Cut Down on Stress to Help Your Heart
If you want to boost your heart health, you need to do more than eat right and exercise. Go one step extra and ease the stress out of your life. Your ticker will reap the benefits.
Long-term stress has an indirect effect on your risk for heart problems, says Deepak Bhatt, MD. "You've got a crazy job, you're working awful hours, you're not eating right, not exercising, you're smoking, you're drinking excessively. These can all trigger various forms of heart disease."
Make the Right Choices
You can't always control the things in your life that cause stress. As much as possible though, set limits on your commitments and responsibilities at home.
Lindsay Sherman, a 39-year-old nonprofit professional in Durango, CO, learned that lesson firsthand.
"My tendency, prior to being diagnosed [with rheumatic fever], was to power through, shove the stress aside, and put the job first," she says.
Her condition damaged her heart and put her at risk for a heart attack. After she found out about it 5 years ago, she took steps right away to cut the stress in her life, including a change of jobs.
She also took up meditation. "It can be useful to reduce stress and some of its consequences," Bhatt says. "Some studies suggest that meditation can have a role in reducing blood pressure."
This calming practice made all the difference for Sherman. "Learning how to meditate and be in that quiet brain space has been tremendous," she says.
Sherman also works with a therapist who helps her control how she thinks about stressful issues. The process of turning fears and what-ifs over and over in your mind can fuel anxiety and make you lose sleep.
Therapy can help you fight insomnia. If you improve your sleep, you can help ease stress.
Even without a therapist, you can get a better night's rest if you change some of your habits. Stick to a consistent bedtime each night. Remove distractions like TVs, tablets, and smartphones from your bedroom.
Exercise can be a big help, too. It lowers the amount of stress hormones your body makes and increases endorphins -- substances that make you feel good and give athletes that "runner's high." You don't need to become an athlete, though. Even a daily brisk walk can lower stress.
"When I work out, it takes 100% of my concentration. I'm not thinking about work. I leave everything else behind," says David Crowder, a 46-year-old entrepreneur in Atlanta.
Crowder, an athlete and healthy eater, has several medical conditions that caused him to have five heart attacks in the last 12 years. He says exercise keeps him in good physical shape and puts his stress in check.
How Stress Hurts Your Heart
When you're under stress, your body releases hormones that increase your heart's activity. This response, often called "fight or flight," allows you to react quickly to defend or protect yourself when you feel threatened or in danger.
But when the body responds in this way, day in and day out, the effects can add up. It triggers inflammation that could lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Stressful situations can also increase your cholesterol levels, some small studies show, and raise blood pressure -- at least temporarily and possibly longer.
Some people react to stress with unhealthy habits, too. For instance, when you're under pressure, you may overeat or turn to high-calorie or high-fat "comfort" food. That in turn can make you feel less and less in the mood to exercise. If you're a smoker you might reach for your cigarettes more often. You may also be tempted to drink alcohol.
Put Things in Perspective
Remember, the right attitude is a key ally in keeping the pressure off. Don't "stress" about stress.
"Focus on what you can control -- your activity, your disposition, your attitude," Crowder says.