Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Exercise to a Longer Life: Stress and Telomeres


We all believe that exercise increases health and lifespan. One of the mechanisms for this is stress reduction.

In Chinese Medicine, stress is called Qi Stagnation and it has many effects on health, but the most basic is simply that it blocks the free and easy flow of energy (or Qi) throughout the body. Why is that important and how does it relate to aging?

To use the traditional and somewhat poetic language of doctors working 2000 years ago, the answer is that where these blockages occur most densely, Blood can also be blocked -- often causing pain. Phelgm can accumulate -- causing adhesions, nodules, or tumors. Over time, the body tissues are left unnourished and begin to fail in their functions. Heat can accumulate and begin to dry the tissues and burn away the body's Vital Essence (or Jing). And loss of Jing is the definition of premature aging in Chinese Medicine, and its diminishment is the cause of the diseases of aging.

This poetic description may sound strange in our modern scientific culture, and, yet, I was struck by a similarity to a recent, very scientific research article from the University of California San Francisco discussing how stress may shorten lifespan and encourage diseases of aging – and how stress-reduction through exercise may reduce this effect.

The study focuses on telomeres, a name you probably remember vaguely from Biology classes. Telomeres cap the ends of chromosomes and are necessary for chromosomal replication. Part of the telomere is lost with each replication, limiting the lifespan and function of the cell. Apparently, other factors play a role in telomere length as well, including an enzyme (Telomerase) which replenishes telomere length. The interesting connection is that stress hormones seem to interfere with the work of telomerase, causing shorter telomeres and reducing cell life span and function. And the early death of millions of cells can result in manifold health problems.
Elissa Epel, PhD, was one of the lead investigators on this study and is an associate professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiary. She summarizes the study in a UCSF News Release:
Telomere length is increasingly considered a biological marker of the accumulated wear and tear of living, integrating genetic influences, lifestyle behaviors, and stress. Even a moderate amount of vigorous exercise appears to provide a critical amount of protection for the telomeres.
That comment about a biological marker of the accumulated wear and tear of living, which integrates genetic influence, lifestyle, and stress is a great scientific description of the state of the Jing.

Whether you look at this from the ancient Chinese perspective or that of modern scientific research, the importance of stress control is clear. The question then becomes, how do you go about reducing stress?

I consider stress reduction a primary benefit of acupuncture. I also recommend herbal formulas such as the well-known Free and Easy Wanderer (Xiao Yao Wan) – it is the most commonly prescribed Chinese Formula in the United States! Supplements to consider are Fish Oils (pharmaceutical grade, and tested for purity), high quality multi-vitamins, and antioxidants (including Glutathione support formulas). Meditation is a great choice, including Tai Chi. And, of course, the UCSF study focused on the effectivess of exercise in protecting what I call “Jing” and they call Telomere length.

Whether you use exercise, acupuncture, meditation, herbs and supplements, or laughing with friends – remember that reducing stress can lead to a healthier and longer life.

Citation: Puterman E, Lin J, Blackburn E, O'Donovan A, Adler N, et al. (2010) The Power of Exercise: Buffering the Effect of Chronic Stress on Telomere Length. PLoS ONE 5(5): e10837. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010837


Byron Russell

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Your comments are always welcome. Feel free to leave questions as well. But, remember that any medical advice should be discussed with a physician you trust.