In this podcast (episode #455) and blog, I talk to Dr. Elissa Epel, bestselling author and Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco. She is also the Director of the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center (www.amecenter.ucsf.edu), Associate Director of the Center for Health and Community and the NIDDK UCSF NORC, member of the National Academy of Medicine, and past President of the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research and Co-Chair of the Mind and Life Institute Steering Council. Dr. Elissa currently leads a mental health council as part of the UC wide Center for Climate, Healthy and Equity, focusing on climate distress to activation.
Dr. Elissa studies psychological, social, and behavioral processes related to chronic psychological stress and health, and how to apply this basic science to scalable interventions that can reach vulnerable populations. She studies processes that accelerate biological aging, with a focus on toxic stress, overeating and effects on metabolism, and cellular aging (including the telomere/telomerase maintenance system). She and her colleagues develop and test interventions that combine behavioral, psychological, and mindfulness training. Currently, she is testing short term interventions to improve stress resilience and physiological homeostatic capacity, to slow aging. She co-leads studies funded by America’s top scientific institutions, including a National Stress Network and an Emotional Well Being Network funded by National Institutes of Health. In addition, she has been involved in initiatives on the reversibility of early life adversity and the science of behavior change.
In this podcast, we talk about stress and the mind, why telomeres are so important, how to better manage stress levels, how to improve your longevity, and so much more!
Dr. Elissa has made it her life's work to understand the mind-body connection. Her research is centered around questions like “how does stress get under the skin?” and “what can we do to reverse these effects?”. In effect, what can we do to undo the effects of toxic stress and enhance our emotional and mental wellbeing?
Universally, we have similar tendencies as to how we respond to stress. However, we are all shaped by different life experiences and mentalities—understanding our unique narratives is a powerful tool when it comes to our health.When we ask ourselves questions like “what are the ways I become so stressed out?” and “what can help me better manage my stress levels?”, we can start learning how to better manage our stress levels, heal our minds, brains and bodies, and improve our wellbeing.
The research on telomeres and stress show how important this relationship is. We can look inside our cells and examine how they age—what speeds this process up, and what slows it down. There are many mechanisms in our cells that regulate aging, and one of the fundamental ways we age is when our cells stop dividing (this is called replicative senescence).
Part of what determines how long our cells can go on dividing and replenishing important tissue is the length of our telomeres. As Dr. Elissa points out in her book The Telomere Effect, telomeres are “repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of your chromosomes. Telomeres, which shorten with each cell division, help determine how fast your cells age and when they die, depending on how quickly they wear down.” Every cell has telomeres, which we want to protect. When our telomeres get too short or damaged, then our cells can no longer go on dividing and being healthy cells.
Telomeres are not genes. They are a different type of structure that is very sensitive to our cellular environment, which means that they are looking out for factors like stress. If there is too much stress in the cell (in the chemical “soup”), the telomere tells the cell to shut down and stop dividing or die. This is why we really want to protect our telomere and keep them long so that our cells can go on dividing over decades.
Aging is not a disease. We are going to get old, but there is a lot we can do to improve the quality of how we age. As Dr. Elissa notes in The Telomere Effect, “the extraordinary discovery from our research labs and other research labs around the world is that the ends of our chromosomes can actually lengthen—and as a result, aging is a dynamic process that can be accelerated or slowed, and in some aspects even reversed. Aging need not be, as thought for so long, a one-way slippery slope toward infirmity and decay. We all will get older, but how we age is very much dependent on our cellular health.”
This is why mind management is so important. The way you live your life and the way you choose to respond to stress affects your biological age. This is different from your chronological age, or how old you are in years. Your biological age is more elastic—the age of our body is determined by many biomarkers. In Dr. Elissa’s research, scientists measure a number of biomarkers related to biological age, which include telomere length. Telomeres have a small but important effect, and can be studied from youth.
Thankfully, telemores change slowly over time, and there is a lot we can do to create a chemical environment in our cells so that they stay sturdy and long. In The Telomere Effect, Dr. Elissa notes:
“Our research, along with research from around the globe, has shown you can step in and take some control of how short or long— how robust—they are….your telomeres, it turns out, are listening to you. They absorb the instructions you give them. The way you live can, in effect, tell your telomeres to speed up the process of cellular aging. But it can also do the opposite…….By cultivating your telomeres, you can optimize your chances of living a life that is not just longer but better.”
This is not a quick-fix solution to aging. It is about creating a daily mindset and lifestyle that serves us well in the short and long term. We can’t avoid stress, but we can find time in our stressful lives to manage how we feel and make stress work for us and not against us, and our telomere health plays an important role in this.
It is important in this context to understand what stress is and learn how to manage it. We cannot avoid stressful events-if they happen occasionally, we can take a break and recover before facing another challenge. In fact, acute stress can stimulate amazing defenses in our cells, which can be a good thing in the short term.
However, repeated stressful experiences that happen over days, months and years, which we carry in our mind as ruminative thoughts, can result in chronic stress patterns that affect the mind, brain and body. Our thoughts are one of the most common forms of stress, which is why learning how to manage what we think, feel and choose is so powerful when it comes to stress, aging and health.
Dr Elissa has observed this in her research on caregivers. This is a group of people who often face incredibly stressful events on a daily basis that they cannot control. However, Dr. Elissa has found that their situation is not necessarily predictive of their health and wellbeing. Rather, it is how the caregivers choose to respond to their daily levels of stress and their emotions that impacts their health.
Our perception of stress is incredibly important and powerful, as Dr. Elissa discusses in detail in her new book The Stress Prescription. Our sense of emotional stress is not necessarily related to the physical stress we experience. Our emotional stress levels are how we perceive stress, which can shape all aspects of our life: our health, our sleep, our relationships and so on. This means becoming aware of how we are functioning on a daily basis. What is our baseline? Even when we are not dealing with stress, are we carrying it in our mind and body when we try to rest and recover? Does our emotional stress follow us around? How is this affecting our mind, brain and body?
Perceived stress, or holding onto stress in our mind and body, is predictive of all sorts of negative health outcomes. It is our primitive stress response being overreactive and overprotective keeping us in vigilance mode. This kind of stress tends to be chronic and can affect not only our telomere length and age but also our immune system and other parts of the brain and body, right down to the level of our cells.
Thankfully, we don’t have to stay in this overprotective mode. There are so many ways we can reduce our stress levels within minutes and days, including:
- Expect the unexpected and learn to be flexible.
- Control what you can and put down the rest.
- Meet challenges with excitement.
- Harness your stress response for resilience, better health & longevity.
- Gain perspective and let nature shrink stress.
- Find deep rest and regenerative energy.
- Discover and capture what brings you joy.
For more on stress and the mind, listen to my podcast with Dr. Elissa Epel (episode #454) and check out her amazing work and books. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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4:40 Elisa’s amazing work on the mind-body connection
5:45 The power of understanding our own narratives
7:00, 20:05 Telomeres, stress & aging
10:25 Mind management, aging & telomeres
10:52 The difference between biological & chronological age
14:47 What stress is & how we can learn to manage it
21:30 Why our perception of stress is so powerful
25:00 How chronic stress affects the mind, brain & body
33:30, 40:08 Ways we can better manage stress & improve our health and longevity
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