Your cells release substances in times of pressure called stress granules—here's how they affect your health and how to sweep them away.
It starts when something stresses you: Whether it’s air pollution or a virus, your cells launch into repair-and-recovery mode. As part of that process, the body whirs into action, producing proteins that help rebuild your cells and RNA, the chemical messengers that trigger the release of other health-promoting compounds. These RNA agents carry out the repair process by clumping together, forming stress granules.
When they do their job properly, these particles are actually beneficial, says Benjamin Wolozin, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of pharmacology and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a co-founder of Aquinnah Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company focused on neurodegenerative disease. Stress granules protect the cells from damage, essentially creating a temporary shelter so the body can better repair itself, he says. Once the stressor is gone, the stress granules are easily swept away, a procedure that typically takes just 10 to 15 minutes.
But when something interferes with the cleanup operation, stress granules start to accumulate. And that buildup can cause some serious health problems. “Studies indicate that it may be linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Wolozin says. (Check out the other weird things stress can do to your body.)
Although scientists are still trying to pinpoint the culprits that interrupt the granule-removal process, likely suspects include conditions that continually tax your body, like a nutritional deficiency, a chronic disease, or living in a heavily polluted area. (FYI: Pollution Could Be Your Skin's Biggest Enemy.) Ongoing stress is another potential perpetrator, Dr. Wolozin says. “Studies using mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease show that exposure to chronic, unpredictable tension for about two weeks can accelerate Alzheimer’s-like pathology,” he says. When you’re under pressure, “your body releases hormones called glucocorticoids. One theory is that constant exposure to high levels of those hormones can result in stress granules accumulating, which leads to the neuronal atrophy and degeneration that’s characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. That may help explain why studies have linked exposure to high levels of stress to Alzheimer’s,” says Ioannis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Minho in Portugal who’s studying the link between mental stress, stress granules, and brain pathologies like Alzheimer’s disease and depression. (FYI: Stress is a huge issue for American woman, in particular.)
The bottom line: You need to get rid of these particles before they cause harm. Luckily, scientists have discovered strategies that can help you do that.
Practice the 30 x 5 Workout Rule
“Exercise brings more blood to the brain, and that has many positive effects that help prevent the accumulation of stress granules,” Dr. Wolozin says. “It increases the delivery of nutrients, oxygen, and healthy growth factors to your neurons, and it speeds the removal of toxins from the brain.”It’s also one of the most powerful ways to boost your resilience to stress. Experts still don’t know what type of exercise is best for the brain, but a study in the Annals of Neurology found that people who did at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five times a week were less likely to have a buildup of damaging proteins—ones that other research has associated with stress granules. (Not to mention, exercise has all these other mental health benefits.)
Maintain Good Oral Hygiene
Keeping your gums healthy is a surprisingly effective weapon against stress granules. “One source of stress for the body comes from dental plaque and gingivitis, which create inflammation, sending molecules called cytokines through your system, hurting the cells,” Dr. Wolozin says. Forgetting to floss once or twice is no big deal, but properly caring for your teeth over the long term is vital. Brush at least twice a day, floss daily, and visit a dentist two times a year. Between meals, you can chew sugar-free gum with xylitol, a natural sweetener, which can lower your risk of cavities. Or pop one of the new Listerine Ready Tabs ($13 for a pack of 56, amazon.com), which neutralize bad breath odors at their source.
Taste the Rainbow
“As part of their normal process of generating energy, cells release free radicals, harmful, unstable molecules that create oxidative, or damaging, stress,” says Susan Blum, M.D., the founder and director of the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York. Left unchecked, this can lead to a pileup of stress granules. Fortunately, the antioxidants in vibrantly colored produce can prevent and reverse oxidative stress, Blum says. A good rule of thumb is to eat a rainbow of produce with each meal. “Fill 70 percent of your plate with vegetables, and include different colors: dark leafy greens, red and orange peppers, beets, sweet potatoes, radishes, purple potatoes, and yams,” Blum says. “Also, aim for a total of two servings a day of colorful, seasonal fruit—apples in the fall, citrus in the winter, berries in the spring, and stone fruits in the summer.” (These other foods that can actually help fight stress too.)
Clear the Air
Early research indicates that there may be a link between environmental toxins and stress granules, Dr. Wolozin says. So far, lead and mercury have been implicated, but there are likely others, so it’s smart to reduce your exposure to pollution. Concentrate on what’s inside your home, since indoor air can be just as polluted as outdoor air. In fact, a study in the journal Science found that volatile chemical products—things like pesticides, furniture coatings, cleaning agents, and personal-care products—now rival transportation as the top sources of pollution in cities. Consider investing in a good air purifier. The new IQAir Atem personal air purifier ($399, amazon.com) can sit on your nightstand or desk, instantly creating a clean-air bubble around your bed or workspace, and the Honeywell Doctor’s Choice True HEPA Tower Allergen Remover ($190, walmart.com) will clear the air of an entire room.
Side note about outdoor air: You can stop worrying about whether the exhaust fumes and other pollutants you encounter when you run, bike, or go for a walk are doing more harm to your overall health than good. Turns out, you’d have to cycle outdoors for up to seven hours a day for those negative consequences to start to pile up, according to research from the University of Cambridge. (More on that: How Air Quality Affects Your Workout—and Your Health)
Track Your Stress
Bracelets and clip-ons that calculate—and in some cases correct—your tension are the latest high-tech wearables. “Chronic stress can lead to unhealthy behaviors like eating or drinking too much,” says Shape Brain Trust member Mithu Storoni, M.D., Ph.D., the author of Stress-Proof. “Devices that track stress might make you more aware of the behaviors, so you can change them.” Look for one that measures heart rate variability (HRV), like the Garmin Vivosport ($170, amazon.com). It uses HRV to calculate your stress throughout the day and o ers breathing exercises when it’s high. Another option is Touchpoints Basic ($160, thetouchpointsolution.com). Wear one bracelet on each wrist; they vibrate in a way that may help calm you down. (You can also turn your stress into positive energy with a few of these tips.)