Don't panic (please!) but a recent study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that anxiety disorders, including chronic panic and even acute phobias, contribute significantly to premature aging.
According to the study, entitled "High Phobic Anxiety Is Related to Lower Leukocyte Telomere Length in Women," female subjects with the most extreme cases of phobia-related anxiety showed irreversible gradual loss of telomeres—the DNA sequences capping off chromosomes that contribute to aging.
The higher the levels of long-term general anxiety and fear-based disorders, the less healthy the individuals were, the study noted. Women with a high anxiety score of 6 points or higher were the least healthy.
This isn't the first study to connect stress and anxiety disorders with impacts on our health. A decades-long study in the UK found that civil servants lowest in status experienced more negative stress and anxiety, and a subsequent early mortality rate four times greater than those individuals with higher status ranks and fewer negative stress factors.
Science has also noted the effects of oxidative stress at the cellular level and its connection to diseases including cancer, mental decline and cardiovascular disease.
So how much does diet play a factor in anxiety?
A 2000 study conducted by researchers at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London found that stressed emotional eaters ate more dense meals frequently with an emphasis on sweets and high-fat foods than non-emotional unstressed eaters. And that dietary habit creates a cycle—regular consumption of foods high in sugary, processed ingredients, leads to an inevitable sugar crash, which can exacerbate stress levels, continuing the cycle of eating to boost mood.
While some anxiety disorders may not be treated with a change in diet, a recent study published in Nutrition Journal found that individuals following a vegetarian diet may experience less stress than meat eaters. Diets high in meat and fish are also higher in arachidonic acid, an animal-based omega-6 fatty acid, which has been connected to chemical changes in the brain that can lead to stress, anxiety and generally bad moods.
Processed foods may also include trans fats, preservatives, flavors and high fructose corn syrup—ingredients that have often been genetically modified and sprayed with chemical herbicides and pesticides that are known endocrine disruptors including glyphosate, atrazine, and 2,4-D.
Processed foods often come in containers and packaging that includes BPA (bisphenol-A), a plastic polymer that's also a known endocrine disruptor. These chemicals, which can negatively impact the body's hormonal systems, can play a significant role in mood, stress levels and general anxiety. But a 2011 study released by the Breast Cancer Fund and Silent Spring Institute found that a fresh food diet can result in a rapid decrease in harmful BPA levels that can lead to anxiety.
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Image: Sara Björk