Now that we're done with all the candy hearts and overpriced roses, it's time to acknowledge that relationships are hard. I'm not just talking about all the work that goes into them... they're also hard on your heart.
Relationships – particularly difficult ones – are a leading cause of stress. Whether it's getting married, getting divorced, fighting over financial problems, taking care of a sick family member, or facing the death of a loved one, all that stress weighs heavily on us.
Stress doesn't just make us tired or rob us of the ability to sleep. It irrevocably damages the heart.
Three big causes are: behavioral changes, inflammation, and "broken heart" syndrome. As we wrap up our healthy heart series today, we want to take a look at these problems and determine how to protect your heart.
1. Behavioral changes. Aside from physical changes, stress affects our mood and our behaviors. Anxiety, irritability, depression, and feeling restless or overwhelmed all stem from unchecked stress. When you feel this way, it's easier to fall into unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Folks facing stress may overeat or eat too many sugary, processed foods. And a lack of motivation means it's much harder to get moving, leading to a sedentary lifestyle. Worse, too much stress also keeps you from being social, meaning you can experience increased loneliness and depression.
All of these are risk factors for heart disease. They elevate blood pressure, which strains your heart. They also contribute to inflammation, the underlying cause of heart disease.
2. Inflammation. Stress directly raises your inflammatory markers.
A study from 2017 showed us something fascinating about how stress affects us. This study is the first of its kind... using tracking imaging that shows the connections between stress, inflammation, and heart disease.
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital scanned the brains of nearly 300 participants to measure activity in their amygdalae. They also measured levels of inflammation in their arteries.
They then followed those folks for another two to five years and measured cardiac events. These included strokes, heart attacks, or chest pains.
Stress triggers certain immune responses, including the production of white blood cells. These cells then go on to trigger inflammation.
The results showed this link between amygdala activity and inflammation, as well as an increase in heart problems. Here's the key finding: The more stress you face, the more inflammation surfaces in your body, and the more likely you are to have a heart attack.
I've also told you for years that inflammation is the source of heart disease. That's because inflammation causes tears in your arteries. Your immune system wants to patch those up and uses cholesterol to do so, making plaques that start to narrow the vessels.
That's why it's so important to combat sources of inflammation. That includes processed foods, trans fats, sugar (real and artificial), sedentary lifestyle, having extra weight around your midsection, and stress.
3. Broken heart syndrome. In a review from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers looked into the causes of takotsubo syndrome. It's also known as "broken heart" syndrome because it's typically brought on by trauma (like the loss of a spouse).
Takotsubo causes heart failure, usually in women, even when they don't show any signs of early heart disease. What happens is that a stressful life event literally causes your heart to stop.
What's more, this study showed that people with takotsubo were just as likely to die from their condition as were people with coronary artery disease. That happened even though those with takotsubo had lower numbers of heart attack risk factors. That includes high blood pressure and diabetes. Stress alone is enough to damage your heart.
We've known about the link between stress and heart disease for a long time... Heart patients often hear "don't get too emotional" or "avoid stressful situations" to prevent triggering a heart attack.
But sometimes, we just can't avoid stress. That's why for better heart health, you need to take steps today to lower your stress. Try some of my favorite de-stressor tips:
- Get moving – especially in the sunshine
- Listen to music
- Try some aromatherapy (I love rose oil)
- Unplug from your device
- Work in your garden
- Yoga or tai chi
And if you can, take a vacation. I love to travel and stay mindful about where I am and what I'm enjoying.
What We're Reading...
- Cleveland Clinic explains more about broken heart syndrome.
- Something different: Meet the tyrant named for the God of Death.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 25, 2020