14 April 2011

Stress Awareness Month and the baboon inside you

I love to read about Robert Sapolsky's baboons. They give me a kind of peace -- the kind received when you succeed in letting go of a stressful situation by thinking, "we're all just a bunch of baboons."

What you get from Sapolsky's books, apart from its enjoyable wittiness, is a unique snapshot on how baboons are affected by stress, which is more or less the same way that we are affected by stress. Only, while baboons are stressed occasionally -- by a more dominant baboon or to escape a predator, for example -- we humans have built ourselves an environment where we're stressed chronically.

This chronic stress of modern life leads to constant release of stress hormones (glutocorticoids) that continually harms the body, the brain, and brings about possible stress-induced disorders or even chronic diseases. In honor of Stress Awareness Month, it's a problem worth talking about.

In fact, the results of a study presented April 4 at the American Association for Cancer Research's 102nd annual meeting has added to cumulative evidence that psychological stress may age you faster. Their research showed that psychological stress did so by speeding up the shortening of telomeres, which are repeating sequences of non-coding DNA coiled up in "knots" that act as protective caps on chromosomes. The telomeres the scientists measure were those of leukocytes, and stress's link to telomere shortening suggests a possible weakening of the immune system and perhaps a possible factor in the etiology of certain cancers.

Another new study (open access), this one led by Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and published in PLos One, also found that individuals with major depression had severely shortened telomeres, perhaps caused by the "glucocorticoid cascade" and chronic exposure to oxidation and inflammation  or by leukocyte turnover, which may explain why depressed individuals often have a high risk of chronic disease including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. (By the way, I was fortunate enough to meet Blackburn last weekend at Experimental Biology, where she likened telomeres to bookends on a shelf.)

For those of us who are interested in living long happy lives, these are eye-opening studies and we all may do better to find ways of coping with stress in our lives. Common tips are to take regular vacations, take up a fun hobby, exercise regularly, enjoy the outdoors, watch funny movies, spend time with your family, and so on.

I'll add that one major de-stressor for me has been Sapolsky. If you haven't read his books, I recommend you do because they will give you a unique perspective into stress and the perspective to be able to separate yourself from it. The first I read was A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, then Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, and most recently with The Trouble With Testosterone: And Other Essays On The Biology Of The Human Predicament.

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