Dr. Elissa Epel : The Science of Stress

Dr. Elissa Epel : The Science of Stress

Behavioral science is just at the beginning
of providing answers to understanding good
health and longevity. I find stress really
interesting to study because it’s not just
one factor. It is a psychological state
that shapes everything about an individual, that shapes how they
interact in the world and how their health
is being shaped over time. So how does stress
really work? How does it get
under the skin? Stress is
a biological reaction that affects tissue
and, in fact, accelerates the aging
of tissue. Here, you see the pairs
of chromosomes and, at the caps of each pair
is the telomeric DNA that map on to our
behavior and our health. The length of these caps;
that’s what we’re measuring. It’s a vital aging clock
in our own complex body, so when telomeres
get short, that predicts early disease
and early mortality. For the last 10 years,
I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with
Elizabeth Blackburn. So she’s normalizing
the samples here. EPEL: Elizabeth
and her colleagues won a Nobel Prize
for their discovery of the cell
aging system. Elizabeth’s lab at UCSF is one of the few
labs in the world that can
accurately measure the age of a cell. They have a room that
is filled with a robot that can actually take the
human error out of the process. BLACKBURN: The collaboration
with Elissa Epel, in which
she’s been asking how behavior impacts
on disease processes, has been very productive
because we’ve brought together cellular and
molecular approaches with behavioral
approaches. EPEL: So most
of my studies now are really focused on measuring stress
and coping well, how it’s affecting eating behavior,
obesity, metabolism, and how it’s affecting the
rate of how our cells age. All right, so I’m
going to be hooking you up. EPEL: So we’ve been given
this opportunity to address these very questions
in our current study. This is called
the SAGE study, the study of Stress, AGing,
and Emotions in parents, so it’s a study
of parenting stress. This one is
going to measure the pulse
in your fingertip. EPEL: And half of
the parents have a child with an autism
spectrum disorder and the other half have
neurotypical children. I’m going to go ahead
and attach the EKG. EPEL: So after
they’re hooked up, we then have them do
different tasks on the computer; that’s a window
into how stress response of their brain is. And then, for each one,
you can rate how negative or positive
it felt to you. So, for the SAGE study,
we get a blood draw to assess
their cell aging and then those cells
are transported to Liz Blackburn’s lab. We find that the moms
who feel the most stress had cells that looked
a lot older — on average,
about 10 years older. The diagnosis of autism
is a chronic grief. You don’t get over it. That acceptance is
a very critical piece in adapting
to chronic stress. Carolyn’s situation would be
overwhelming to anyone and she showed a lot of
acceptance and resilience, even though
she also lives with chronic sadness. -You go through
the cycles of grief, just as if
it were a death. And it’s not that
your child’s died, but what’s died
is your… expectation
of the future. WOMAN: So let’s just
center our bodies. EPEL: We’re in the midst
of doing the MAMAS study. MAMAS stands for Maternal Adiposity —
which is fat — Metabolism, And Stress. -Nice,
full stretch up. EPEL: And this is
an 8-week course where we’re trying to teach pregnant women
to reduce their stress and to eat
in a more healthy way. Just take some full,
deep breaths. EPEL: So it’s really using our
power of attention and awareness and connecting
with our body. So the heart of
the MAMAS intervention is our weekly classes. -And we’re
going to begin with the Hunger
Awareness Scale. EPEL: So there are a lot
of health risks for the mom, particularly
overweight women, that come
with pregnancy. In addition to all
of the risk to the mom, the excessive weight programs the baby
for life. And depression and stress are
also transmitted to the fetus. So we are working hard to see
how reversible this is. Step right out here. EPEL: The MAMAS study
is led by Kim Coleman-Phox, who is a maternal-
health researcher. Okay, it’s 179. The subjects come in for
their baseline assessment, which establishes where they
begin before the intervention. 51.25. -We then measure their height,
their waist and hip, so that we can determine
what their waist/hip ratio is. Okay,
breathe normally. EPEL: To assess abdominal fat
safely in pregnant women, the only method
available to us is to do an ultrasound. Okay, here we go. We then measure their
body composition, using the BOD POD, which measures body composition
using air displacement. It’s a very expensive,
state-of-the-art tool. EPEL: So the women
that we’re targeting are low-income
minority women who are already
overweight or obese and it is striking, how much they are motivated
to participate in our study. The third study
that we have ongoing is called
the SEED study, and that is the Stress, Eating,
and Early Development study. -Hi, Savannah.
What do you think? The goals of the SEED study
are to see what we can learn about the effects
of the intervention on the babies
that are born to the women
in the MAMAS groups. I’m doing a little bit
to check her reflexes. Can an intervention
that’s targeting stress and weight
during pregnancy have an impact on the
development of the fetus and the way that
that baby lives in the world
after they’re born? I move the red ball over here.
Look at that. Wonderful movement
of the eyes and the head. EPEL: We do a visit
in the home or the clinic. [Baby voice]
BUSH: This is going to tell us about
your hormone levels. EPEL: And we also do
a battery of tests that looks at how responsive the baby is
to its environment and how stress-reactive
the baby is, versus calm. She’s about 60. BUSH: We take measurements
of the baby’s growth. [Baby voice]
And you are 42 centimeters. BUSH: We want to get a sense
of their length and their weight
and their body fat. How often does she
settle down very quickly? -Always. BUSH: We also ask the mother
a lot of questions about the baby’s
temperament, their personality,
and behavior. Were you worried always, often,
sometimes, rarely, or never that she would
become overweight? Never. This SEED study has the most
exciting implications for public health. The preliminary data
are really exciting. Basically, they show
that women who do well and respond
to the intervention by having optimal weight gain
and a decrease in stress are having babies
with better physical and mental
health outcomes. So if this finding holds
with a large sample, we can’t think of
anything more exciting than disseminating this. And the data, so far, adds new meaning
to my life. It’s very exciting to think
that there is a way to improve the health
of the next generation.

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