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).