Stress Less, Your Genes Depend On It, with Thea H. Singer
Thea H. Singer
Jonathan:Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus, Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Uniquely excited about today’s show because we have a wonderful woman, journalist, teacher and even dance critic who has done some amazing research and writing on the Science of Stress, and just how much it matters. Just how much we should think about it, don’t stress about it but think about it and what we can do to combat it. She is the author of the book Stress Less For Women. It’s all about how we can slow the effects of stress on aging, and just some amazing research that blew my mind a little bit.
It was named one of the top five Health and Wellness book by the Wall Street Journal. Thea Singer is an amazing author, she’s a science journalist, has done so for over 30 years. She teaches Science Writing at MIT, she critiques dance in her spare time so if there’s anyone in the world that knows how to deal with stress, it sounds like it’s Thea. Thea, welcome to the show.
Thea: Thank you thank you so much. I have to say, the last chapter of the book actually tries to pull a lot of things, a lot of my interests together, both the science and the dance piece because what I explored there is why is it that dancers and choreographers seem to live so much longer and maintain their health in both body and mind so much longer than the rest of us, and a lot of it has to do with. I talk about different interventions on how to deal with stress and it turns out that dancers, choreographers integrate a lot of those interventions just naturally into their lives, so, it all really does come together.
Jonathan:Well, I want to dig into a bit more about your story Thea, and how you got interested in this, but before we get there. I do just want to jump straight into the science because you’ve got some amazing science that you cover in this book. A lot of people talk about stress, but in, in Stress Less, you cover it in a unique way, what’s unique about the approach you take?
Thea: The approach that I take looks at what stress does to us on the cellular level and how it actually can age us biologically. The book sprang from the research of Elizabeth Blackburn, she won the Nobel Prize in 2009, with two other scientists, and she collaborated with a Health Psychologist named Elissa Epel.
They’re both out at the University of California, San Francisco, and what they looked at was specifically how psychological stress, which is the social, psycho-social construct actually effects not just our minds and the way that we think and the way that we perceive the world but it actually drills down all the way to our cells, to the level of our DNA and that’s what was so remarkable about their research, it went from the macro to the micro in one fell swoop.
Jonathan:Thea, I was going to say to really drive this home for our listeners, if I understand this correctly, when someone says wow, look at the president at the end of their term, they look like they’ve aged 40 years in four years. It seems like, based on your book and this research at the cellular level, due to their stress levels, they may literally have.
Thea: This is true and as a matter of fact, when I give talks, one thing that I show, is I show pictures of President Obama, and I show him when he was on the campaign trail and then I show him when he had been in office during his first term. I show him in office during his second term and actually I had been interviewed by the Washington Post at his inauguration concerning this, and what these scientists found was… I’m going to give a little science lesson here, what they found was in our cells we have chromosomes, and our chromosomes, on our chromosomes is our DNA, the very substance of our being.
At the ends of those chromosomes, I don’t know if you can get a picture in your head but it’s like two worms crossed at the middle, that’s what our chromosomes look like. At the ends of our chromosomes, in our cells, in our nucleus, are what are called telomeres. These are little caps on the ends of our chromosomes. They are similar to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that keep the shoelaces from fraying and the job of telomeres is to essentially keep our DNA safe, so that the DNA cannot start unraveling.
If there’s a break in the DNA, that could lead to cancer and, what happens is, when our cells divide, not all cells divide, but many of them do, our skin cells divide, our white blood cells divide, our immune cells that is, and when they divide, the telomere gets a little bit shorter. Many, many scientists more and more are looking at the length of our telomeres, those little caps, as a marker of biological or cellular aging. You can imagine when we’re babies, we have longer telomeres, than when we’re older. People who are healthy have longer telomeres than those who have particular diseases, particularly inflammatory diseases or heart disease.
What Blackburn and Epel showed was that in people, they looked at moms who are caregivers of chronically ill children, which is a very, very stressful position to be in, and I know that many of your listeners for instance have probably dealt with care giving for their parents, because I’m in that same demographic. It’s a very stressful, stressful position to be in, and what Blackburn and Epel found was that those care giving moms, who perceive themselves as being the most stressed had telomeres that were shorter by the equivalent of ten years than those who perceived themselves as being under the least stress.
