We have all felt stressed at times. Whether you have job stress, family problems, or financial issues, occasional stress is often a part of life. How a person reacts to stress is very individual. Some people find healthy outlets and others let stress build up.
When stress occurs frequently or becomes chronic, it can lead to a variety of health problems including heart disease. Learning the risks associated with stress and finding healthy ways to deal with it can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease.
What Does Chronic Stress Do to Your Body?
Stress affects your body in several ways. The stress response involves a complex physiological reaction including the release of various hormones, such as epinephrine and cortisol. The stress hormones play a role in the “fight or flight response.” We have all felt a surge of adrenaline in a stressful situation, such as a close call in avoiding a traffic collision.
Occasional stress probably does not lead to lasting adverse health effects. But when stress becomes chronic, over time it can have negative effects on the body, including the cardiovascular system.
As stress hormones are released, it causes constriction or narrowing of the blood vessels in the body. The constriction occurs to divert oxygen to the muscles of the body. In the process, it also leads to increased blood pressure.
Being under chronic stress also causes an increase in heart rate and increased oxygen demand on the body. The combination of these two symptoms along with hypertension can lead to instability of the heart’s electrical system, possibly causing an arrhythmia. In addition to the cardiovascular effects, chronic stress can also affect sleep, the immune system, and increase inflammation in the body.
How Stress Contributes to Heart Disease
Along with other risk factors, such as smoking and being sedentary, stress can contribute to heart disease in several ways, including the following:
High Blood Pressure: Chronic stress is associated with high blood pressure. When you are stressed, hormones are released that raise your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a risk factor for a heart attack and stroke.
Research, which involved a systematic review and meta-analysis of six studies totaling 34,556 participants, indicated a link between stress and increased blood pressure. The study found that participants that had a stronger response to stressors had a 21 percent greater chance of developing high blood pressure compared to those that had less of a stress response. (1)
Higher Levels of Inflammation: When you are under chronic stress, the hormones released can lead to inflammation. One of the hormones produced is cortisol. In the proper levels, cortisol serves important functions such as blood sugar and metabolism regulation. Cortisol also helps regulate inflammation. But when stress becomes chronic, cortisol’s ability to regulate inflammation becomes impaired.
High levels of inflammation in the body are associated with various diseases including heart disease. In a journal article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers found that inflammation is often a contributing factor to the early development and progression of plaque in the arteries. (2)
Increased Risk of a Heart Attack: Chronic stress is also linked to an increased risk of a heart attack. One large study involved 25,000 from 52 countries. The participants completed a stress assessment with stress being defined as feeling anxious, irritable, or having sleep problems due to issues at home or work. After adjusting for smoking history, age, and gender, it was found that people that felt they were under chronic stress had twice the risk of having a heart attack as those that did not report chronic stress. (3)
Worse Outcomes After a Heart Attack: Stress may also lead to adverse outcomes after a heart attack, especially in women. One study involved 306 people, including 150 women and 156 men, that were hospitalized for a heart attack in the last eight months. The study also included a control group of 58 women and 54 men. Markers of cardiovascular function including vasomotor response and vascular activity were measured before and after a stress event.
The study indicated that women who survived a heart attack and then had stressful exposures were twice as likely to develop myocardial ischemia, which is decreased blood flow to the heart, compared with men. (4)
Unhealthy Lifestyle Choices: Stress may also affect your heart health indirectly. Think about times when you are stressed. Do you sleep worse or make the best food choices? When we are worried, it’s common to let healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising, healthy eating, and getting enough rest, take a backseat. Poor lifestyle choices can increase your risk of heart disease.
Natural Ways to De-stress
Although it may be hard to eliminate all stress, there are several natural ways you can recharge and de-stress. Consider the following:
- Develop a support system: It’s helpful to have a support system of people you can talk to and express how you feel. Sometimes just a sympathetic ear can make you feel better.
- Exercise: Exercise is a great natural way to keep stress at bay. It is also good for your heart. Physical activity helps increase the production of endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Find an activity you enjoy, such as walking, aerobic dance, or swimming, and try to do it at least 30 minutes several days a week.
- Have quiet time: We all need a little downtime to quiet our minds. Consider unplugging each night even if it’s for just a half hour. Don’t look at emails, text messages, or social media. Spend a few minutes doing deep breathing or listening to music.
- Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can make everything seem worse, including stress. Although getting enough sleep will not eliminate stressful events in your life, it might allow you to cope with them better.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation and meditation, can be a useful way to de-stress. The techniques are easy to learn and can lower heart rate and blood pressure.
CT HEART SCAN
If you are worried about your current heart disease risk, you can find out if you have plaque build-up or a blocked artery. A heart scan is the only non-invasive way to determine whether you have coronary artery disease and it can be life-saving. If you find out that you have plaque build-up, then you can do something to reverse it. It’s best to catch it as early as possible.
If you are over 40 years old, then you should have a heart scan performed. At Hotze Health & Wellness Center, we offer heart scans with an EBCT scanner. EBCT is non-invasive, open, and safe, and emits the lowest radiation in the CT industry. Have peace of mind knowing that heart disease can be detected and that you can do something to help reverse it.
DO YOU HAVE HORMONE DECLINE AND IMBALANCE?
Hormone decline such as low progesterone levels can lead to stress and anxiety. Take our symptom checker to find out if you have symptoms of hormone decline. By restoring your hormones to optimal levels, you can relieve your symptoms and improve your health!
- Effect of psychological stress on blood pressure increase: a meta-analysis of cohort studies
- Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases
- Association of psychosocial risk factors with risk of acute myocardial infarction in 11119 cases and 13648 controls from 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study
- Mental Stress-Induced Myocardial Ischemia in Young Patients with recent Myocardial Infarction