stress overlooked pillar of anti-aging lifespan healthspan and longevity

Addressing the Most Overlooked Pillar of Anti-aging

Latest posts by Dr. Carrie Lam, MD, DABFM, ABAARM, FAAMFM (see all)

When you think about aging well, you often start with the three main pillars that support good health: nutrition, movement, and stress. Many people put a huge amount of effort into optimizing their eating habits, supplements, and exercise routine believing this will increase their longevity as well.

Paradoxically, many health “optimizers” live highly stressful lives, never giving themselves a break. I’ve seen quite a few people who’ve spent years fooling themselves into believing their high stress levels are not contributing to their poor health. They believe that their other healthy lifestyle choices can protect them against stress.

The truth is that no one is immune to the physical effects of stress. Pushing yourself too hard will take a toll on your body, and eventually you’ll pay the price. In fact, if you want to increase your health span, there’s no getting around managing the different stressors in your life. A regular stress management routine is just as crucial for anti-aging as nutrients and movement.

Healthy stress vs. chronic stress

It’s important to recognize that not all stress is bad. In fact, at the right amount, stress is essential to health. For example, when you walk or run, you’re putting stress on your bones – but that’s exactly what provides the stimulus your bones need to get stronger and stay strong as you age.

So, some stress is good. But when it comes to stress, it’s all about balance. It’s important to give the body enough time to rest and recover from stress. In our example, if you went running for hours every day, you’d start to put yourself at risk for stress fractures. Just like athletic training, more is not always better. Rest days must be balanced with training days. Putting too much stress on the body, or not giving it enough time to recover before stressing it again, leads to injury and speeds up the aging process.

Just like physical exercise, same is true for mental and emotional stress. If you spend a few hours working on a challenging task, and take a break when needed, you feel satisfied and proud of what you’ve accomplished. On the other hand, if you work for long hours every day without taking a break, even if you are doing things you absolutely love, there’s a good chance chronic stress will start to add up. Eventually, the stress will start to wear you down, impacting your focus and your desire to do your beloved work.

Life balance is a crucial component of healthy aging and longevity. It’s therefore important to be mindful of when we are pushing ourselves too hard to avoid impacting our health and longevity.

How chronic stress ages you

Short-term stress responses are essential for survival. Being able to quickly jump into action during a life-threatening situation, like slamming on the breaks to avoid a car accident, is incredibly useful. While we still face situations where short-term stress is required, modern stress is much more constant and insidious.

Chronic stress is associated with the over production of stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. While these hormones have specific beneficial purposes, when they are constantly elevated this leads to whole host of changes all over the body. Symptoms of chronic, unmanaged stress include inflammation, impaired gut health and immune function, an increased risk for cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, autoimmune disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Studies have shown that people exposed to chronic stress age faster when compared to those that are not. This is because stress has a direct negative influence on the hallmarks of aging such as cellular senescence and the shortening of your telomeres[1].

These aren’t the only possible effects of chronic stress, but they’re just a few examples that demonstrate how strongly chronic stress is connected to accelerated aging. If you’re seeking to live a long and healthy life, it is essential to be mindful of the different stressors in your life and the way you respond to them.

Hidden sources of stress

Sometimes, when we think of “stress,” we jump straight to thinking of work and other responsibilities. These can certainly be a major source of stress in many people’s lives and taking a break from them is important. But it’s also important to broaden our definition of stress to encompass everything that places a demand on the body and mind.

Here are some “hidden” sources of stress that people don’t always consider:

  • Eating foods that your system is sensitive to
  • Too much exercise, especially if the workouts are intense
  • Environmental stressors (like heavy metals or mold)
  • Insufficient boundaries with people in your life
  • Filling your downtime with stressful content

Let’s dive a little more into one of the underlying causes of stress that is particularly insidious. What happens when you fill your relaxation time with inputs that are actually stressful?

Is your “relaxation” causing more stress?

It’s important to ensure that your rest time is truly restful. But I often see people using this time to add unnecessary extra stress into their lives.