Jonathan:Thea, just, just to make sure I understand this, would a reasonable analogy be trees have those rings when you cut them down you can see based on the number of rings the tree has that’s how old it is? In the essence, this is the reverse of that, the shorter you can judge someone’s real age to borrow a term from Dr Oz, by the amount of telomere they have left?
Thea: Well I actually try and be really careful about talking about the distinction between real age versus chronological age, because there are so many factors that go in to play and there are also lifestyle behaviors, things you can do that have been shown to increase telomere length. It is true, that the correlation of those who were the most stressed, who perceived themselves as being the most stressed and perceived is a very important part of the equation, they had telomeres that were shorter and generally, the older you are the shorter your telomeres are. You can’t make a direct one to one correlation but you can make a comparison and say those who perceived themselves as being the most stressed, their cells looked older than those who perceived themselves as being under the least stress.
Jonathan:In your work and even in our conversation here, you’re focusing very much on this term perceived stress. You’re not actually saying the people who are more stressed, you are saying the people who perceive themselves as having more stress. Can you dig into that?
Thea: Yeah, and that you have really hit the nail on the head. Really, that’s kind of the heart of the matter to mix some metaphors up. Basically, when you think about it, there’s no such thing as objective stress. The way you react to being stuck in a traffic jam might be very different from the way that I react and so, what matters is how we see things and what’s so exciting about that is we actually have control over that, some control over that. We don’t have control over events, you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you can’t make cars start moving, but you can change the way you are perceiving that traffic jam. For instance, you might use it as a time to figure out a naughty problem you have.
You might start singing a happy tune, whatever. I’ve talked to people, callers and other interviewers who say they are stuck in a traffic jam, they start singing and dancing, but not jumping out the car of course. The way that we see events makes a huge difference. I had written an article for Psychology Today and I had this example, several years ago we had a huge, huge flood. I live in Brookline, Mass, huge flood, and I came home and my husband was like pacing and pacing and he…it was because of the rain, everybody, our basement was filling up, and he was beside himself. He just like, we’re in big trouble, we’re in big trouble, and I jumped in the car, I drove to the nearest Home Depot. I got the last pump on the shelf, and I came back, and we started pumping out the basement. Basically, he perceived a threat, I perceived a challenge, and in perceiving this as a challenge, that’s actually stimulating and is good for my body, whereas perceiving it as a threat, really can do a number on your body all the way down to your cells.
Jonathan:Two critical things you said there, Thea, that I love, and that is positive versus negative “stress.” I want to dig into that but even before we get there, we hear in pop self help literature, this, this idea that attitude is so important, and perception is reality, and that can sometimes get the…people can perceive that as “Whoo whoo,” and just go look in the mirror and think of the Saturday Night Live cartoon, skit, ‘I’m wonderful, I’m positive, everyone loves me’, and ironically it seems that on some level, this is the most hardcore science you could imagine, down to the cellular level, looking at our DNA showing, potentially proving if you want to say that, how we perceive the world does affect us on a cellular level.
Thea: Yeah, it absolutely does. There are many studies that have been done looking at this. Now, this is not to say for instance that we should be donning rose color glasses, and it’s certainly not saying that if you get cancer, it’s your fault because you have a negative outlook. I’m really careful about that, and also talk about that in the book but what we do have some control over is how we respond to events. For instance regarding this study, there was a study done looking at optimism and pessimism and telomere length, and what the scientists found was that those who perceive not things the most positively, but the least negatively had longer telomeres.
What I talk about in the book in relation to that is not everything is beautiful in its own way because what, it’s not but what I do talk about is how we can help to reduce negativity and that’s also based on studies. Reducing negativity has been shown to correlate with longer telomeres. There really is something, you don’t want to carry it to an extreme but there really is something to be said on many levels from the condition of our hearts and of the condition of our lungs and the conditions of our brains, to actually the condition of our selves regarding our outlook on life.
Jonathan:You mentioned there’s stress, and there’s positive stress, negative stress, you stress, distress. If someone is trying to maximize telomere length for lack of better terms, are they best served living a life let’s say a monk, who just maybe has no stress, I don’t know, monks may be they have stress. I’m thinking someone who just has no stress or someone who, let’s say believes in something very deeply and dedicates their lives to it and therefore has stress but it’s this positive stress that drives them. They wake up in the morning and they’re motivated, versus the person who wakes up slapping their alarm, getting panicked in traffic, they are both stressed but they’re stressed in different ways.
