Our cells release substances in times of pressure called stress granules that can greatly affect our health, groundbreaking new research reveals. Learn how to sweep them away – and keep them from building up in the ﬁrst place.
The particles your body churns out during tense times can accumulate and cause health problems.
It starts when something stresses you: Whether it’s air pollution or a virus, your cells launch into repairand-recovery mode. As part of that process, the body whirs into action, producing proteins that help ebuild your cells and RNA, the chemical messengers that trigger the release of other health-promoting compounds. These RNA agents carry out the repair process by clumping together, forming stress granules.
When they do their job properly, these particles are actually beneﬁcial, says Dr Benjamin Wolozin, a professor of pharmacology and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a co-founder of Aquinnah Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company ocused on neurodegenerative disease. Stress granules protect the cells from damage, essentially creating a temporary shelter so the body can better epair itself, he says. Once the stressor is gone, the stress granules are easily swept away, a process that typically takes just 10 to 15 minutes.
But when something interferes with the cleanup operation, stress granules start to accumulate. And that build-up can cause some serious health problems. “Studies indicate that it may be linked o the development of Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease,” Dr Wolozin says.
Although scientists are still trying to pinpoint the culprits that interrupt the granule-removal process, likely suspects include conditions that continually tax your body, such as a nutritional deﬁciency, a chronic disease, or living in a heavily polluted area. Ongoing stress is another potential perpetrator, Dr Wolozin says. “Studies using mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease show that exposure to chronic, unpredictable tension for about two weeks can accelerate Alzheimer’s-like pathology,” he says. When you’re under pressure, “your body releases hormones called glucocorticoids. One theory is that constant exposure to high levels of these hormones can result in stress granules accumulating, which leads to the neuronal atrophy and degeneration that’s characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. That may help explain why studies have linked exposure o high levels of stress to Alzheimer’s,” says Ioannis Sotiropoulos, a researcher at the University of Minho in Portugal who’s studying the link between mental stress, stress granules and brain pathologies, such as those in Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
The bottom line: you need to get rid of these particles before they cause harm. Luckily, scientists have discovered strategies that can help you do that.
THE RIPPLE EFFECTS OF STRESS
It impacts virtually every area of the body.
YOUR EARS BECOME SUPERSENSITIVE
Stress-related exhaustion can cause sounds to bother you a lot more than normal, the journal PLOS One reports. Even a normal conversation can start to grate on your nerves. Wear noise-canceling headphones tuned to something soothing, like nature sounds. (But if it becomes an ongoing issue, see your doctor.)
YOUR JOINTS ACHE
It’s unclear whether being stressed can hurt your joints, but it can make you feel pain. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that 40 percent of chronically stressed women experience psychosomatic muscle and joint aches. The mindfulness app Headspace has a pain-management series that may help you ease both the stress and the pain.
YOUR HEART HURTS
People with stressful jobs are about 50 percent more likely to develop atrial ﬁbrillation, a heart-rhythm disorder that can cause fatigue and contribute to stroke, according to a Swedish study. Chronic stress is associated with inﬂammation and high blood pressure, two risk factors for heart issues. If work stress is out of your control, practice some daily self-care to compensate. People who report sleeping well and walking 10,500 steps a day are less affected by job tension, research shows.
YOUR STOMACH FREAKS OUT
Anxiety can be as bad for your digestive system as bingeing on junk food. So say researchers in the journal Scientiﬁc Reports, who found that stressed-out animals had gut bacteria that looked like they’d been eating a high-fat diet. Protect yourself with probiotics. Research has shown that eating foods that contain good bugs, like yogurt, can help prevent stressful habits, such as rumination.
YOU BREAK OUT
“Stress hormones and other substances can lead to acne,” says Yoram Harth, M.D., cofounder of MDacne, an app that sells treatment products. Do yoga to chill out and boost your glow.
YOUR MEMORY TAKES A HIT
Chronic stress weakens synapses in the brain, reducing its ability to form memories, the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory reports. But the researchers found that stressed animals that exercised had the same synapse function as those that were stress-free.
