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.