Thea: Right, well you hit on many, many topics there, from meditation essentially and there have been studies looking at telomeres and telomerase which is an enzyme that can lengthen telomeres, it’s a natural enzyme in our body, everything from that to the difference between positive and negative kinds of stress and the fact of the matter is, as Bruce McEwan, who is, he’s at the Rockefeller University and he is a stress guru and he has said to me, ‘without stress we’d be dead.’ It’s not that you want to eliminate stress, the issue is that you don’t want it to be continuous, or you don’t want it to constantly be revving you up, and then slowing you down, and revving you up and slowing you down.
For instance, even intellectual stimulation is a form of positive stress because you’re actually working your cells and your muscles more astutely. Seeing sex, actually it’s being found out, now this was actually a study with rats, but it did, was found, that sex was a form of positive stress and helped to reduce anxiety within these rats. You don’t want to get rid of stress, in fact, learning, stimulation, exercise, is a form of good stress. Exercise and learning have both been shown to increase neuro-genesis, which is production of new brain cells, in particular in your hippocampus, which is your seed of memory. What you don’t want to have happen, is, as I’ve said, to be chronically stressed, that’s when your systems get overloaded.
You can’t cope anymore and that’s really the definition of stress, it’s when we feel overwhelmed, when we feel that we can’t cope. One thing that I think that is really important, and I stress this in the book, is that I don’t give people a prescription of how to behave, or what to do, because then I’m doing this regimental thing, and giving you orders. What you want to do is figure out what works for you. You want to make the choices. We’re really smart, we know our bodies, and that’s when you can find yourself actually reducing the bad kind of stress and upping the good kind of stress.
Jonathan:Talking about how we can take steps to reduce our stress, what have you seen in the research? That’s really what I like about your work, is, it’s not, it’s based on research, we share that, we are mouth pieces for brilliant, brilliant researchers. What is, and there’s probably a lot of things we can do, but in terms of cost benefit, what are the, what give us the most bang for our buck, in terms of really reducing stress aka maintaining or lengthening our telomeres?
Thea: There have been studies looking, for instance, at meditation. This is a very, very intense meditation retreat, not a lot of us have the time to go and take this, but it was three months in intense meditation retreat, and what was found was that the folks who went on the retreat as opposed to those who were in the waiting or control group, had higher levels of that enzyme I talked about. They had higher levels of telomerase, that enzyme that can come along and dab little bit of telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes. Obviously, there was something going on within meditation, that enabled stress levels to drop to the point where there was a difference seen in levels of this restorative enzyme.
There have been studies done that take a look at social support, very, very important. Some of them have been done with them looking at telomeres, others have been done looking at what’s been going on in the brain, and social support has been found to be a way to really help, not so much reduce stress once you’re feeling it but to stress proof your brain so you will respond less strongly to a stressful situation.
There’s protective kinds of lifestyle behaviors, exercise is the same way. If I were to choose one lifestyle behavior to really incorporate into my daily activities, it would be exercise because it works on so many different levels, regarding telomere length, regarding stimulating your brain, and increasing the growth of new brain cells in your hippocampus. There have been studies looking at resistance exercise and how it can help, how it has been shown to actually change the genetic profile of, muscle cells from being older to being younger.
For me, if there were a magic bullet, there really isn’t a magic bullet, but exercise would be it, but you also want to be careful that is something that you enjoy. There have been studies done, and again, this was not with people, because you can’t force people to exercise, but that showed that forced exercise in animal studies has increased stress levels, so you want to figure out a way to enjoy what you’re doing. I go to a club, it has these giant flat screen TV’s, which we don’t have and so I get to watch movies, which I never get to watch and that, that entices me to go out and jump on the exercise bike.
Jonathan:It seems there are things we can do on a, let’s say “condition” our mind, there these macro things which then we do experience an event, we’re less likely to perceive it as stressful things like quieting our mind through meditation, various other activities, things like exercise, but let’s say, so let’s say we’ve done that, let’s say we’ve set up our mind to have a more helpful perception of events, to maximize our telomere length. Are there things other things we can do like in terms of the foods we eat, and even things in the moment which are less like conditioning exercises but more like firefighting, like when its actually happening, what can we do?