YOU GAIN WEIGHT
Several studies have linked stress to a larger waist and a higher BMI. Stress hormones trigger your body to store more fat, and tension can make you eat more too. Try to avoid sugary, fatty foods as much as you can during tense times, and go for a walk or hit the gym instead. Working out helps relieve stress and bumps up your metabolism.
The effects of pollution aren’t always visible; exposure to toxic air stresses your cells.
“Exercise brings more blood to the brain, and that has many positive effects that help prevent the accumulation of stress granules,” Dr Wolozin says. “It increases the delivery of nutrients, oxygen and healthy growth factors to your neurons, and it speeds the removal of toxins from the brain.” It’s also one of the most powerful ways to boost your resilience to stress. Experts still don’t know what type of exercise is best, but a study in the Annals of Neurology found that people who did at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise ﬁve times a week were less likely to have a build-up of damaging proteins – ones that other research have associated with stress granules.
ATTACK THE PLAQUE
Keeping your gums healthy is a surprisingly effective weapon against stress granules. “One source of stress for the body comes from dental plaque and gingivitis, which create inﬂammation, sending molecules called cytokines through your system, hurting the cells,” Dr Wolozin says. Forgetting to ﬂoss once or twice is no big deal, but properly caring for your teeth over the long term is vital. Brush at least twice a day, ﬂoss daily and visit a dentist two times a year. Between meals, you can chew sugarfree gum with xylitol, a natural sweetener, which can lower your risk of cavities.
GO FULL SPECTRUM
“As part of their normal process of generating energy, cells release free radicals: harmful, unstable molecules that create oxidative, or damaging, stress,” says Dr Susan Blum, the founder and director of the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York. Left unchecked, this can lead to a pile-up of stress granules. Fortunately, the antioxidants in vibrantly coloured produce can prevent and reverse oxidative stress, says Dr Blum. A good rule of thumb is to eat a rainbow of produce with each meal. “Fill 70 per cent of your plate with vegetables, and include different colours: dark leafy greens, red and orange peppers, beets, sweet potatoes, radishes, purple potatoes and yams,” she says. “Also, aim for a total of two servings a day of colourful, seasonal fruit.
CLEAR THE AIR
Early research indicates that there may be a link between environmental toxins and stress granules, Dr. Wolozin says. So far, lead and mercury have been implicated, but there are likely others, so it’s smart to reduce your exposure to pollution. Concentrate on what’s inside your home, since indoor air can be just as polluted as outdoor air. In fact, a study in the journal Science found that volatile chemical products—things like pesticides, furniture coatings, cleaning agents, and personal-care products—now rival transportation as the top sources of pollution in cities. Consider investing in a good air puriﬁer – be it one that sits on your bedside table or desk, instantly creating a clean-air bubble around your bed or workspace, or a larger one that will clear the air of an entire room.
Side note about outdoor air: You can stop worrying about whether the exhaust fumes and other pollutants you encounter during your walks, runs or cycling sessions are cancelling out the health beneﬁ ts of these activities. Turns out, you’d have to cycle outdoors for up to seven hours a day for those negative consequences to start to pile up, according to research from the University of Cambridge.
"Two potent tools for preventing the build-up of stress granules: a toothbrush and an air purifier."
TRACK YOUR STRESS
Bracelets and clip-ons that calculate – and in some cases, correct – your tension are the latest high-tech wearables. “Chronic stress can lead to unhealthy behaviours such as eating or drinking too much,” says Dr Mithu Storoni, the author of Stress-Proof. “Devices that track stress might make you more aware of the behaviors, so you can change them.” Look for one that measures heart rate variability (HRV), such as the Garmin Vivosport. It uses HRV to calculate your stress throughout the day and offers breathing exercises when it’s high. Another option is Touchpoints Basic. comprising of a pair of bracelets. Wear one on each wrist; they vibrate in a way that may help calm you down.
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