For example, many people spend their time watching violent or suspenseful shows or movies. While you may find these types of shows entertaining, the truth is that they don’t really promote rest. Your mind can’t tell the difference between screen violence and real violence. When you spend your downtime on this type of content, your adrenals are secreting stress hormones while you watch – exactly during the time when your body should be getting a break from those!

Another activity that’s common during downtime is to scroll through social media. Looking at photos of family and friends and reading stories about the fun things they’re doing isn’t so bad, as long as you can avoid comparison and feelings of inadequacy.

Additionally, because of how social media is structured, you’re also getting exposed to a lot of content that’s designed to provoke stressful feelings like outrage or anger[2]. Outrage is very motivating and gets a lot of clicks, so it ends up getting rewarded in these digital ecosystems. If someone asked you how you’d like to feel on a daily basis, you probably wouldn’t say “outraged.” But that’s exactly the type of content that social media tends to promote. When you spend your downtime on social media, you’re probably not really giving yourself time to truly relax.

To promote longevity and healthy aging, try to give yourself a complete break from stress on a regular basis. This could mean focusing on relaxation for one whole day a week (like what my community prefers to do), or it could be a few hours every day. Whatever you choose, make sure that you’re truly relaxing during this time. Try to do things that are calming, or playful and lighthearted – avoiding things like violent or suspenseful content, or social media. If you feel all worked up during your relaxation time, then it’s not really relaxation time at all.

The importance of rest and play for longevity

I recommend scheduling a whole day of rest because contrary to popular belief, it is the key to more productivity. So many of us are driven to be constantly productive, when we’re not accomplishing anything, we may feel like we’re “wasting time.”

Enjoying your life is never a waste of time. We’re here to have a balanced life. Yes, meaningful work is important – this is how we give back to others and to the world. But we’re also here on Earth to enjoy our time. Rest and play are not luxuries. They’re a necessary part of a healthy life.

I’m not just saying this, I’ve lived this philosophy my whole life. I take one complete rest day every single week. On Saturdays, I don’t do any type of work whatsoever. I try not to even think about work. Even in medical school, I never studied on a Saturday. My classmates couldn’t understand how I managed this. But I couldn’t understand how they made it through med school without a single rest day. How did they not just fall apart?

Having a day of rest helps me be more relaxed and focused the other six days of the week. I get just as much accomplished during the work week, maybe even more. But I have a day every week where I focus on family, relaxation, and doing the things I truly enjoy doing. If I tried to power through all day, every day without any rest, not only would I be miserable, but I would also be frazzled and exhausted. The exhaustion would eventually start to negatively impact my productivity.

Longevity Lessons from the blue zones about stress

It’s not just me that’s noticed the importance of rest. You may have heard of the Blue Zones – the areas of the world with the highest percentage of centenarians, who are age 100 or greater. Even though they’re very old, many of these centenarians are still actively engaged with their families and communities, thriving in their lives[3]. I grew up in Loma Linda, California, which is one of the five Blue Zones. I’ve been surrounded by healthy and vibrant old people my whole life.

One thing that all the Blue Zones have in common is that people prioritize rest. They don’t constantly push themselves. They don’t feel bad about taking a break. In fact, they consider rest essential. It’s a health practice, just like exercise and eating well. Taking one whole day off a week is a common way of ensuring that rest gets prioritized.

If you’re interested in healthy aging, then I really encourage you to consider adding more rest and play into your life. You might be surprised at what a difference it makes.

Reducing stress is a powerful anti-aging practice

Stress is often overlooked, and it can hide in unlikely places. This is something that no one can afford to ignore, especially if they’re interested in longevity. If you prioritize reducing stress in your life, it will benefit your health now and in the years to come.

  1. Yegorov YE, Poznyak AV, Nikiforov NG, Sobenin IA, Orekhov AN. The Link between Chronic Stress and Accelerated Aging. Biomedicines. 2020;8(7):198. Published 2020 Jul 7. doi:10.3390/biomedicines8070198
  2. How social learning amplifies moral outrage expression in online social networks
  3. Buettner D, Skemp S. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016;10(5):318-321. Published 2016 Jul 7. doi:10.1177/1559827616637066

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