How Does Stress Really Impact Heart Health?

stress heart health

Stress is a normal part of the human experience. However, too much stress can have negative impacts on our cardiovascular health. According to the American Heart Association, chronic stress increases your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and other cardiovascular issues. In this article, we will explore the impacts of stress on heart health and how to manage stress!

What Happens in the Body When We Experience Stress?

The human body is designed to handle stress in small amounts. When you feel stressed, the adrenal glands, which are located on your kidneys, release two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is essential for several body systems, including the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. Cortisol acts as an alarm system for your brain to halt non-essential functions during a fight-or-flight response. Typically, cortisol levels return to normal once the wave of stress has passed, but prolonged stressors keep cortisol levels high, which puts you at risk for many issues, including heart disease.

Types of Stress

Though there are many sources of stress, there are generally two types of stress: acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is the body’s natural response to something scary, surprising, or daunting. For example, if your friend gives you a jump scare or you have a presentation at work, these events may trigger acute stress. The response is typically short-lived and symptoms go away once the triggering event is over. Acute stress can have a lasting effect on your physical health in some situations. For example, if you experience a life-threatening event or severe trauma, your body will not quickly recover. Additionally, experiencing acute stress frequently can have the same effect on the body as chronic stress.

Alternatively, chronic stress is long-lasting and is typically due to significant life changes, financial concerns, or health concerns. About 34% of Americans say that their stress is completely overwhelming. Those with chronic stress may experience symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, depression, short temper, and unhealthy habits. But how exactly does chronic stress impact the cardiovascular system?

Impact of Stress on Heart Health

Numerous studies have been conducted to reveal that there is an association between mental health and one’s risk for heart disease. When experiencing chronic stress, one’s arteries can become inflamed due to the frequent flood of stress chemicals. This inflammation can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and even heart attack. The stress you experience is not the only thing that matters. How you handle stress through coping mechanisms can also affect your heart health. Unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, unhealthy eating, and isolating can compound stress’s negative effect on heart health.

Heart Rate

Your heart rate is intricately linked to your stress levels as well. Adrenaline, one of the chemicals released when you experience stress, causes your heart rate to increase. Prolonged elevated heart rate, called tachycardia, left untreated, can cause heart failure, stroke, and death.

Heart palpitations are also a common symptom of chronic stress. This can feel like your heart is fluttering, pounding, or skipping a beat. Occasional heart palpitations are nothing to be concerned about, but frequent palpitations should be checked by a doctor. 

How to Manage Stress for a Healthy Heart

Managing your stress correctly is the number one way to protect your heart health from stress-related disease and injury. Here are some healthy habits and coping mechanisms to combat stress:

  • Get Regular Exercise. Exercise releases endorphins in the body, which help to regulate mood. The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week for optimal heart health. 
  • Eat a Balanced Diet. Eating a balanced diet can not only help you maintain a healthy weight but can reduce your stress. Nutrient-dense foods help your body regulate and reduce inflammation.
  • Talk to a Professional. Sometimes talking through your stressors can help you work through them. 
  • Manage Work-Related Stress. Work can be a major source of stress. Set realistic work-life balance parameters and avoid taking on more than you can handle during work hours.

Stress is not the only factor contributing to your heart health. If you are worried about your heart, contact a medical professional today to seek guidance!

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