Stress and its effect on the way you age

Stress and its effect on the way you age

Stress and its effect on the way you age

Often when we think of stress, everyday stressors like work deadlines, juggling the after-school taxi run and figuring out how to complete that never ending “to do” list come to mind.  A certain amount of stress is good for us and can be a great motivator. However, our perception, level and management of stress can affect our experience of life, our relationships, and our health.

Our body cannot differentiate between real and perceived stress.

Therefore, our physiological response to stress is based on our brains interpretation of what is happening, or indeed what has happened, or may happen in the future. Physiologically this response is based on survival of the species, and it protects us by preparing us to run away from danger – or to fight it.

Adrenaline is pumped around the body, signalling increased breathing and heart rate and a rise in glucose to give the body the energy and impetus to run away.  This inbuilt mechanism is vital for those times when we are in physical danger, but for most of today’s situations it unlikely to be needed. 

When our stress levels are continually elevated beyond the short-term stress needed to meet that study deadline or nail that job interview, it starts to become detrimental to our health. 

Psychologically, stress symptoms may include sleep disruption, depression, low confidence, irritability, and difficulties relaxing, concentrating, and making decisions. Physically, the symptoms of stress may show up as changes in appetite, low energy levels, headaches, breathing difficulties, decreased sexual function, muscle tension and pain[1]. Physiologically, stress can impact all systems of the body, affecting our respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive systems[2]

At a cellular level, stress in all its forms – psychological, physical, mental, emotional and environmental – leads to oxidative stress, a term used to describe an imbalance in the body where free radicals outnumber antioxidants.

Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that cause cellular damage.  Although our bodies need a certain level of free radicals to launch a healthy immune response, an excess result in oxidative stress and damage to our cells and DNA. Our bodies naturally produce antioxidants, such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase to neutralise excessive free radicals. However, oxidative stress damage accumulates as we age and furthermore, our bodies’ ability to eliminate damaged molecules and cells reduces. This leads to cellular damage and accumulation of cellular debris in the body, causing inflammation, cellular ageing and the development of chronic diseases, such as neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, and metabolic diseases.

It is estimated that 75% - 90% of human disease can be attributed to stress induced inflammation[3],[4].

You may be familiar with mitochondria, which are often referred to as the powerhouse of the cell. These organelles, or cellular components, are responsible for creating energy within our cells.  They are also involved in the elimination of damaged cells that cause inflammation and disease within the body. Oxidative stress damages the mitochondria within our cells and leads to decreased energy levels and the accumulation of cellular debris5.

Alongside other age-related cellular changes, such as telomere shortening, this triggers cellular senescence, whereby cells stop dividing and functioning as intended and instead become “zombie- like”, secreting inflammatory molecules and contributing to age-related diseases[5].

In summary, a little stress is good for us, but ongoing stress can negatively contribute to the way we age at a cellular level. There are many modifiable lifestyle choices and factors that can positively impact the way we age, and one of these is the way we manage our stress levels.

Learning stress management techniques helps us better respond to different circumstances that arise in our lives. There are so many options and approaches available and one size doesn’t fit all. Some may like to actively relax through sport or other hobbies, such as gardening or dance. Others may be more inclined to read a book, meditate or practise gentle yoga. Simply taking time out to relax or talking things through with friends and family can be all that you need to ease those stresses and strains.  

To learn more about Mindfulness and how it can help you, read our blog on it here: Mindfulness Blog. 


Suzy Walsh BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ is a Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist




[1] Stress - causes and symptoms | Southern Cross NZ. (n.d.). Southern Cross group – New Zealand | Southern Cross NZ.

[2] Stress effects on the body. (n.d.).

[3] Kruk, J., Aboul-Enein, B. H., Bernstein, J., & Gronostaj, M. (2019). Psychological Stress and Cellular Aging in Cancer: A Meta-Analysis. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2019, 1–23. doi:10.1155/2019/1270397

[4] Liu YZ, Wang YX, Jiang CL. Inflammation: the common pathway of stress-related diseases. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:316. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00316

[5] van Deursen J. M. (2014). The role of senescent cells in ageing. Nature, 509(7501), 439–446.