In a busy world, with unending work and responsibilities piling up, stress can get to the best of us. But how bad is it for you really? Can stress actually kill you? From a biological perspective, stress makes perfect sense. If you’re about to get chomped on by a bear, your stress hormones better kick your but into gear. But it turns out that your mortgage, unemployment, and looming exam all trigger the same stress response in your body. and, unlike most animals, which experience a major decrease in these hormones, humans cant seem to find the “off switch”! Even though it’s not life and death, our psychological blows consistently bathe our bodies in these hormones, making our heart pound, muscles tense, and stomach turn. In Japan, they have the term Karoshi, which literally translates to “death from overwork”. What is now deemed an overworking epidemic, these individuals who are seemingly healthy and in their prime, suddenly die. After being officially recognized and documented in Japan, these sudden heart attacks and strokes were quickly linked to stress. But, how does stress cause this? Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones which helps divert energy to where you need it and away from non essentials functions of the body. But with chronic stress exposure, problems arise. The immune system shuts down, inflammation is inhibited, white blood cells are reduced, and susceptibility to disease increases. Some evidence also suggests that prolong stress may be involved in the development of cancer. When looking at the arteries of macaque monkeys, those under significant stress have more clogged arteries. This prevents blood from getting to the heart quickly during stress and can ultimately lead to heart attacks. The brain also takes a toll, when looking at mice exposed to stress, we see dramatically smaller brain cells with fewer branch extensions than normal mice. This is particularly prevalent in the areas associated with memory and learning. Which may stir up some memories for you of those wonderful all night study sessions; the acute stress and sleep depravation can make it increasingly difficult to remember the things we want to. Perhaps the most telling story is in our DNA. We contain something called telomeres at the end of our chromosomes, which decrease in size with our age. Our video on “Aging”, here, explains this process. Eventually, the telomeres run out, at which point the cell stops duplicating and dies. So, telomeres are directly related to aging and length of life. And it turns out, stress may actually accelerate the shortening of these telomeres. But not all hope is lost for the perpetually stressed. Another hormone, oxytocin, has been shown to reduce this stress response. It helps our blood vessels relax and even regenerates the heart from stress related damage. So, how do we get more oxytocin? It’s sometimes dubbed the cuddle hormone, because it’s released during positive social interactions and while caring for others. People who spend more time with others, create a buffer or resilience to stress. So when life gets the best of you, just remember, you dont have to go it alone. Spend some time with those you love – it may just save your life. Got a burning question you want answered?
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