How Stress Affects Aging in the Body

Burnout, stress and business woman in office with problem, Headache, anxiety, stress
This column explores the connection between stress and aging via the lens of a root-cause reaction in the body.
By A. Frank/ -

The recent rise in physical ailments has been identified as having a connection to stress levels.1 When aging is included in the equation, stress is often overlooked. Every generation experiences new technological and medical advancements, yet stress has always persisted.

In several societies, stress is considered a badge of honor or often linked with greater achievement. However, it has become increasingly clear that stress is a silent perpetrator and is linked to the underlying cause of disease. In this column, I'll explore the connection between stress and aging via the lens of a root-cause reaction in the body.

Inflammaging & Hormones

Chung, the author of recent research published in Aging Research Reviews, stated that when stress is imbalanced, cellular and tissue aging occurs.2 The study discovered that persistent stress affects anabolic compounds that promote lean muscle growth. It also revealed that the stress hormones cortisol and insulin encourage fat cells to release cytokines, which are present during inflammation.

Regularly, the body looks to support a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Anxiety, fear, depression, nervousness, shorter breaths and compulsive behavior patterns often increase the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic mode includes breathing, proper digestion, relaxation and recovery.

Cortisol is produced when the body is functioning in a chronic sympathetic mode. Cortisol is designed to defend the body and is particularly useful in fighting. For example, it will cause digestive enzymes, melatonin and sex hormones to slow down until the dangers are no longer present. As a result, enzymes, other hormones and nutrient digestion are unbalanced.

Meanwhile, inflammation is the body's natural response to threats, injuries, repair and healing, and is an essential aspect of the natural defense system. However, many practitioners are now using the term "inflammaging" to emphasize the growing incidence of inflammation and its impact on aging and degenerative illnesses. Degenerative cells become more inflammatory and begin to change neighboring cells, causing elastin and collagen breakdown.

Increased and prolonged oxidative stress promotes inflammation by damaging tissue and causing an immune system repair response. This process is the primary mediator in the body. The body naturally guards against oxidative stress by forming plaque in the brain or arteries to help support tissues.

Related: Understanding the Connection Between Stress and Pain

In addition, another research article found evidence of increased oxidative stress, resulting from high cortisol levels: “Excessive exposure to physiological stressors can cause damage to molecules, making it necessary for cell repair and promoting recovery.”2 The repair overwhelms the cells, causing cellular damage, and the immune system is unable to function optimally.

When cells are compelled to battle intruders continuously during this process, they become overwhelmed and, at times, unresponsive. They become insensitive as the cells' receptor sites wear down. When the cells are overworked or exhausted, they are unable to produce energy to combat the inflammation. This is crucial to remember because the phrase "inflammation" is often thrown around as a major cause of heart, lung and liver disease, yet it’s critical to understand what causes the inflammation.

In a study published in Diet and Aging, the authors arrived at a variety of conclusions about the consequences of stress. The most popular themes included hormonal imbalances, muscle atrophy, abdomen obesity and cellular damage.3 The study discovered that persistent stress produces a shift in the hormonal balance toward low levels of anabolic hormones. Anabolic hormones encourage lean and skeletal mass growth while limiting obesity.

Growth hormone levels decrease with age, and stress diminishes them, resulting in increased body fat, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease. Stress concentrated on abdominal obesity, which was triggered by low testosterone levels and high cortisol and insulin-promoting fat cells. Fat cells release cytokines that promote inflammation.

Visceral adipose tissue is most likely a source of compounds that promote cellular aging. According to one study, cortisol pushes consumers to choose high-fat foods and overeating tendencies.5

Stress Solutions

Exercise has been shown to promote healthy cortisol levels and collagen formation. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to an array of skin issues, including breakouts and increased collagen breakdown, which accelerates wrinkle formation and overall sagging. 3,5

According to one study, exercise increased energy levels in the cells. Regular exercise also has been shown to supply anti-aging benefits for a variety of systems, including the skin and muscles.4

The body heals, ages and occasionally generates undesired diseases because of lifestyle choices, nutrient deficiency and chronic stress. It is incredibly perceptive and, given the correct conditions, can fight itself against intruders, toxins, viruses and infections. Exercising, obtaining sufficient sunshine, weight training and eating whole foods are all good lifestyle behaviors that can help lessen stress and age-related conditions.


  1. Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral and biological determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005;1:607-28. doi: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141. PMID: 17716101; PMCID: PMC2568977.
  2. Chung HY, Cesari M, Anton S, Marzetti E, Giovannini S, Seo AY, Carter C, Yu BP, Leeuwenburgh C. Molecular inflammation: underpinnings of aging and age-related diseases. Ageing Res Rev. 2009 Jan;8(1):18-30. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2008.07.002. Epub 2008 Jul 18. PMID: 18692159; PMCID: PMC3782993.
  3. Piper, MD, Bartke A, 2008 Diet and aging. Cell Metab 8:99-104
  4. Bin Saif G, Alotaibi H, Alzolibani A, et al. Association of psychological stress with skin symptoms among medical students. Saudi Med J. 2018;39(1):59–66. doi:10.15537/smj.2018.1.2123129332110
  5. Redman LM, Martin, CK, Willamson DA, Ravussin E, 2008 Effect of caloric restriction in non-obese humans on physiological, psychologic and behavioral outcomes. Physiol Behav 94:643-648

Susan Wade has more than 30 years of experience in education, kinesiology, athletic training, nutrition and aesthetics. Her functional medicine business dives deeper into resolving health issues, connecting the gut, stress, skin and inside health to help others regain their own health.

More in Health