Thea: Right, well one thing that’s really important is to breathe, and I know that self evident but really to breathe in a diaphragmatic way. I’m sure a lot of your listeners have heard this term before. One thing that I do often is I, when you breathe diaphragmatically, you pull air in to the point where it’s as if your belly is expanding. It’s not really expanding, and then you breathe out very slowly. You want to really slow down the rate at which you are breathing. I count down from ten to one, very slowly, with these deep diaphragmatic breaths, and it is quite remarkable how it can calm your system down. There are other things that you can do, this woman named, I just blanked on her name.
She’s a psychologist in California, she works with, Judith Moskowitz, that’s her name, she works with people who have recently been diagnosed with H.I.V., which is an incredibly stressful circumstance, and she’s come up, she’s searched the literature to find particular little activities you can do that would help reduce your level of stress in the moment. Some of them that she came up with were, for instance, notice something good that happen every day and write it down or say it to somebody because that way you are bringing it out into the world.
One of her recommendations that I particularly like has to do with reinterpreting a negative experience. I’ll give you an example, for myself with that. When I’m going to the aforementioned club, sometimes I get there and I’m almost ready to go in and I realize I’d forgotten my headset. I could get all aggravated and upset and that’s what starts, and then I say “Wait a minute, look at this jog back to the car as your warm up time.” By the time that you get to the bike, you’re warmed up and you can start at a higher intensity. It’s not changing what happened, but its reinterpreting my perception of that particular event.
Regarding food, food really is an interesting one. I wrote an article for More Magazine on the relation of foods that perhaps might affect our levels of stress. There are not a lot of them out there. Pistachios for instance have been found in a study, in several studies, to actually reduce the stress on our blood vessels, which can lead to lower blood pressure.
There are, how you eat for instance, is very important. It’s not just what you eat, and there are whole studies and centers devoted to mindful eating, which can make a difference, not just when you are sitting down and eating, but in your whole approach essentially to your day. It’s not that, there are also foods that can work to increase your levels of stress. Given your research, you’re probably aware of them. The fact that, crunchy, sweet, fatty potatoes chip, kind of French fries, those kind of foods actually kick off our reward center, the same way that drugs of addiction do.
They’re not as intense and so what they do is they actually make you produce more stress hormone, which is cortisol, and then it becomes an endless cycle because you eat these foods, you think they’re comfort food, you think they calm you down, but in fact what they’re really doing is increasing your level of stress hormones and revving you up and so you keep eating more and more of them to try and make you maintain that level of calm.
One thing I try and tell people is that you’re not going to be able to say “I’m really, I’m really feeling stressed, I’m going to go eat a carrot.” That’s not going to probably do it for you, but what you want to do is substitute something that’s going to kick off that rewards center. You say “Maybe what I’m going to do is, I love to jump rope, so I’m going to jump rope right now.” You want to substitute something that makes you feel good, the way that you think that that Hagen Daas ice cream will.
Jonathan:Thea, I will give one more recommendation, I hope this doesn’t seem like pandering, but it worked for me, and that is, pick up a copy of the book, Stress Less because, and some of, and I mean this, because, what, and tell me if there’s anything behind this. In my life, stress in the moment, or stress in the short term, negative stress, is ameliorated when I have a hopeful future. If I know for an example that something is, Monday is going to be really hard, but man Tuesday, or the weekend is going to be really great, like if I have this hope for the future, then the present is more bearable, and the reason I bring that up is there’s two things in the research you share which are amazing.
You mentioned the study, it’s one that I’m familiar with, as well aware that an elderly individual did resistance training and it literally reversed cellular aging markers and literally made them younger on a cellular level, and then you also talked about research, please correct me if any of this is misrepresenting, where the consumption of foods containing Omega-3 fats was associated with not just avoiding telomeres shrinking, but actively lengthening them. When we talk about having a hope for the future, like having a hopeful future de-stresses you and if we know that by eater smarter, eating foods rich in these Omega-3 fatty acids, eating less stressful foods, and doing smarter exercise. We can literally drink from the fountain of youth and reverse aging on a cellular level. To me, that’s very hopeful.
