Just as oxidation causes iron to rust and brass to tarnish, it causes our cells to rust and tarnish, only figuratively and not literally…unless the Tin Man is part of the gene pool. When you get stressed out—and there’s a litany of reasons for that—your body makes oxidative chemicals that hasten aging, increase cardiovascular risk, and set the stage for myriad chronic and acute illnesses, including relatively benign things like colds.
Vanderbilt University discovered that accurate and uncomplicated assessment of oxidative stress inside the body could be accomplished by the measurement of chemicals called isoprostanes. These substances are derived from the action of free radicals on fatty acids, and can be found in plasma and urine. Primarily associated with risk of atherosclerosis, isoprostanes levels are elevated by “cigarette smoking, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, and obesity,” among other factors. Additionally, “Enhanced oxidant stress occurring either locally in the vessel or systemically is implicated…in atherosclerosis in humans.” (Morrow. 2005) In circumstances not cardiac-related, isoprostanes are inflammatory mediators that augment the perception of pain.
As long as there is oxygen there will be oxidation, but most species have developed ways to deal with it. What separates humans from other life forms is that we do things on purpose to increase the oxidative process. We eat the wrong foods, we smoke, we are sedentary, and we worry about things that never happen, while fretting about things we cannot change. We even worry about getting diseases that are not likely to attack us by virtue of genetic exclusion, but sometimes do get a start because we worried about them needlessly. The body’s response to oxidative stress, which can be prompted by both mental and physical assaults, is tied to aging and life span. (Finkel. 2000)
There is increasing evidence that psychosocial stress can cause system-wide derangement of cellular homeostasis, accompanied by heightened oxidative stress and pro-inflammatory activity. (Marotta. 2011) Persons under stress have elevated levels of malondialdehyde (MDA), a product that stems from the oxidation of fatty acids and that degrades the integrity of the cell. This, in turn, can cause mutations of DNA. That can initiate a plethora of unwelcome events.
Mental stress can incite physical responses, some of which may appear as gastrointestinal conditions, tension headaches, hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, sexual dysfunction, alcoholism, fatigue, and skin conditions that include psoriasis, lichen planus, itching and hives. Some or all of these may be related to increased cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Stress can affect other hormones, as well, and is implicated in depression and impaired immune function.
Because the brain has high fatty acid content, it seems logical that fatty acids are involved in brain chemistry, physiology, and function. Therefore, it follows that cognitive health and neuropsychiatric well-being are intertwined. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those from fatty fish and fish oil supplements, appear effective in the prevention of stress (and manufacture of cortisol) and in the regulation of mood. (Perica. 2011) In fact, the first consistent demonstration of the effect of dietary ingredients on the structure and function of the brain involved omega-3 fats. (Bourre. 2005)
At the ends of our chromosomes are telomeres, pieces of DNA that are the equivalent of shoelace aglets (those plastic sheaths that help to thread the laces). When telomeres start to fray because of continual cell replication, cells become senescent—they grow old. Oxidative stress shortens telomeres, thus hastening aging and the onset of age-related diseases, none of which started yesterday. (Epel. 2004) If cortisol is one of the major hormones related to telomere shortening, then it is to our benefit to diminish it. Stressors coming from outside the body are not so easy to handle. But this does not mean that internalized stressors are more manageable. Maintaining proper weight and controlling glucose are important stressors to consider.
The employment of functional foods and certain supplements can help to ease stress, to lighten the cortisol load, and to bolster immune defenses. Telomeres may be preserved by a diet that reduces added sugars. Essential fatty acids can ease the mental burdens of the daily grind. Green tea polyphenols have shown to be effective in addressing a variety of oxidative, pro-inflammatory processes (Yang. 1998), while having a beneficial effect on nucleic acid and protein synthesis (Beltz. 2006). The vitamin B complex is collectively known as the stress vitamins, and their utility as such has been reported often over past decades (Kennedy. 2011) (Stough. 2011) Intense Chinese research has discovered that telomeres may be rescued from senescence by epigallocatechin gallate (ECGC) in green tea, and by quercitin from apples, onions, citrus, and dark berries. (Sheng. 2011)
Stress-fighting, mood-lifting foods include such simple ingredients as oatmeal, pistachios, avocadoes, and wine. Turkey, eggs, water, and almonds can affect your affect. Chocolate can calm things by releasing endorphins, and walnuts can get rid of the blues by increasing uridine, which boosts communication among neurons. Spinach helps maintain normal levels of serotonin, a mood enhancer that also deals with the sleep-wake cycle and pain perception. If, on the other hand, you care little about stress and what it does to your body, go ahead and eat half a dozen bacon-fried doughnuts.
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