Stress can increase your biological age. How to reverse it

  • Stress can temporarily change our biological age, but the process reverses when the stressor is resolved, according to a new study.
  • Stress can come from emotional distress, disease, drug treatment, environmental exposure, or lifestyle changes.
  • Chronic stress occurs when the body stays on high alert, even after the stress eases.

Biological age can increase when people are under stress, but it can be reversed when the tension eases, according to a study published today in Cell Metabolism.

Researchers used DNA methylation clocks to measure and note changes in biological age as it responds to stress in humans and mice.

Methylation is a chemical reaction in the body where a molecule is added to DNA, proteins, or other molecules. Changes due to methylation can affect a person’s risk of certain diseases.

What the study on biological age and stress revealed

In one experiment, the scientists performed heterochronic parabiosis – a surgical procedure attaching pairs of mice that were 3 months and 20 months old to share a common circulation.

The researchers said the biological age of the younger mice could increase relatively quickly due to heterochronic parabiosis, a stressful situation. However, after the mice were separated, the biological age of the younger mice was restored.

Based on that information, the researchers hypothesized that naturally occurring physical or emotional tension periods would have the same reaction, triggering reversible changes in biological age.

The scientists looked at periods of trauma in humans, such as emergency surgery, postpartum recovery, and recovery from COVID-19.

After emergency surgery, they noted that the increase in biological age was restored to baseline within days after the procedure. The same was true for postpartum recovery, although women experienced recovery at varying rates. For COVID-19, immunosuppressant drugs enhanced the biological clock recovery.

The researchers noted that in both animal models and humans, the biological age could change based on the following:

  • disease
  • drug treatment
  • lifestyle changes
  • environmental exposures

They said the study’s results indicate that biological age could be fluid, fluctuating, and malleable – ideas that challenge the traditional thinking that age moves in only one direction.

“The findings imply that severe stress increases mortality, at least in part, by increasing biological age,” said Vadim Gladyshev, Ph.D. a senior study author, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the director of redox medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in a press statement.

“This notion immediately suggests that mortality may be decreased by reducing biological age and that the ability to recover from stress may be an important determinant of successful aging and longevity. Finally, biological age may be a useful parameter in assessing physiological stress and its relief,” he added.

How stress affects the body

When faced with a stressor, either real or perceived, there is a fight or flight reaction, according to Harvard Health.

The brain sends signals, and the body reacts by readying itself to either fight the threat or flee from it.

Some bodily reactions include:

  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • Breathing quickens
  • Pain response dulls
  • Pupils dilate
  • Awareness and observation increase
  • Adrenaline is pumped through your body – giving you additional energy and strength

The body produces cortisol to help with extended alertness to face a threat.

“The flight or fight response is a psychological reaction when we are experiencing something dangerous or terrifying – mentally or physically,” said Babita Spinelli, LP, a psychotherapist and workplace mental health consultant in private practice. “It’s triggered by a release of hormones created to deal with the danger one is facing or fleeing from it.”

“In other words, the flight or fight response is a reaction to an experience or event perceived as stressful, scary, or traumatizing,” Spinelli told Medical News Today. “It activates a response in one’s nervous system and triggers extreme stress causing one to fight or flee.”

“Although this behavior is designed to survive a situation that feels ‘dangerous’ and may be helpful [short-term], a continuous, unaddressed flight or fight can create a negative physical reaction in the body,” Spinelli added. “Everything is temporarily halted during flight or fight. If an individual is consistently in flight or fight, this can create chronic stress which contributes to brain changes, anxiety, depression, sleep issues, high blood pressure, physical issues, and disease.”

Chronic stress occurs when people cannot slow their reaction to stress or remain on high alert, even after the stressor has passed.

High levels of cortisol for an extended time can result in the following:

  • Increased appetite and buildup of fat tissue
  • High blood pressure
  • Stress on the heart and lungs
  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches

All of this can take a toll on your body and health. The current study concludes it can also take time off of your life.

Reducing the effects of stress

“I have found that stress increases one’s biological age and can be positively impacted or restored by incorporating a healthy mental and physical lifestyle,” Spinelli said. “Paying attention to one’s mindset is also extremely powerful in reducing stress which ultimately positively impacts the body.”

“Experiences such as trauma and other major life stressors impact the experience of age. Trauma takes a toll on one’s mental and physical health,” Spinelli continued. “The toll of disease, surgery, and other traumatic experiences impact how one feels and how a person navigates life regardless of age. Individuals in their twenties can feel older when experiencing challenges and difficulties. If an individual doesn’t make space to recover and work on those traumas, it does catch up physically and accelerates the aging process. However, through restoration, which I see as paying and applying active attention to recovery, both physical and mental, there are reversals in the biological aging process. Leveraging healthy habits into one’s life helps an individual manage and take control over stress instead of stress leading.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just 10 minutes of daily activity can help reduce stress.

They suggest the following activities:

Exercise – Being active can improve emotional well-being. Getting up and dancing, moving around, or stretching for ten minutes can help.

Practice deep breathing – Try sitting with your eyes closed and breath deeply. Slowly release your breath and repeat ten times.

Meditate – A simple meditation is to sit quietly for 10 minutes and focus on your breath. Pay attention to how each breath feels as you inhale and exhale. When you find your thoughts wandering, bring them back to your breath.

Practice gratefulness – Each day, write down three to five things you are grateful for. As you continue to do this, you might become more positive throughout the day and continuously look for what makes you happy.

Be social – Spend time getting together and laughing with friends. Creating relationships provides a sense of belonging and can give life meaning.

Listen to music – Make a playlist of music you like, sit back, close your eyes, and listen.

Take care of your body – Exercise, eating right, limiting alcohol consumption, and not smoking or using tobacco products are the keys to a healthy life.

Using yoga to reduce stress

Many people use yoga to reduce stress in their life.

“Aside from the physical benefits, one of the best benefits of yoga is how it helps a person manage stress,” the American Osteopathic Association states.

“Yoga is a practice for one’s entire being, not just the physical container in which we find ourselves,” Allison Benzaken, a certified yoga instructor at Dew Yoga, told Medical News Today.

Yoga also influences the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve helps to flip the switch on one’s nervous system from a sympathetic “fight or flight” response to a parasympathetic “rest and digest” response, leading to the reduction of stress.

One study found that women who completed 12 sessions of yoga showed decreased stress, anxiety, and depression. The researchers noted that, when used as a complementary medicine, it could reduce the cost of treatment and the use of drugs to reduce symptoms.

“What sets yoga apart from other fitness modalities is the mind-body connection, which is initiated through intentional and specific breath techniques,” said Montana Mitchell, a master trainer with YogaSix. “These breath techniques, also known as pranayama, activate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and lower your resting heart rate. Breath is the root of yoga.”

In recent years, more medical professionals and scientists are focusing on the benefits on mind-body connections, which look at how our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes can positively or negatively affect physical health, according to the University of Minnesota.

“The mind-body connection is powerful,” Spinelli said. “The body keeps the score and chronic stress will wear down the body and cause premature aging.”

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