Lifestyle Activities that Enhance the Body’s Stress Response

This is part of our ongoing The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging spotlight. Each week, we will be posting some of the great information that’s packed into our book, The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging.

Today’s topic:
Lifestyle Activities that Enhance the Body’s Stress Response

Feeling Tired?

Chronic elevations in cortisol and related stress hormones from the body being under constant stress can lead to the third and final phase of the stress response: exhaustion. This is characterized by an inability of the body to deal with the effects of stress and results from the depletion of electrolytes such as potassium. It also results from an inability of the adrenal glands to produce the hormones required to be in this constant state of hypervigilance. This manifests in weakened organ function and depleted immune function. It also manifests as cellular dysfunction and problems with blood sugar regulation.

The shift of metabolic resources away from daily activities in response to stress predisposes us to a reduced ability to perform “cognitive mental processes” (learning and remembering) and impaired immune defenses. Thus, in order to maintain the body’s ability to cope with normal levels of stress, the body requires fundamental support to avoid the consequences of the exhaustion phase of the stress response.

Fundamentals for managing stress include relaxation exercises. These techniques are geared to producing a state of relaxation in the body, which is the opposite of the stress response. While under stress, the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, during relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system dominates. This is characterized by shunting of blood back from the periphery to the core organs.

Relaxation can be induced through a variety of activities. Meditation and deep breathing exercises are excellent for inducing a state of relaxation of the mind and body. Surprisingly, exercise is also an important component of a stress management program. Acutely, exercise itself induces physical stress on tissues of the body. However, the long-term effects of exercise are to relax the body by strengthening its ability to deal with stress and enhance mood function.

Another important aspect of dealing with stress is mitochondrial health. The mitochondria in cells are the energy factories where cellular energy production occurs. The production of energy also leads to the production of free radicals. Hence, damage to the mitochondria and to the cells that contain them can occur at a rapid rate. Mitochondrial function has been shown to decrease with age as a result of oxidative stress, predisposing aged individuals to decreased ability to cope with stressful situations and increasing the chances of poor cellular health. Research has shown that resistance exercise restores mitochondrial function in the skeletal muscle of aging individuals, allowing their bodies to better withstand the physical aspects of stress.1

Next Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging topic:
Dietary Habits to Reduce the Effects of Stress

1. Tarnopolsky MA. Mitochondrial DNA shifting in older adults following resistance exercise training. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2009;34(3):348-54.

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