Boston, MA — Ongoing stress, whether it’s from a traffic-choked daily commute, unhappy marriage, or overbearing boss, has been linked to a wide range of harmful health effects. But can stress cause heart disease? The December 2013 issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch looks into the connection.
There’s no question that stress can exert real health effects throughout the body—including the heart. People who’ve received traumatic news, like the death of a child, have, in rare cases, suffered immediate heart attacks. The condition is called “broken heart syndrome.” It’s much more common in women than men, even in those with no history of heart disease, says Dr. Deepak Bhatt, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Integrated Interventional Cardiovascular Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
But what about everyday stresses, like rush-hour traffic, marriage strains, and on-the-job aggravation? The connection between these chronic forms of stress and heart disease isn’t as well defined. “I think the conventional opinion is that stress is bad for your heart, but the data are much murkier,” Dr. Bhatt says.
Stress triggers inflammation, a known instigator of heart disease, but the stress-inflammation-heart disease connection hasn’t been proven. Stress may influence heart disease in more subtle ways. It prompts some people to act in ways that increase their risk for heart disease, like turning to pizza, pie, cookies, and other comfort foods. Those high-fat, high-cholesterol foods contribute to the artery damage that causes heart attacks and strokes. Stress can also lead to other heart-damaging behaviors, such as smoking and drinking too much alcohol.
Breaking the connection is a matter of both relieving stress and managing the unhealthy habits it triggers.
5 Ways To Manage Stress and Help 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.
Read the full-length article: “Stress and your heart”
Also in the December, 2013 issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch:
· How to manage your medicines
· Could you have prediabetes?
· Best nondairy sources of calcium
Harvard Women’s Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/womens or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).
Binge Drinking During Pregnancy Linked to Negative Emotions
Researchers in Norway found that negative affectivity is linked to light alcohol use and binge drinking during pregnancy. Results published in Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, a journal of the Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology, show 16% of women had light alcohol use in the first trimester and 10% in the second trimester.
Binge drinking occurred in 12% of women during their first trimester and 0.5% in the second trimester.
Experts describe negative affectivity as the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety and depression.
Individuals with negative affectivity tend to have an unfavorable view of themselves and the world in general. Previous studies have associated negative affectivity with greater vulnerability to stress, intense emotional reactions to daily life, and inclination to use intoxicants in response to stress.
Mothers who use alcohol while pregnant place their unborn child at risk for premature birth, low birth weight, fetal alcohol syndrome and even fetal death. These serious health risks have led health experts around the world to recommend that women abstain from alcohol while trying to conceive and during pregnancy.
Yet prior evidence indicates that 25% to 50% of women report drinking alcohol while pregnant, with low income level, partner’s drinking behavior, and mother’s pre-pregnancy alcohol use all contributing risk factors.
The present population-based study, led by Dr. Kim Stene-Larsen from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, Norway, used data from 66,111 pregnant women and their partners who were part of the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). Mothers filled out surveys related to alcohol use at 17 and 30 weeks of gestation.
The Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test-Consumption (AUDIT-C) was used in the present study to measure
- light alcohol use (0.5 to 2 units, 1-4 times per month) and
- binge drinking (intake of 5 alcohol units or more in a single drinking episode).
In Norway one unit of alcohol is equivalent to
- one glass (1/3 liter or ≈11 oz) of beer,
- one sherry glass of fortified wine, or
- one snaps (shot) glass of spirit or liqueur.”
Negative affectivity was assessed in gestational weeks 17 and 30 using the Hopkins Symptom Checklist, which measures anxiety and depression. Medical evidence has established that measures of anxiety and depression symptoms are comparable to negative affectivity measures.
Findings indicate that with each unit increase in maternal negative affectivity, the odds for light alcohol increased in the first and second trimester, 27% and 28%, respectively.
The odds for binge drinking were much higher at 55% in the first trimester and 114% in the second trimester for each unit increase of negative affectivity in the mother.
“Our findings clearly show a link between a mother’s negative emotions, such as depression and anxiety, and light alcohol use and binge drinking during pregnancy,” concludes Dr. Stene-Larsen. “Further study is needed to understand why women continue to drink alcohol while pregnant despite health warnings.”
“Our findings clearly show a link between a mother’s negative emotions,
such as depression and anxiety, and light alcohol use and binge drinking during pregnancy”
BOSTON—Worried that you’re getting more forgetful lately? Chill out, because the stress can contribute to memory slips. In fact, stress is one of the four horsemen of forgetfulness in aging brains, along with anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation, reports the February 2013 Harvard Men’s Health Watch.
When memory seems to slip, many older people wonder if they are sliding into Alzheimer’s disease. Most of the time, the cause of that forgetfulness is something more common and easily remedied.
Disturbances in mood and sleep are among the most common causes of memory problems in adults. Stress and anxiety make it harder to concentrate and lock in new information. Depression can hobble memory, as can alcohol consumption. Some medications can interfere with memory, as can some medical conditions.
A conversation with a doctor can help pinpoint the cause of memory slips—especially if the change is sudden or uncharacteristic. “If it’s worse than it was a few months ago, or somebody is asking you about it, that would definitely be something to see a doctor about,” says Dr. Anne Fabiny, chief of geriatrics at Cambridge Health Alliance and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Sometimes it’s useful to just give the brain a break. “As you get older, it may become more difficult to maintain a high level of attention for several things at once,” Dr. Fabiny says. “Dividing your attention can definitely cause you to think you are having memory problems.”
Read the full-length article: “The four horsemen of forgetfulness”
Also in the February 2013 issue of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch:
- Heartburn drug side effects: Should you worry?
- How to get ready for a total knee replacement
- Options when erectile dysfunction drugs don’t work
- Do men need annual check-ups?
The Harvard Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $16 per year. Subscribe at www.health.harvard.edu/mens or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).