Thea: It’s very hopeful, it’s also very, I, it’s not a word I really like but its empowering, because we’re the ones that are making these changes happen, and you’re right, the study that you talked about regarding the resistance exercise, the one I referred to earlier that was Mark Tarnopolsky’s, and it had to do with the genetic profile of the muscle cells and that the genetic profile of these older adults, they were 65 and up I think.
In their muscle cells, it actually reversed the genetic profile to that of a younger genetic profile, which is mind blowing to me. They found this because they actually took muscle biopsies of these older adults before they did the exercise and then I think it was three months, or six weeks, I’m not quite exactly sure of the time period, afterward. It really was quite remarkable, and that made a big splash in the media. When you talk about hope, what you’re talking about is perception, it’s really is, that’s the bottom line. It’s your perceiving that things will work out okay. What was the other one you mentioned, you mentioned Mark’s study…
Thea: Yes and that was another remarkable study. That was also out of University of California, San Francisco, a lot of the stress research are going on in California, and this scientist looks at, he looked at men who had stable cardiac disease, and he was trying to figure out what it was that might make a difference regarding telomere length, and they were healthy, some of them were on statins, etc., but he did this really careful analysis of their blood to see what was it.
Was it aspirin they were taking? Was it statins? He noticed that some of them over five years had their telomeres had actually lengthened and the only variable he could find that was different, was that those whose telomeres had lengthened had levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. So, I ran right up and took my Omega-3’s. We’ve heard a lot about how Omega-3’s affect cognition, but we had not heard how Omega-3’s might affect cellular aging, so, that was, that was also another mind blowing study.
Jonathan:They’re delicious, so that is also helpful.
Thea: They’re delicious? Do you actually eat them?
Jonathan:I love my wild caught Alaskan salmon, I literally eat them…
Thea: Yeah, yeah.
Jonathan:Every single day, I’m not joking, every day. Well, no five days a week, five days a week, wild caught Alaskan salmon. I’m so, my telomeres are literally overwhelming me right now.
Thea: We love wild Alaskan salmon also. We won’t buy the farm raised, we only buy the wild, so yeah, salmon’s a great, great source of that and it is really delicious.
Jonathan:Well, Thea, we’ve only scratched the surface here. If you would be willing, I would love to have you back on the show, because there’s so much more and this is such an important subject, but folks in the mean time, before we can get Thea back on the show, please check out her book, it’s called Stress Less, and you can also learn more about her on her wonderful website, which is theasinger.com Her first name is spelled T-H-E-A, so its theasinger.com and Thea, what’s next for you?
Thea: What’s next for me? Well you know, I’m actually exploring the possibility of expanding that last chapter. I have it…I’m looking at because I just find that as a former dancer, and a dance critic I’m absolutely fascinated by what movement and dance can do for us both physically, physiologically, biologically and mentally. I’m fascinated by that, and I want to look into that more.
Jonathan:Well, I am excited to hear more about that, we’d love to take the journey with you because, if for no other reason I want to learn about this stuff. I think it’s so fascinating. Thea, thank you so much for joining us, I so appreciate it, and listeners, I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did and please remember, this week and every week after, for the sake of your telomeres, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.
Thea: Thanks so much.
Jonathan:Thea, that was wonderful, thank you so much.
Thea: Great, great it was really fun. We should do this again.
Jonathan:Yeah, I wasn’t kidding, I do want to have you back on the show because there’s a bunch of stuff here in your talking points that we didn’t have a chance to cover and I know it’d be super interesting to my audience, so, if you don’t mind, I will follow up in email. I’ll get you a copy, an advanced review copy of my book, which I think you will like, based on what we talked about here. I’ll also send you a link to that non-profit video, and I’d love to get a copy of your book, and then we’ll also schedule some time to get you back on the show.
Thea: You know what, I’m going to send you a copy of the, do you want the hard cover? I have some copies, so yeah, send me your address, I’ll send you a copy. I can send you a copy of each, it’s a little bit updated in the paperback but I don’t know, which do you want? You have a preference?
Jonathan:Whichever you think best represents your work.
Thea: Okay, I like the hard cover. I like the title of the hard cover. Well, thank you so much, this was really fun.
Jonathan:Thank you so much and I’ll follow up in email Thea. Have a good one.