Stress is an inevitable part of life, whether it’s fighting off a cold or not eating well, we all experience stress to varying degrees. Our response to stress is not a switch only turned on by the oncoming of stress, it’s a complex process that’s constantly working to keep our bodies healthy. Stress response can be broken down into 3 subcategories:
- Homeostatic resilience - how well our body reacts when somethings throws it out of balance
- Hormetic regulation - how our body adapts to lower levels of stress to develop a tolerance for bigger stressors later on
- Repair & Regeneration - when our cells are damaged, how well our body is able to respond in repairing the damages
However, several things can interrupt our healthy response to stress, including age, disease and overall poor health hygiene. When our bodies natural stress response slows down, several things can happen, including a reduced immune response, reduced autophagy, DNA damage, slowed metabolism and an overall reduction in both life and healthspan.
Despite all this, there are several things we can do to help proactively promote our stress response and keep the gears turning for as long as possible.
We have discussed the importance of homeostasis and how it is a process constantly occurring in our bodies. We also talked about ways to promote this “home base” and proactively keep it running smoothly. While we may try our best, there will be times in our lives when our homeostatic north is thrown off kilter. When this happens, it’s important that our bodies are able to bounce back and realign so the disturbance doesn’t lead to a waterfall of bigger problems. Something as simple as a common cold can throw our bodies out of whack, so as much as we may want to stay 100% healthy all the time, it’s not realistic. Homeostatic resilience is a multi-tiered system that affects our genes, neurons, metabolism, immune system and the microbiome of bacteria in our gut. When we are stressed, our brain releases several different stress hormones, including epinephrine, norepinephrine and glucocorticoids. While the release of these hormones is a result of our natural “fight-or-flight” response, extended exposure to these hormones from prolonged stress or improper response to stress can trigger neural damage, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and lowered immune response. Chronic stress can also trigger our metabolism to slow, an adaptive energy saving response, which results in lower overall energy and can lead to weight gain.
However, our body is designed to handle these stressors we deal with on a daily basis and using whole-body communication our body can quickly respond and adapt to these issues. In the research world, programs aimed at strengthening homeostatic resilience show promise to both promote health and prevent premature aging and disease. Some simple things we can do to help encourage homeostatic resilience are consuming a healthy diet full of color, vitamins, minerals and fiber to ensure we are giving our body the supplies it needs to bounce back. Additionally, staying hydrated and getting quality sleep (7-9 hours a night) go a long way in recharging our body from stress or damage it has accumulated. Finally, exercise can be a great way to get our bodies moving, reduce stress and increase cardiovascular fitness.
Hormesis is the process in which our body is exposed to low levels of stressors or toxins to develop a tolerance or immunity in order to better deal with bigger or longer exposures in the future. This tolerance helps increase biological plasticity which gives cells and organs more adaptation abilities and helps maintain homeostasis. Mitohormesis, when mitochondrial plasticity is increased from either exercise, caloric restriction, intermittent fasting or dietary phytochemicals, is the most common type of hormesis seen in the body. The preconditioning effect seen in the mitochondria from mitohormesis has been shown to reduce myocardial lesions and decrease the chance of ventricular fibrillation. Mitohormesis can also protect neurons against potentially damaging oxidation and prevent future ischemic injuries. One major waterfall effect of mitohormesis is the suppression of tumor growth which, with more research, could provide a strong lead in the fight against cancer.
Healthspan, the period of time in our life when we are considered reasonably healthy, and lifespan, how long we live, have also been shown to be affected by hormesis. The diet and exercise practices that often go along with hormesis have been shown to have a positive effect on brain and heart health. Additionally, the long-term effects of hormesis have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects as well. Xenohormesis- an “inter-species” hormetic process triggered by chemicals released from plants, fungus or animals- involves phytochemicals that have been shown to have powerful free radical-hunting abilities. Many of these phytochemicals also trigger autophagy, which helps the body maintain homeostasis and increase lifespan by clearing out damaged organelles.
The process of hormesis, and the low-level exposure to stressors to develop a plasticity and tolerance to stress is a huge part of our stress response. Habits we use to maintain homeostasis and health in general also have positive ripple effects on our stress response.
Repair & Regeneration
The third piece of our body’s stress response is the repair of damaged cells and the regeneration of cells that may have been destroyed from damage or stress. There are many internal and external factors that damage our organisms. Repair and regeneration are triggered by specific threats to the system, in contrast to cellular turnover which we talked about previously. DNA is constantly under threat of damage from both internal and external forces from replication errors to oxidation The ability to repair damaged DNA prevents age-associated diseases and certain autophagy-inducing agents which help to promote healthy clearing of damage, promoting healthspan and lifespan in animal models. The Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER), an organelle in the cells responsible for the folding of proteins that form the basic building blocks of our body, is also susceptible to stress-related damage. When the ER is damaged, it can lead to the misfolding of proteins which can lead to a multitude of extremely harmful diseases. Damage in the ER can also lead to excessive cell death and inflammatory responses that trigger metabolic disorders, accelerated aging and overall maladaptation.
This repair process, however, is one that naturally occurs in our body and isn’t something we need to trigger, rather is something that we can help promote by making small changes in our everyday lives.
Stress is an inevitable part of everyday life, so the important thing to remember is not “what will happen”, but “how am I going to deal with what happens?” This is a scenario our body runs through all-day, everyday. Similar to homeostasis, our stress response system is constantly working to help bring our body back to its healthiest self. A few changes in the way we live our lives can help promote this process even more. Dietary changes, like caloric restriction and intermittent fasting, have been shown to not only help our bodies develop an appropriate tolerance to stress, but also trigger processes like autophagy that help to clear out any damage and promote repair and homeostasis. Additionally, regular exercise provides healthy stress for our mitochondria, “preconditioning” them in a way that can prevent future heart attacks and increase overall health. Finally, sleep is our body’s best way to decompress from the day and recover from everything we put ourselves through, so it’s extremely important to get a good night’s sleep to give your body a chance to reboot and recharge to take on whatever you throw at it.