Stress & Heart Disease


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The ill effects of stress are unending.  Both in this column and in many other places, you have undoubtedly read about all the results of being overstressed, including pain of any kind, digestive disorders, sleep disorders, depression, obesity (and the inability to properly lose weight), autoimmune diseases and skin conditions such as eczema.  But perhaps the most frightening result of all is the direct correlation between being overstressed and heart disease. 

We generally think about the risk factors of heart disease as being overweight, leading a sedentary life, having diabetes, high blood pressure and an association with high cholesterol. But being under stress also plays a large role in the increased risk of heart disease or having a sudden heart attack.  A growing body of evidence suggests that psychological factors are – literally – heartfelt, and can contribute to cardiac risk.

Stress from challenging situations and events plays a significant role in cardiovascular symptoms and outcome, particularly heart attack risk. Depression, anxiety, anger, hostility and social isolation also affect cardiovascular health. Each of these factors heightens your chances of developing heart problems. But emotional issues are often intertwined; people who have one commonly have another. 

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, many different types of stresses have had a negative effect on your heart.

Workplace stress: Women whose work is highly stressful have a 40% increased risk of heart disease (including heart attacks and the need for coronary artery surgery) compared with their less-stressed colleagues. These findings come from the Women’s Health Study (WHS), which included more than 17,000 female health professionals.

Financial stress: Heart attacks rose as the stock market crashed, according to a 2010 report in The American Journal of Cardiology. Researchers at Duke University reviewed medical records for 11,590 people who had undergone testing for heart disease during a 3-year period, and then compared monthly heart attack rates with stock market levels. Heart attacks increased steadily during one eight-month period – September 2008 to March 2009, a period that was particularly bad for the stock market.

Caregiver stress: Women who cared for a disabled spouse for at least nine hours a week were significantly more at risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart disease compared with women who had no care giving duties, according to findings from the Nurses’ Health Study. This large study followed more than 54,000 female nurses over a 4-year period. 

Disaster-related stress: Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, researchers asked 2,700 American adults to complete an online survey about their physical and mental health. People who had high levels of stress immediately after the attacks were nearly twice as likely to develop high blood pressure and more than three times as likely to develop heart problems during the following two years compared with those who had low stress levels.

So we need to manage our stresses and when possible, manage situations that bring stress, in order to reduce the amount of stress in our lives.  The experts at Harvard suggest the following:

  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sound sleep can affect your mood, mental alertness, energy level and physical health.
  • Exercise. Physical activity alleviates stress and reduces your risk of becoming depressed – and it is good for your all-around health.
  • Learn relaxation techniques. Meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing exercises and yoga or stretching are mainstays of stress relief. You can learn about these techniques from classes, books or videos.
  • Learn time-management skills. These skills can help you juggle work and family demands.
  • Confront stressful situations head-on. Don’t let stressful situations fester. Hold family problem-solving sessions and use negotiation skills at work.
  • Nurture yourself. Treat yourself to a massage. Truly savor an experience: eat slowly, focusing on each bite of that orange, or soak up the warm rays of the sun or the scent of blooming flowers during a walk outdoors. Take a nap. Enjoy the sounds of music you find calming.

Exercise is not only good for your heart physiologically; as mentioned above, it also goes a long way in relieving stress.  The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts.

Your heart is a fist-sized muscle located in the middle of your chest.  Depending upon your level of fitness, it beats about 90,000 to 100,000 times each day or perhaps even more.  Within one’s lifetime, it will beat nearly three billion times and pump 42 million gallons of blood.  We need to take care of it.  Yes – proper eating, proper exercise, controlling your blood pressure and your weight are all essential for heart health, but keeping your stress in check is just as important.  Including stress management and reduction in your life will help you keep heart healthy and “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”   
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a LIFESTYLE FITNESS COACH with over 15 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It! along with Linda Holtz M.Sc. and is available for private consultations, assessments and personalized workout programs. Alan also lectures and gives seminars and workshops. He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at [email protected].  US Line: 516-568-5027

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