How chronic stress can affect your heart health
Chronic stress and symptoms of depression contribute to sickness and death from heart disease. Increasing clinical evidence over the past 30 years supports this view, but we're not sure why. Little is known about the underlying mechanisms responsible, or why depressive symptoms and cardiac disease so often occur together.
What we do know, however, is that our response to chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation that can literally clog us to death.
You've probably heard of the "fight or flight" stress response: the heart races, blood pressure rises and breathing becomes fast and shallow. These automatic, split-second responses deliver extra oxygen and nutrients to body parts that need them most, so that we can either flee from the source of danger or fight for our lives.
Angry lion, annoying boss: the same to our brain
Once the danger is gone, our blood pressure, heart rate and everything else gradually return back to normal. Here's the problem: Our brain can't tell the difference between stress caused by an angry lion or stress caused by an annoying boss. The lion stress is acute (short-term); the boss stress can be chronic, stretching on for months or years. The body's response to both is the same.
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Chronic stressors come in different packages, from troubled marriages to difficult workplaces. Research indicates that exposure to chronic stress generally increases vulnerability to coronary heart disease.
Chronic stressors lead to chronic inflammation
There is compelling scientific evidence to show that chronic stressors activate the immune system in a way that leads to persistent, or chronic, inflammation.
With long-term exposure to inflammation, people develop symptoms of depression and experience progressive atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), the root of heart disease. It's been also shown that repeated episodes of acute mental stress may ultimately lead to atherosclerosis. This may account for the approximately 40% of Atherosclerosis patients with no other known risk factors.
Stress, by activating the release of various stress hormones such as cortisol and others, damages the lining of blood vessels. Add in the accumulation of other fatty nutrients, such as cholesterol, and we get plaques (semi-hard accumulations) around the blood vessels. When enough plaques are accumulated, blood flow will be greatly reduced. This can trigger heart disease, stroke and other serious conditions.
This may explain why "healthy" people with normal or even low cholesterol levels can suffer from coronary diseases. In fact, only about 50% of those who have suffered a heart attack are found to have high cholesterol readings.
Much like chronic inflammation that never turns off, chronic stress takes its toll on our health, especially our heart, and can literally clog us to death.
7 Things we can do to cope
While we can't banish daily stress, we can respond to it in better, healthier ways. If you ask me to recommend something smart and simple, I would say:
- Try relaxation techniques such as: deep breathing exercises or meditation.
- Learn how to express your thoughts and feelings.
- Stay in close contact with your friends and family.
- Cultivate a positive attitude.
- Stick to a healthy diet: avoid junk food and increase the intake of Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Exercise daily, whatever you enjoy.
- Eliminate smoking and alcohol excess, if these are your stress relievers.
Dr. Michael Radulescu, M.D. is currently in private practice in New South Wales, Australia. Before that he worked for several years in emergency medicine. His areas of specialty include cardiology, diabetes and neurology.