How Stress Harms Your Health and Aging

How Stress Harms Your Health and Aging |Women's Health|Sara Gottfried MD

Mary was a thirty-nine-year-old patient who visited me complaining she felt burned out.  Her sixty-hour workweeks left her beyond fatigued, with frequent headaches, miserable colds, and raging tension that cut into her sleep. On top of that, she confessed that lately life had become meaningless, which she attributed to an early midlife crisis, and her libido had hit an all-time low.

Her struggles are hardly unique. Studies show that many people experience burnout as a late-stage stress manifestation in the U.S.[1] as well as worldwide.[2]

Stress is unavoidable, rampant, and growing. In itself, it’s not bad. Under normal conditions, your body produces a brief surge of cortisol – the hormone released when you’re under stress—that benefits and protects you, but ideally only does so infrequently. For example, let’s say someone veers into your lane onto the freeway. You become hyper alert to avoid an accident. Then your cortisol returns to a normal level. When your cortisol functions properly and proportionally, so does your internal alarm system, and harmony prevails.

However, for many women like Mary, that cortisol surge never turns off. The scientific term for stressed out is hyperarousal.[3] Far too many of us struggle with the effects of unrelenting stress and hyper-vigilance. Simply put, chronic stress, thanks to cortisol-beyond-its-prime syndrome, causes accelerated aging.

Beyond hopelessness and irritation, the manifestations of chronic stress appeared around Mary’s waistline. She painfully discovered too much stress made her fat, especially around her belly – and not just because she sometimes nose-dived into a gooey pastry and a latte to assuage her feelings. But because belly-fat cells have four times more cortisol receptors than fat elsewhere in the body.[4]

Not all stress-triggered accelerated aging becomes so obvious. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, chronic stress can shorten your telomeres, damage your energy-producing mitochondria, and generally leave your energy levels stagnating while your brain fog kicks into overdrive.

Chronic stress also cut into Mary’s sleep, potentially paving the path for numerous problems including cognitive decline, organ dysfunction, and chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, chronic inflammation, and respiratory issues.[5]

Mary also experienced what a meta-analysis of three hundred empirical studies found: a relationship between psychological stress and immunity. Although acute stressors—those that last only minutes—enhance natural immunity, researchers found chronic stressors suppress the immune system.[6] More stress equals more sickness.

My friend Dr. Mark Hyman says that 95 percent of disease is either caused by or worsened by stress.[7] The American Institute of Stress reports that 75 to 90 percent of all visits to healthcare providers are connected to stress-related condition.[8]

Never underestimate the power of stress. As Mary discovered, life’s constant stressors can biochemically alter your body in ways not always obvious. What frequently gets overlooked is how chronic stress messes with your hormones, gut health, inflammation, and your genes. Take a look at seven stress-related issues that often go unnoticed. 

  1. Growth hormone. Excess stress—(that’s you, cortisol)—crashes growth hormone (GH) as you grow older.[9] GH decline accelerates aging, decreasing muscle mass, increasing in adipose tissue, reducing libido and energy, and declining gonadal function and plasma levels of sex steroids in both women and men. These downturns reduce circulating levels of insulin-growth factor 1, the main mediator of growth hormone activity.[10] Improved GH is what made my body fat lower, my waist thinner, and lean body mass higher (a key biomarker of de-aging). As part of its fabulousness, GH promotes a healthy metabolism, while boosting energy levels.[11] So yeah, HGH is among my hormone besties. (Want to learn more about my research into GH? Click here).
  2. Gut bacteria. Stress can disrupt the number and type of bacteria in the gut, adversely impacting immune function and overall health.[12] Gut bacteria regulate immune function, digestion, and absorption of essential nutrients; plus they outnumber human cells ten to one.[13] Gut flora gone bad create numerous nasties such as bacterial and fungal overgrowth, weight gain, impaired glucose metabolism, poor digestion and absorption, and a weakened immune system.[14]
  3. Insulin. Cortisol’s main job is to raise glucose levels. Even small increases in cortisol can raise blood sugar and increase insulin resistance, a condition where cells that get too much insulin can become resistant to it. Chronically high insulin creates a vicious cycle that adversely impacts other hormones, with seemingly no end in sight.[15] Insulin resistance accelerates age-related diseases, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. Growing older dials down insulin sensitivity. Defects in insulin action and an age-related reduction in beta cell response to glucose uptake increase inflammation and reduce GH. Put another way: Want to really accelerate aging? Create insulin resistance.[16]
  4. Thyroid. Chronic stress delivers a serious whammy to your thyroid because excess cortisol dysregulates thyroid function. In other words, your body’s response to chronic stress is poorly regulated so that cortisol is either too high or too low.[17] The result? Widespread disaster for your energy, weight, metabolism, and, well, pretty much everything.
  5. Sex hormones. Excessive cortisol decreases the hormones necessary for sexual desire and function, such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen. Plus, when your level of cortisol gets too high, it can block cells from getting progesterone, which calms you down.[18] This effect alone gets me motivated to lower stress!
  6. Chronic inflammation. Inflammation that sticks around past its prime makes you fat and contributes to nearly every disease on the planet.[19] If your body stays in a fight-or-flight mode, a chain reaction of inflammatory responses occurs that spells trouble on the scale and on your overall health.
  7. Telomeres. Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes. Size matters here: Shorter telomere length signifies poor health and mortality. Chronic stress creates oxidative damage and free radical production, aging at the cellular level and shortening telomeres.[20]

Everyone has his or her own ways to dial down stress. For Mary, that included burst training, yoga, deep breathing exercises, and redeveloping some lapsed friendships. She learned to say no and create boundaries at work. She made getting at least seven hours—I was pushing for eight—of quality sleep nightly a top priority. During our follow-up visit three weeks later, she appeared more relaxed and more able to “roll with things.” She had had sex twice during the past week and actually felt more “in the mood” for it. She’s a work in progress, but aren’t we all?

