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Impact of Stress on Women's Heart Health

02-01-2017

Impact of Stress on Women’s Heart Health

It’s the morning of a big meeting or important appointment. You’re running late, stuck in traffic and watching the clock. Anxiety is building with your frustration. As your breath quickens and muscles tense, your heart starts racing—you might even feel like your chest tighten or find it hard to breathe.

That heart-pounding sensation? It’s a phenomenon Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon once termed the "fight-or-flight" response. When we find ourselves in stressful situations, our bodies release a flood of potent chemicals. These stressful moments (whether from a traffic-choked daily commute, strained marriage or overbearing boss) can occur multiple times a week—or even a day—putting consistent stress on our hearts, and even interfere with our mood, sleep and appetite.

While there is no direct link between stress and heart disease, women are typically at higher risk to suffer from the negative impact of stress than men. Being proactive with our heart health starts with understanding how stress affects our bodies and knowing what to do if we’re under too much pressure.

The chain reaction of stress

First, you have a stressful situation that’s usually upsetting but not harmful. The body reacts to it by releasing the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which cause our breathing and heart rate to speed up and our blood pressure to rise. That increase in heart rate and blood pressure, especially when the stress is chronic, may damage our heart’s artery walls.

Negative responses to stress

Chronic stress can take a physical toll on us in more subtle ways, too. To deal with the daily anxiety, we often develop bad habits disguised as short-term relief, such as turning to comfort foods—like pizza, pie and cookies. These high-fat, high-cholesterol foods contribute to the artery damage that causes heart attacks and strokes. Stress can also lead us into other heart-damaging behaviors, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and neglecting physical activity. All of this can weaken our immune system and cause uncomfortable physical symptoms like headache and stomach problems, and can contribute to high blood pressure.

Women are more vulnerable

Emerging evidence suggests that women under the age of 50 are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of stress on the heart. Compared to men, they have higher levels of psychological risk factors such as early life adversity, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. In addition, women are more prone to develop mental problems as a result of stress.

In the case of women who have already developed heart disease, further emotional or psychological stress may impair their recovery, future health and quality of life. “For women over the age of 50, stress can make the transition through menopause more challenging. Stress can make hot flashes, night sweats and disruptive sleep patterns much worse” says Dr. Ward Adcock, Gynecologist at Gaston Women’s Healthcare.

Managing stress—and helping our hearts

Ready for a healthier heart? Pull the rug out from under stress starting with these five simple tips:

Stay positive. People with heart disease who maintain an upbeat attitude have a better shot at recovery—and a long life. Have a good laugh! 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. 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, explains Dr. David Major, Cardiologist at CaroMont Heart. “Exercise is key to a heart-healthy lifestyle. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Not only does exercise improve stress management and blood pressure, it also reduces blood sugar levels, improves good cholesterol levels (HDL) and reduces bad cholesterol levels (LDL). All of these factors reduce the risk of plaque buildup in our arteries which in turn reduces our risk of having a heart attack or stroke.”

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 remedy. Stress relief can be as simple as walking a dog, listening to music or reading. Any technique is effective if it works for you.

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