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Stress that makes you old, stress that keeps you young

Article by Charlotte Watts and Anna Magee

Chronic stress makes us old before our time but the right kind of stress could keep us young. Pioneering new book, The De-Stress Diet will show you the difference and the simple diet, relaxation and gentle exercise you need for a calmer, slimmer future

You may not need a book to tell you that relentless stress will make you exhausted, prone to infection and old before your time. But according to a growing school of scientific thought, the right kind of stress could keep you young.  Taken in small doses and at regular intervals, certain physical and mental stressors such as regular tough exercise, mind-bending intellectual work and even pressing deadlines, could not only strengthen your immune-system, they could also help fight some of the physical and mental decline that (you may have noticed) is hard to avoid as you get older.

First the bad news.  Constantly drawing on stress hormones causes the body’s blood sugar to roller coaster, leading it to redirect its nutrients and energy away from areas such as the skin, sex drive and digestion and into the muscles to deal with stress, which your body perceives as a threat.  It’s the reason why many people get bloated or suffer with skin problems or low libido under stress. Over time, not only does this also lead to exhaustion, lack of concentration and impatience as your adrenal glands – two small oval-shaped glands that sit just above the kidneys – have only a finite ability to pump out the stress hormones they manufacture. It may also lead to serious health problems such as chronic digestive complaints, a compromised immune system, increased blood pressure and cholesterol.

But there’s hope.  ‘The right kind of stress can improve the length and quality of life,’ Dr Mark Mattson, director of the laboratory of neurosciences at the National Institute of Ageing in the US. Regular exposure to mild stressors, Mattson explains, causes a defensive response in the body, which leads to a building up of the body’s defence systems, such as brain, immune and muscle function, that would otherwise decline as we age.  That strengthening process, called hormesis, means that by exposing ourselves intermittently to mild stressors, we may over time protect ourselves against further, bigger challenges by literally building up our bodies’ ability to fight back mentally and physically.  So convinced is Professor Mattson of the positive role stress has to play in healthy ageing he would one day like to see ‘a menu of good stressors for us to incorporate into our daily lives.’

When it comes to healthy, anti-ageing stress, balance is key. ‘We can’t avoid our stress, but the way we respond to a stressful situation can render its effects healthy or detrimental,’ Charlotte Watts, co-author of The De-Stress Diet (Hay House (£12.99). In the De-Stress Diet you will learn the nutritional, relaxation and exercise factors that will keep you calm and ensure you react to the stressors in your life in a balanced way – without turning to the cookie jar!’


How can we tell the difference between the kind of bad stress that makes us old and fat and the kind of good stress that makes us stronger?  Here’s a guide.

Positive stressful challenges:

1. Are within our control (or seem to be) –  that job interview might be making you sweat and shake but there is plenty you can do about your performance such as sleep well the night before, hone your CV for the job and research the company.  No, you can’t control the outcome but you can control your performance. 2. Have a beginning and end in sight – studying for exams and producing a larger-than-life work project by a certain date are all stressful, but you can see the end (somewhere) on the horizon.  You get the idea. 3. Are followed by a period of recuperation – Even the most prolific entrepreneurs, athletes and pressured pros need their downtime or burnout results.  All good stress is by definition followed by a time for adequate deep rest and recovery. 4. Move us away from psycho-social stress – stress that turns us inward and keeps us thinking instead of experiencing and feeling the physical world around us.

4 examples of good stress:

• Exercise that challenges your body that’s followed by adequate rest • Stretching that demands we learn to stay calm in the face of strong sensations • Being cold  – believe it or not, the science of thermogenics now asserts that being cold helps you burn fat and is a healthy stress on our systems. Turning down the heating, continual ‘spontaneous movement’ and even specific thermogenic foods signal the body to produce ‘brown fat’ that we burn as fuel, rather than ‘white fat’ that we store. • Intellectual challenges and problem-solving where you feel a sense of control over the situation.

Negative stressful challenges are:

1. Chronic and ongoing – for example having a bad boss, an unhappy marriage, an isolated or non-existent social life, unrewarding job or money problems that won’t relent. 2. Self-judgmental – Worrying, ruminating or judging ourselves over mistakes or events. 3. Out of our control  – situations in which you feel helpless have been shown as the most deeply affecting type of stress. 4. Excessive physical exertion – keeping the stress response running high and breaking down muscle with no time or energy to rebuild.

4 examples of harmful stress

• Low/no control Feeling as though you have little control over your life, especially at home or in the workplace • Difficulties at home Living with relentless financial or marital difficulties • Lack of downtime Being always on ‘constant alerts’ without taking adequate downtime for rest and recuperation between deadlines • Over-exercise Exercising at maximum aerobic capacity for more than 90 minutes at a time more than three times a week.

author, de-stress dietThe De-Stress Diet: The Revolutionary Lifestyle Plan for a Calmer, Slimmer You by Charlotte Watts and Anna Magee  £12.99 is published by Hay House and available from amazon.co.uk





Main image credit: David Castillo Dominici

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  1. See The De-Stress Diet in articles online « Charlotte Watts Health Charlotte Watts Health01-11-14
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