mental health in looking after an individuals physical health.

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