How Stress May Physically Injure Your Heart; Scientists said January 2017 they may have uncovered a biological explanation for the long-suspected link between stress and heart disease.
Everyone feels stress in different ways and reacts to it in different ways. How much stress you experience and how you react to it can lead to a wide variety of health problems — and that’s why it’s critical to know what you can do about it.
“When stress is excessive, it can contribute to everything from high blood pressure, also called hypertension, to asthma to ulcers to irritable bowel syndrome ,” said Ernesto L. Schiffrin, M.D., Ph.D., physician-in-chief at Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital, and professor and vice chair of research for the Department of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal.
What is stress?
Firstly, let’s debunk one myth: stress is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. Without this brilliant ability to feel stress, humankind wouldn’t have survived. Our cavemen ancestors, for example, used the onset of stress to alert them to a potential danger, such as a sabre-toothed tiger.
Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.
Through the release of hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, the caveman gained a rush of energy, which prepared him to either fight the tiger or run away. That heart pounding, fast breathing sensation is the adrenaline; as well as a boost of energy, it enables us to focus our attention so we can quickly respond to the situation.
In the modern world, the ‘fight or flight’ mode can still help us survive dangerous situations, such as reacting swiftly to a person running in front of our car by slamming on the brakes.
The challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations. When blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee, brain function is minimised. This can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’; a state that is a great hindrance in both our work and home lives. If we are kept in a state of stress for long periods, it can be detrimental to our health. The results of having elevated cortisol levels can be an increase in sugar and blood pressure levels, and a decrease in libido.
Stress and Your Heart
More research is needed to determine how stress contributes to heart disease — the leading killer of Americans. But stress may affect behaviors and factors that increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating. Some people may choose to drink too much alcohol or smoke cigarettes to “manage” their chronic stress, however, these habits can increase blood pressure and may damage artery walls.
And your body’s response to stress may be a headache, back strain, or stomach pains. Stress can also zap your energy, wreak havoc on your sleep and make you feel cranky, forgetful and out of control.
A stressful situation sets off a chain of events. Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. These reactions prepare you to deal with the situation — the “fight or flight” response.
When stress is constant, your body remains in high gear off and on for days or weeks at a time. Although the link between stress and heart disease isn’t clear, chronic stress may cause some people to drink too much alcohol which can increase your blood pressure and may damage the artery walls.
How Stress May Physically Injure Your Heart
People with a highly active amygdala — a region of the brain involved in stress processing — also have a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, the researchers revealed.
A hard-working amygdala was also linked to increased bone marrow activity and inflammation of the arteries, which may explain the higher heart disease and stroke risk, the team said.
The data suggested that stressed amygdala may send signals to the bone marrow to produce extra white blood cells, which may in turn cause arteries to narrow and become inflamed, causing cardiovascular problems.
The potential link “raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological wellbeing,” said lead author Ahmed Tawakol of the Massachusetts General Hospital.
Published in The Lancet medical journal, the study entailed PET and CT scans of the brain, bone marrow and spleen activity, as well as artery inflammation, of 293 patients.
The group was surveyed for 3.7 years on average, during which time 22 suffered “cardiovascular events” — including heart attack, heart failure, stroke and narrowing of arteries, said the study.
“Those with higher amygdala activity had a greater risk of subsequent cardiovascular disease and developed problems sooner than those with lower activity,” said the researchers.
In a sub-study, 13 patients with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder were tested separately.
“Those who reported the highest levels of stress had the highest levels of amygdala activity along with more signs of inflammation in their blood and the walls of their arteries,” the team found.
The amygdala are almond-shaped neuron clusters deep in the brain thought to regulate emotion, fear, anxiety, pleasure and stress.
Commenting on the study, Ilze Bot of Leiden University in the Netherlands said the data identified chronic stress “as a true risk factor” for cardiovascular diseases.
Given the increasing number of people suffering from job or social stress, doctors may have to include it when they assess an individual’s risk for cardiovascular disease, she said.
A 2014 study said chronic stress may trigger an overproduction of white blood cells which clump together on artery walls, restricting blood flow and encouraging clot-formation, to raise heart attack and stroke risk.
How Stress May Physically Injure Your Heart
Can stress management lessen or prevent heart disease?
Managing stress is a good idea for your overall health, and researchers are currently studying whether managing stress is effective for heart disease. A few studies have examined how well treatment or therapies work in reducing the effects of stress on cardiovascular disease. Studies using psychosocial therapies – involving both psychological and social aspects – are promising in the prevention of second heart attacks. After a heart attack or stroke, people who feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed by stress should talk to their doctor or other healthcare professionals.
5 means of handling stress and helping your heart
Want to turn your stress around and help your heart in the process? Try these five simple tips.
- Stay positive. People with heart disease who maintain an upbeat attitude are less likely to die than those who are more negative, according to research. Just having a good laugh can help your heart. Laughter has been found to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries, and increase “good” HDL cholesterol.
- Meditate. This practice of inward-focused thought and deep breathing has been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure. Anyone can learn to meditate. Just take a few minutes to sit somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Meditation’s close relatives, yoga and prayer, can also relax the mind and body.
- Exercise. Every time you are physically active, whether you take a walk or play tennis, your body releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins. Exercising not only melts away stress, but it also protects against heart disease by lowering your blood pressure, strengthening your heart muscle, and helping you maintain a healthy weight.
- Unplug. It’s impossible to escape stress when it follows you everywhere. Cut the cord. Avoid emails and TV news. Take time each day—even if it’s for just 10 or 15 minutes—to escape from the world.
- Find your own path to stress relief. Take a bubble bath, listen to music, or read a book. Any technique is effective if it works for you.