Overcoming Stress For a Healthier Heart

With cardiovascular disease (CVD) and high levels of stress being closely correlated we are going to discuss why stress is harmful for our hearts and what strategies we can adopt to reduce it.

 

As I'm sure your aware out of control stress isn't just uncomfortable psychologically but it also shoots up cortisol (our stress hormone) which in turn can lead to serious health problems such as;

 

  • loss of bone density
  • loss of muscle mass
  • impaired immune function, thus leading to an increased risk of infections and cancer
  • blood sugar elevation which can lead to more visceral fat (also a risk for factor for CVD)
  • levels of DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone- a critical adrenal hormone) can decrease
  • telomeres become shorter which increases destruction of our cellular DNA
  • raises heart rate
  • raises blood pressure

 

All of these are undesirable, especially having raised blood pressure and heart rate which can lead to accumulation of more plaque in arterial walls therefore raising risk of heart disease and stroke.

The heartfoundation.org.au reported that after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York there was a 49% increase admitted to New York hospitals in the following 60 days compared with the previous 60 .

As we can see stress plays a huge role in the balance of hormones which have a knock on effect of the health issues mentioned and therefore keeping them in balance is crucial for a healthy heart.

However, not only does stress effect our hormones but it can effect our food and lifestyle choices. People often find it more challenging to exercise and eat nutritious foods when under stress. This can create a viscous cycle where the lack of exercise and poor dietary choices can contribute to the feeling of stress.

When this feeling becomes chronic our bodies can't keep up with the demand for cortisol and eventually crashes, if this occurs we can no longer handle excess stress.

Similar problems occur with DHEA, the hormone which gives us drive, energy and libido. When these hormone levels lower our capacity to handle stress diminishes.

Having these hormones out of balance can create a downward spiral of even greater hormone imbalance and ill health.

In order to reverse this cascading effect of chronic stress we need to enable production of hormones that reduce stress. So how do we do this?

 

Stress Reducing Hormones

 

The main hormones that aid in reducing stress are oxytocin and a group of hormones called endorphins.

Oxytocin also known as the "cuddling hormone" is crucial when it comes to reducing stress. In the research paper titled "Oxytocin, a Mediator of Anti-Stress, Well-being, Social Interaction, Growth and Healing"  (1) it concludes that "Oxytocin can induce anti-stress like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels" it goes onto explain that "it can be released by non-noxious sensory stimulation. for example by touch and warmth".

Endorphins on the other hand are released when we exercise, laugh, and according to research published in 2013 (2) when we eat chocolate.

In order to optimize these hormones and reduce stress levels we are going to look at strategies that enable our hormones to be well balanced.

Strategies For Balancing Hormones

 

 

Firstly feeling loved and supported is critical for well-being as it helps our body produce oxytocin. The study titled "Altruism, happiness, and health: It's Good to be Good" (3) states "a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate as long as they aren't overwhelmed by helping tasks". This may be why people who are involved in a religious group or are actively engaged in charities often are healthier, happier and live longer.

 

Secondly lets look at the role quality sleep plays in reducing stress. In the Whitehall 2 (4) study they found "a decrease in sleep duration and an increase in sleep duration are associated with an increase in mortality via effects on CVD deaths and non-CVD deaths respectively" In the study they also note "Sleep represents the daily process of physiological restitution and recovery, and lack of sleep has far-reaching effects on endocrinology, immunology, and metabolism". Therefore it's crucial to optimize sleep, enabling our hormones to balance, our immune system to work efficiently and our metabolism to work well.

 

Here are some helpful tips to enhance those crucial hours of shut eye:

 

  • reduce caffeine intake specifically in the afternoon
  • limit alcohol intake to no more than 2 standard servings a day
  • move your body for a minimum of 30 minutes a day to ensure you're physically tired not just mentally (be sure to do this at least 2 hours before bedtime)
  • avoid blue light 2 hours before bedtime, if you want to use a screen either wear blue blocking glasses or download an app such as f.lux which blocks the blue light on your screens
  • do something relaxing before bed, either read a book or have a bath and be mindful of allowing your body to unwind
  • be sure your bedroom is dark and cool (wear an eye mask if needed to block out light completely )

 

Next we have exercise which as we've already mentioned is vital for producing endorphins. These group of hormones aren't only known for their stress-busting ability but also promote pain relief. Exercising plays a crucial role in well-being due to the way it also aids sleep and promotes circulation.

 

Another strategy that aids in minimizing stress is carving out time each day for relaxation. You may use this time to do a relaxing form of exercise such as gentle walking, or Pilates, or have a warm bath in candle light, listen to relaxing music whilst reading a book, or simply gaze up at the stars.Whatever helps you to feel in a state of calm and peace be sure to schedule it in each and everyday. This may feel like a stretch and like your not achieving anything however as Sydney Harris once said "the time to relax is when you don't have time for it".

 

On the flip side of  relaxation many people who are stressed use stimulants specifically caffeine to get them through the day and when evening time roles along they use alcohol to relax. Both of which can mess with our hormones.  Caffeine, although research suggests it can have health benefits, too much may be preventing us from getting into a peaceful and relaxed state. This is due to the raise in cortisol we experience when we drink caffeine, therefore limiting our intake is wise if we want to aid hormonal balance and feel more relaxed. Alcohol on the other hand can have a negative effect as it makes us feel more depressed and can disrupt sleep, both of which can contribute to stress.

 

My last and favorite strategy is Laughter as Medicine, being sure to enjoy yourself and have fun is vital for our heart and overall well-being. Research (5) has shown that laughter has an anti-inflammatory effect, as it protects blood vessels and heart muscles from the damaging effects of CVD.

It's also been shown people who laugh heartily regularly:

  • have lower blood pressure
  • reduce hormones associated with stress, epinepherine, cortisol, dopamine, and growth hormone
  • improve their immune function
  • increase muscle relaxation
  • reduce pain
  • improve brain function (because it eases psychological stress, keeping the brain alert and allowing us to retain more information)

 

Finally laughter and humor connect us to others, enabling us to foster relationships, rejuvenate and regenerate our energy which leaves us with a feeling of well-being and as mentioned can be protective for our cardiovascular system.

Taking the steps mentioned will not only leave you feeling healthier but also happier, so what have you got to lose? Make yourself a priority and experience a true sense of well-being.

references:

cite 1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15834840

cite 2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575938/

cite 3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15901215

cite 4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2276139/

cite 5 https://studylib.net/doc/8190204/the-connection-between-laughter--humor--and-good-health

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