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Stress, Inflammation and Heart Health

What’s the connection between stress, inflammation and your heart?

  • Stress can be physical, environmental, mental, emotional and spiritual—anything that causes stress—even in those who believe they function best under stress or who deny feeling stressed at all—all stress can damage your health.
  • Stress—especially chronic stress—induces the release of cortisol—aptly called the stress hormone
  • One of the functions of cortisol—and it has many—is to help regulate the immune response.
    • Underlying all immune response is inflammation—inflammation is the most basic and ancient part of the immune system, allowing the body to rid itself of “other” organisms, to help wall-off and heal wounds, and to clear out dead and dying cells.
    • High chronic levels of cortisol result in the insensitivity of immune cells to the regulatory signals transmitted by cortisol—the immune cells become “cortisol resistant” and the inflammatory response, normally under tight control, begins to get out of control
  • With continued high levels of cortisol and a growing level of inflammation—and the damage caused by out-of-control inflammation—various body systems begin to show signs of damage. This damage may be:
    • Silent, like high blood pressure which rarely shows any signs or symptoms
    • Slow-moving, like the progression of damage to the arteries around the heart that eventually may lead to coronary heart disease
    • Metabolic and resulting in pre-diabetes, diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome
    • Directed at the immune system, with one of the first signs of immune suppression being increased frequency of colds, the flu or infections
    • Widespread leading to one or more chronic conditions including asthma, arthritis, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, digestive disease, lung disease and other conditions.

Stress and Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and atherosclerosis (the hardening and narrowing of the arteries) are among the diseases most related to stress. Stress can affect mood, behavior (such as over eating, smoking, drinking, etc.), diet and lack of physical activity—these are known risk factors for heart disease. There is an actual condition known as “Broken Heart Syndrome” that often occurs after traumatic news or a traumatic event such as the death of a child or a sudden threat or injury. People do have heart attacks and strokes after sudden events, though it is not as common as some TV dramas might have you believe.

Chronic day-to-day stress can also result in increased risk of heart disease. Those under chronic stress used to be known as “Type A Personalities” and thought to be at a greater risk of heart disease. Type A personalities are those with greater ambition and competitiveness in the workplace, who are “workaholics” and tend to be nervous, irritable, demanding and wanting to control everyone around them. Those under chronic stress may smoke more, drink more, self-medicate with drugs more, eat comfort/junk foods and so on. So stress can cause inflammation (which is itself a stressor) and stress can also lead to behaviors that increase inflammation, increasing the risk of some form of heart disease. What can you do about it?

Tips for Managing Stress

  • First off, be sure to have a healthy diet
  • Exercise using aerobic exercises, strength exercises and stretching
  • Stay positive—laugh often. Did you know, laughter is good medicine? Laughter reduces inflammation, LDL-cholesterol levels and increases HDL-cholesterol levels.
  • Sleep is one of the best stress-reducers there is!
  • Find time to relax. Try meditation, prayer, yogo, Tai chi, Qigong, breathing or guided imagery exercises. At the very least find some down time for your body to renew itself.
  • Most importantly, eat well!

Good health comes from daily decisions. Drink more water, consume more vegetables, get some daily exercise, a goodnights sleep and relax for a few minutes each day. Remember, YOU have the power to transform your health … ONE healthy choice at a time!

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