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February 16, 2021

“Don’t Worry be Happy”: The Link between Stress & Chronic Disease.

“I’m under a lot of stress due to the new job.”

“My parents-in-law are stressing me out.”

“I was so stressed that I drank the whole night man.”

Stress is the body’s reaction to situations that impose a challenge. We all experience feelings of stress and anxiety in our day-to-day lives. It has become the new normal.

Stress isn’t always bad, it can bring back our focus on what really matters and helps us perform better.

In stressful situations, our body produces hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones assist the body to react appropriately in such situations—whether to fight, run away, or have a mindful discussion.

This state of hypervigilance is crucial in situations that demand immediate attention when our life is in danger. But it becomes a problem when this stress reaction spirals on for too long. Exposure to continuous stress not only leads to long periods of chaos in our mind, but also affects our ability to fight diseases.

Our body contains millions of cells and, at end of each chromosome, are little caps called telomeres that prevent loss of genetic information during cell division. These telomeres also shorten with every cell division thereby reducing the life of the cell.

Researchers at UCLA have recently confirmed previous studies that chronic stress reduces the length of telomeres. Chronic stress leads to increased secretion of cortisol that causes a rise in blood sugar and pressure, increases inflammation, and lowers the immune system’s ability to resist infection.

This study shows that cortisol also suppresses telomerase activation (an enzyme that preserves telomere length) in immune system cells so that telomeres are no longer protected during cell division and become progressively shorter. This leads to early cell aging and distorted replicas of the original cell that could lead to cancer and other diseases.

In a 1993 review in the Archives of Internal Medicine of extensive research on the stress-disease link, Yale psychologist Bruce McEwen noted a broad spectrum of effects: compromising immune function to the point that it can speed up the metastasis of cancer, increasing vulnerability to viral infections and also accelerating the onset of Type 1 diabetes. The brain itself is susceptible to long-term effects of sustained stress, including damage to the hippocampus, and so on memory.

The most scientifically compelling study was done by Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon University. He exposed participants to the common cold virus, and out of the ones who were assessed to have led stressful lives, 47 percent got the cold while the ones who had little stress, only 27 percent got the cold. This study proves that stress itself weakens the immune system.

The question is, can we do anything about it? The answer is yes.

While the genetic predisposition will show up with age, by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and managing stress levels to normal we can preserve telomere lengths and thereby ensure healthy cell growth.

Meditation techniques and therapy sessions have shown incredible results in controlling chronic stress levels.

“Don’t Worry Be Happy” seems to be more than just a song.

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