Friday, June 8, 2012

We've got to chill out - hakuna mata!

We have all heard that stressing about things doesn't really get us anywhere. When we freak out about taking tests or completing projects it doesn't really matter how much we work or study because in the end we end up affecting our performance by psyching ourselves out. I'm sure that at some point in our college experience we all can relate to a moment in which we had such a high level of stress that we can no longer compute a single train of thought. Ring a bell? I'm sure it does, especially when finals are approaching fast and furiously. Interestingly, some schools are aware of the negative effect that stress has on academic performance and overall mental integrity of students. Because of this, they are implementing an innovative technique to help students release stress through the presence of puppies. You read correctly, puppies are now the answer to our stress! Currently, schools around the nation are using the "Dogs on Campus" approach, where students are able to interact with puppies, that are part of a social training program to become companion dogs, as a way to break away from  their stressful studies. For instance, in Harvard Medical School and Yale Law school, therapy dogs are now held in libraries and are capable of being rented by students, especially during finals. The reasoning behind this unique stress relief technique applied by these schools is that they have seen a positive correlation between the mental state of students and the time they spend interacting with the dogs. Research on this matter suggests that the interaction with pets decreases the levels of cortisol, a primary stress hormone, and increases hormones such as endorphins, which have been associated with the increase of happiness to levels in which students can perform normally as their stress levels return to optimal levels.

So how does stress have such a potent effect in our body, and how can we neutralize it when no canine love is available?

 Although stress is fundamental to cope with difficult and dangerous tasks, when it is constantly present at high levels it can have health consequences that damage our physical and mental health. Numerous studies have attempted to study the way stress acts on the aging process of our cells as a way to understand the degenerative pathway that stress generates on our body. Studies have suggested that the deterioration seen in our body as result of stress is tightly associated with lower telomerase activity, and shorter telomere length, which are considered to be determinants of cell senescence and longevity. Research done by Elissa Epel and colleagues provide evidence that suggest that stress shortens telomeres by comparing telomere lengths and telomerase activity of individuals that experience opposing levels of stress.

 The research compared two groups of individuals with similar weight, tobacco use, and vitamin use  between a group of individuals whose life style did not have high levels of stress, and those which experience abnormally high level of stress in their everyday routine. As it can be seen in this figure, individuals that experience high levels of stress reported significantly lower telomeres length and telomerase activity, p < 0.001 and p < 0.05 respectively. Thus, individuals that have a stressful life are more prone to experience cells senescence, and consequently abnormal metabolic responses. Often, senescence is associated with being a preventive mechanism to arrest proliferation of cells whose DNA seems to be affected in order keep those cells out of the cell cycle. However, new evidence suggests that when these cells accumulate to abnormal levels, for instance as consequence of the effect of chronic stress, a negative side effect can be reached as the telomeres of these cells trigger oncogenic stimuli that are known to induce instances of cancer.  So would this indicate that stress can lead to acquiring cancer? 

Unfortunately, there is not a study that can demonstrate how stress leads to cancer. However, there is clear evidence that demonstrates the effect that stress has on telomeres, which when taken together will let us see how this can lead to cancer. Thus, we can make an educated assumption that suggests that due to the fact that stress is able to shorten telomeres,  the DNA that is exposed could acquire mutations that would lead to instances of cancer as DNA is progressively damaged. It would be interesting to  have a study in which this direct connection can be seen, yet it would take some time to isolate all the known and unknown factors that play a role in the pathways that lead to cancer. So, since we still don't have such a clear understanding of how stress leads to cancer, the only thing that we can do is try to find a way to relieve stress, thinking that stress does not only affect our performance in school, but it impacts our body at a molecular level. 

Some of the most useful tips to relieve stress back to healthy levels where our performance is best are, other than hanging out with puppies: practicing yoga, exercising, taking naps, and eating correctly. In fact, it has been demonstrated that although oxidatives created by stress shorten telomeres, antioxidants that are released from relaxing activities are capable of decelerating the shortening of telomeres. Thus, let's take a break, breath a little, and realize that it is necessary to relax in order to do well.