Our Heart vs Stress Unchecked

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We’ve made the connection since ancient times that the heart is the keeper of our emotions, but I’m not sure we realized how right we were. Discussions around heart health tend to focus (hopefully!) around the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise which are both crucial. What we hear less about is the impact of stress unchecked on the heart. 

Chronic stress has been shown to increase risk of cardiovascular disease by 40-50% through a variety of different ways, direct and indirect. Indirect are things like drinking more alcohol, eating sugary, greasy foods and moving our bodies less in response to being tired and overwhelmed. Direct impacts of stress include increasing inflammatory cytokines as well as other blood markers such as fibrinogen and d-dimer that not only increase risk of plaque buildup in arteries but also the chances of a blood clot. Epinephrine, one of the primary stress hormones, increases blood pressure while cortisol increases insulin resistance and weight gain. When the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) is dominant, this causes vasoconstriction which in turn decreases blood flow to the heart. Stress hormones can trigger the heart to beat irregularly which most of us have experienced from time to time, (public speaking anyone??) but this is not something we want happening on a regular basis. This list isn’t everything, but I think you get the idea- stress does bad things to our heart. 

Stress might feel impossible to avoid with our day to day “living life” to the much bigger global issues all around us. But this is where the beauty of our nervous system and our ability to influence how we respond to stress comes into action. It’s impossible to completely prevent the stress response and there are times when that response might save our life. But we can limit our reactions, especially to the “micro stressors” of everyday life which is a major win for your heart and how you feel! 

Regular exercise and meditation have been shown to help lower stress hormones when done regularly, even if only a few minutes at a time. However, there’s not one perfect thing for everyone, so here are a few other things to consider trying: 

  • Laughter therapy. Yes, laughter is a researched therapy! I first learned about this several years ago in a conference at MD Anderson focused on cancer care. We paired up with the goal to laugh for several minutes even if it started out as fake laughter. The body can’t tell the difference and you still get the positive, feel-good hormones. Spending at least a few minutes laughing every day can make a tremendous difference in how you cope with stress. 
  • Dance it out. Turn on some of your favorite music and as the saying goes, dance like no one is watching! Movement helps close the stress cycle and get it out of your body. 
  • Speak kindly to yourself. Our inner thoughts and the words we tell ourselves matter way more than you might realize; our bodies are always listening and respond accordingly whether positive or negative. 
  • Herbs and nutrients like magnesium, l-theanine, reishi, ashwagandha and chamomile are helpful in modulating the stress response, helping increase our resilience to stress as well as often improving sleep quality and more. This means less stress hormones and a happier heart!

When stress is high, it can be daunting to know where to start. If in doubt, begin with talking to someone – your doctor, a friend, a therapist, or better yet, all the above. Being kind to yourself equals being kind to your heart so take care of both