-by Julie Beem
The title probably doesn’t surprise you, but now there is scientific evidence…right down to the cellular level. A study coming out of the University of California-San Francisco compared biological mothers of chronically ill children to those of healthy children. The finding was that those who had chronically ill children had a higher level of chronic stress that had significant impact on three biological factors – the length of telomeres, the activity of telomerase, and levels of oxidative stress.
What are telomeres, you ask? The report explains them like this:
Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes that cap the ends of chromosomes and promote genetic stability. Each time a cell divides, a portion of telomeric DNA dwindles away, and after many rounds of cell division, so much telomeric DNA has diminished that the aged cell stops dividing. Thus, telomeres play a critical role in determining the number of times a cell divides, its health, and its life span. These factors, in turn, affect the health of the tissues that cells form. Telomerase is an enzyme that replenishes a portion of telomeres with each round of cell division, and protects telomeres. Oxidative stress, which causes DNA damage, has been shown to hasten the shortening of telomeres in cell culture.
So what does this mean, in English? It means that the more chronic stress you’re under, the more oxidative stress damages your cells. Many of these cells are immune cells, so oxidative stress causes the immune system cells to divide fewer times, which compromises your immune system. We recognize this anecdotally, watching the family caretakers of cancer patients and others get diseases or die pre-maturely. We “know” it’s stress-related. What researchers have done is isolate the mechanics to explain the why and how.
As doctors learn more about oxidative stress and the challenges to our immune systems, they are also looking for ways to intervene. Further research is examining whether stress-reduction interventions – for example activities such as yoga and meditation – are increasing the telmorase activity or the telomere length. If so, there may be help for us yet. Stay tuned.