Why Stress Effects Your Heart

  • 3 Oct 2012
  • Reading time 9 mins
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If you ask the man in the street whether stress one of the causes of heart disease, just about everyone will agree and even your doctor will say it’s important to reduce your stress.

Defining stress
Stress is a term we use when under too much pressure. As life gets faster and faster, and harder to make a living, many of us live in a semi-permanent state of stress. Significant changes, health problems, relationship and money problems are common causes of stress. However, it's the daily pressure we feel in response to everyday hassles - like being stuck in traffic, delays in getting things sorted and too many emails - that does as much damage. Stress is both the body and mind's response to any pressure that disrupts our equilibrium. It occurs when your perception of events doesn’t meet your expectations and you are unable to manage your reaction. Our response to stressful events is one of resistance, tension, anxiety and frustration that throws off our physiological and psychological balance, with increased pulse, higher levels of adrenal hormones, inhibition of digestion and all sorts of other changes that, from an evolutionary point of view, gear you up for ‘fight or flight’. Prolonged stress has severe consequences, locking your physiology into an unhealthy state that increases your risk of heart disease. Many of us think we get used to this stress state, living with a low-grade state of anxiety, but insidiously, stress does its damage.

Stress changes what you eat
One of the ways we deal with stress is to eat comfort food, drink alcohol or use caffeine or sugar to keep going. These are coping mechanisms that, in turn, increase your cardiovascular risk. In a poll, 46% of people, when stressed, are less careful about their food choices. Some don’t eat, others eat lots of carbs and sugar or fatty foods. Researchers at Ohio State University found that short periods of emotional stress can slow down the body’s process of clearing some fats from the bloodstream possibly contributing to heart disease. Stress also depletes the body of many nutrients, particularly magnesium which helps to relax both your mind and arteries. So, when stressed, it is especially important to eat well yet we often compound the problem by doing exactly the opposite.

How stress affects your heart
According to the American Institute of Stress, up to 90% of all health problems are related to stress. Too much stress can contribute to many health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, depression and sleeping problems. Many studies confirm the debilitating effects of stress on our health: Three 10-year studies, published in the British Journal of Medical Psychology, concluded that emotional stress was more predictive of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease than smoking. People who were unable to effectively manage their stress had a 40% higher death rate than non-stressed individuals. A Harvard Medical School study published in Circulation, of 1,623 heart attack survivors found that when subjects got angry during emotional conflicts, their risk of subsequent heart attacks was more than double that of those that remained calm. A 20-year study of over 1,700 older men conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in Circulation, found that worry about social conditions, health and personal finances all significantly increased the risk of coronary heart disease. A recent study of heart attack survivors, in the American Journal of Critical Care, showed that patients’ emotional state and relationships in the period after myocardial infarction are as important as the disease severity in determining their prognosis. According to a Mayo Clinic study of individuals with heart disease, psychological stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac events, such as cardiac death, cardiac arrest and heart attacks. The science behind exactly how high levels of stress affect the heart and arteries has come a long way and now there actually are objective ways of measuring it. Stress has the opposite effect of relaxation. When you are relaxed it turns on a pattern of nervous system activity, called the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate, reduces your blood pressure and does good things to your arteries (see the figure below). When you are stressed it does the opposite by switching on what’s called the sympathetic nervous system (which is the opposite of sympathetic to your heart). Up goes your blood pressure and your blood sugar and your heart beats rapidly. On a chemical level you produce more adrenalin and cortisol and, with this, your HDL goes down and LDL goes up and out pours all sorts of clotting factors. Why? Stress is part of the ‘fight/flight’ syndrome. Your system is getting ready to fight, forcing more oxygen and glucose around the system with more blood pressure for the anticipated burst of activity, and preparing your system for injury by clotting the blood in case you get cut up. All good stuff if you are charging into battle, but inappropriate if you sitting there on Monday morning thinking about going to do a job you don’t want to do, smoking a cigarette with a coffee to give you the get up and go to get off. No wonder heart attacks are much more common on Monday mornings. The counter hormone to cortisol is DHEA, also produced by the adrenal glands. By measuring not just the level of cortisol and DHEA, but their pattern over 20 hours, you can get a good sense as to how stressed someone is. But there’s another way, ......

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