The hormones behind stress act on the entire body, compounding many preexisting health problems and often creating new ones. These hormones can also actually shrink regions of the brain, affecting memory, cognition and concentration. But there is a technique you can use to combat these hormones.
Question: What effect does stress have on aging?
Jonny Bowden: I singled out four processes that I think age us. And they are systemic, and they operate on the heart and the brain and the lungs and the joints and the muscles and just about every system – the immune system and hormonal system. And one of them is stress. Now, stress doesn’t necessarily cause these diseases, although in some cases they can, but it exacerbates almost any condition you can mention.
Stress can cause an outbreak of Herpes Simplex, it can cause an outbreak of asthma, it can cause an outbreak of acne. And it can certainly make serious degenerative diseases a lot worse. So, there’s a very intimate connection between stress and aging. Stress shrinks – and when I talk about stress, I’m talking about the hormones that your body secretes in response to stressful situations, such as cortisol, or adrenaline. These hormones, particularly cortisol, actually shrink areas of the brain particularly the hippocampus, which has to do with thinking, memory, and cognition. And in studies lab animals who are under a great deal of stress actually have smaller hippocampuses. Their memory is impaired; their resources are spent dealing with the stress. So you find that when you are under a lot of stress, you don’t remember things as well. You don’t control your appetite as well because you can only concentrate on so many things and if one of them is the emergency that stress is the signal about, then controlling your appetite isn’t going to be high on the list. Digesting food isn’t going to be high on the list. You’re trying to survive. Stress is a very primitive signal to the body. It was meant to tell our Paleolithic ancestors that there’s a wooly mammoth coming and that you had better be able to run up a tree or pick up a club and fight him off. That’s why it’s called the “fight or flight” hormone.
Now these hormones keep us alive. They have tremendous survival purpose. But they weren’t meant to be on all the time. It’s kind of like the fifth gear in your car. They are not meant to be petal to the metal all the time. And unfortunately, most of us in the way that we live have that stress hormone dial turned up far more than it should be.
Question: How can we minimize stress in our lives?
Jonny Bowden: We do think that stress is not an easy thing to do in our current industrialized, westernized society. But there are some things that you can do to lower stress hormones, and they are very effective. One of them, and I would consider this to be one of the top anti-aging strategies I know of and I talk about it in the book, is deep breathing. And it doesn’t take that much.
There are a couple of things about deep breathing. Number one, when you take deep breaths, really deep, from the diaphragm, slow, conscious breaths in and out. That’s kind of incompatible with the stress response. That’s why people will tell you when somebody’s really angry, count to 10 or take a deep breath. Because we intuitively know that that’s not really compatible with the stress response; it lowers blood pressure, it lowers cortisol. So, meditation, which not everybody can do, and it’s tough for some people, it’s tough for me, works by doing exactly what deep breathing does. So, if you can’t meditate – if you can meditate all power to you, that’s probably the best stress reliever, or the best strategy for bringing down those stress hormones that has ever been tested. But if you can’t do that, even four to five minutes a day of just sitting quietly and doing deep breathing, counting in for four, out for four, and concentrating only on your breath. Anybody can do that for four minutes. I’m the most ADD high energy guy I know, and I can do it for four minutes. So, if you do that for four minutes a day, even a couple of times a day, you actually do kind of – it’s sort of like putting the – in a tea kettle, opening up that little thing to allow some pressure to escape. And it really does reduce the level of cortisol in the body and that goes a long way toward reducing overall systemic stress.
Another thing that you can do, and I talk about this also in the What to Do section of my Live Longer book, is make a gratitude list. Wake up in the morning and list 10 things you’re grateful for. The kinds of things we think about when we think about what we’re really grateful for is not compatible with anger and rage, and worry. And if we can just relax for a minute and put some attention, some mindful attention on the things we are grateful for, or things we could do for others. It really goes a long way towards balancing out that phoneticness that comes with stress, and it does relieve stress and reduce cortisol.