Who hasn’t struggled with stress? You obviously can’t eliminate it (if you’ve found a way, contact me a.s.a.p.), but I’d love to know what strategies you’ve implemented to reduce stress in your life and therefore slow down aging. You can learn tons more in my book, Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years. In the meantime, share your tips in the comment section below.


[1] Khamisa, N., et al. “Work related stress, burnout, job satisfaction and general health of nurses.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 12, no. 1 (2015): 652-666; Gandi, J. C., et al. “The role of stress and level of burnout in job performance among nurses.” Mental Health in Family Medicine 8, no. 3 (2011): 181.

[2] “Depression: What is burnout syndrome?” Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care January 17, 2013.

[3] Schneiderman, N., et al. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 1 (2005):607.

[4] Björntorp, P., et al. Obesity and cortisol. Nutrition 16, no. 10 (2000):924−936; Daubenmier, J., et al. Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: an exploratory randomized controlled study. Journal of Obesity (2011).

[5] Edwards, B. A., et al. Aging and sleep: physiology and pathophysiology. In Seminars in Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, (2010) 31, no. 5, pp. 618−633.

[6] Segerstrom, S. C., et al. Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin 130, no. 4 (2004):601.

[7] Hyman M. The UltraMind Solution. (New York: Scribner, 2009).

[8] “America’s #1 Health Problem”, The American Institute of Stress, accessed October 15, 2016.

[9] Bidlingmaier, M. et al. “Growth hormone.” Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology 195 (2010):187−200.

[10] Bartke, A.. “Growth hormone and aging: a challenging controversy.” Journal of Clinical Interventions in Aging 3, no. 4 (2008): 659-665; Masternak, M. M., et al. “Growth hormone, inflammation and aging.” Pathobiology of Aging & Age-Related Diseases 2 (2012); Gupta, V. “Adult growth hormone deficiency.” Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 15, no. 7 (2011): 197.

[11] Sävendahl, L. “The effect of acute and chronic stress on growth.” Science Signaling (2012): 2003484; Stratakis, C. A. “Cortisol and growth hormone: clinical implications of a complex, dynamic relationship.” Pediatric Endocrinology Reviews: PER 3 (2006): 333−338.

[12] Bull, M. J., et al. “Part 1: the human gut microbiome in health and disease.” Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 13, no. 6 (2014): 17.

[13] Schneiderman, N., et al. “Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 1 (2005): 607.

[14] Shreiner, A. B., et al. “The gut microbiome in health and in disease.” Current Opinion in Gastroenterology 31, no. 1 (2015): 69.

[15] Adam, T. C., et al. “Cortisol is negatively associated with insulin sensitivity in overweight Latino youth.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 95, no. 10 (2010): 4729−4735; Ranabir, S., et al. “Stress and hormones.” Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 15, no. 1 (2011): 18.

[16] Akintola, A. A., et al. “Insulin, aging, and the brain: mechanisms and implications.” Frontiers in Endocrinology 6 (2015): 13.

[17] Walter, K. N., et al. “Elevated thyroid stimulating hormone is associated with elevated cortisol in healthy young men and women.” Thyroid Research 5, no. 1 (2012):1.

[18] Whirledge, S., et al. “Glucocorticoids, stress, and fertility.” Minerva Endocrinologica 35, no. 2 (2010):109; Plechner, A. J. “Cortisol abnormality as a cause of elevated estrogen and immune destabilization: insights for human medicine from a veterinary perspective.” Medical Hypotheses 62, no. 4 (2004):575−581; Hamilton, L. D., et al. “Cortisol, sexual arousal, and affect in response to sexual stimuli.” The Journal of Sexual Medicine 5, no. 9 (2008):2111−2118.

[19] Khansari, N., et al. “Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress as a major cause of age−related diseases and cancer.” Recent Patents on Inflammation & Allergy Drug Discovery 3, no. 1 (2009):73−80; Bosma-den Boer, M. M., et al. “Chronic inflammatory diseases are stimulated by current lifestyle: how diet, stress levels and medication prevent our body from recovering.” Nutrition & Metabolism 9, no. 1 (2012):1; McEwen, B. S. “Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators.” European Journal of Pharmacology 583, no. 2 (2008):174−185.

[20] Schutte, N. S., et al. “The relationship between perceived stress and telomere length: A meta‐analysis.” Stress and Health (2014); Price, L. H., et al. “Telomeres and early-life stress: an overview.” Biological Psychiatry 73, no. 1 (2013):15−23; Ridout, S. J., et al. “Telomeres, early-life stress and mental illness.” Clinical Challenges in the Biopsychosocial Interface 34 (2015):92−108.