Stress is unavoidable. It can show up as a surge of frustration in morning traffic, the heart-pounding anxiety of an important presentation, or a growing sense of overwhelm as the to-do list continues to pile up. Our bodies are equipped to react quickly and adapt to both negative and positive stress. But when stress pushes us into a chronic state of overwhelm, it can have lasting detrimental effects on our health. So, can stress cause heart disease? The short answer is yes.
A research study* of over 118,000 participants showed that high levels of stress are associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease. As the leading cause of death worldwide, in 2021 alone, heart disease was responsible for a staggering one in five deaths in the US.
As we observe Heart Month this February, it’s the perfect time to better understand the connection between stress and heart health and to learn how to manage stress effectively to protect our hearts.
Stress goes beyond simply having a full schedule or feeling like you’re ‘always on’. A more accurate description would be unwelcome feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious, or on edge.
When we’re stressed, our bodies go into what’s called a fight-or-flight mode. Our heart rate increases, and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline surge through our system.
This stress response was an important survival tool for our early ancestors, when a burst of energy meant escape from immediate danger. But our biology hasn’t caught up with the modern world, so today the fight-or-flight response is activated by mundane challenges like receiving negative online comments, dealing with a demanding boss, or getting an unexpected bill.
When acute stress levels in our body move from momentary to chronic, it can impact our heart health.
When stress gets under your skin (and into your arteries)
How does stress actually contribute to heart problems? One mechanism is through inflammation and oxidative stress. Prolonged stress can lead to systemic inflammation. This inflammation can damage blood vessels and promote the formation of plaque. When plaque forms in the arteries, it can block blood flow and increase your risk of heart attack.
In a LifeSpeak video, “Chronic stress is the enemy”, Dr. Lloyd Sederer, MD and Psychiatrist, explains, “Combatting chronic stress and chronic inflammation is the secret to a longer and healthier life that is hiding in plain sight. The full and demanding lives we lead make chronic stress likely, and it can produce chronic inflammation in our bodies – putting us at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.”
Additionally, when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to turn to unhealthy coping tools. Things like increased alcohol consumption, poor diet, and lack of exercise also put someone at further risk of heart disease.
Challenge your mindset around stress
Changing your mindset around stress can rewire how your body reacts to stress. We all experience uncomfortable levels of stress at different times. Seeing it through a more positive lens can be helpful, which means viewing certain stressful situations as an opportunity instead of a threat. Starting a new job or learning a new skill can cause discomfort but also create opportunities for personal and professional growth.
When we reframe how we view the stress response, it can help us change our perspective. So don’t avoid stretching beyond your boundaries. Remember, not all stress is ‘bad’.
Lifestyle changes to reduce stress and protect your heart health
There are several lifestyle changes we can make to mitigate the effects of stress. Chances are, you’re already incorporating some into your daily routine.
Start by looking at your activity level, diet, and sleep quality.
Make exercise a priority every day
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve heart health and manage stress. In a LifeSpeak Inc. expert resource, movement and fitness expert Tim Toth emphasizes that boosting our cardiovascular health through exercise doesn’t mean we need to start training for a marathon. In fact, small changes can reap big rewards.
“The interesting part about improving your heart health with exercise is that you don’t actually have to work that intensely. The cardiovascular system responds best to mild to moderate levels of exercise. 65-75% of your max heart rate is plenty.”
Start small and work up to longer and more strenuous workouts. This helps you slowly increase your stamina, like using scaffolding.
“As your conditioning improves, you can add shorter bursts of high-intensity work. This is known as sprinting in endurance sports, and it has a huge positive impact on your ability to process oxygen and pump blood throughout your body.”
Exercise not only strengthens your heart and cardiovascular system but also releases endorphins, which are natural stress-fighting chemicals in your body. It helps relieve tension, boosts your mood, and promotes overall wellbeing. Another great reason to get moving!
Eat a heart healthy diet
What we eat plays a crucial role in our heart health. By nourishing your body with wholesome foods, you’re giving it the fuel it needs to function optimally. LifeSpeak Inc. expert Dr. Sherry Grace describes the foundation of a heart healthy diet as one that focuses on whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats.
Small changes you can make in your diet to support your heart:
While it’s not always realistic (or easy!) to make major dietary changes, even small ones can improve your heart health. Interested in more nutrition strategies for a heart healthy diet? Check out our complete rundown here.
It’s not easy to do, but rethinking your relationship with alcohol is a heart healthy step.
While many of us reach for a drink to cope with stress, it turns out that it might be doing more harm than good. Especially when it comes to our heart health. Recent science has flipped the script on the idea that moderate drinking is good for you and now shows that health risks increase with even 3-6 drinks per week.
Why? Alcohol raises our heart rate, increases our blood pressure, and can even cause an irregular heartbeat. A drink or two every day can lead to cardiovascular diseases like heart failure and strokes.
Sleep is the foundation of both mental and physical wellness, so it’s no surprise that getting enough quality sleep is essential for managing stress and protecting your heart. During sleep, your body repairs and rejuvenates itself. This restorative effect helps regulate stress hormones, improve cognitive function, and enhance your overall mood.
Sleep deprivation, however, can increase stress levels and weaken your body’s resilience to stressful situations. In his video series, “Stress Mastery” LifeSpeak expert Dr. David Posen explains that sleep deprivation actually shows up in the body as stress. It raises cortisol levels and can impair everything from creativity to the ability to problem solve.
When it comes to sleep, it’s about more than just getting seven to eight hours each night. The quality of your sleep is equally important. You may already have a solid bedtime routine, but the hours leading up to bedtime also impact sleep quality. The amount of time you’ve spent on screens during the late afternoon and evening, the types of meals you’ve had (or missed!), and consuming alcohol all contribute to the quality of sleep you get.
In “Making Dinner Part of Your Sleep Routine”, LifeSpeak expert and registered dietitian and nutritionist Nishta Saxena explains just how important mealtimes are for sleep hygiene: “If you eat close to bedtime, a large volume of blood is diverted to the intestines to digest; this means your body isn’t focused on preparing for sleep.” Saxena recommends eating dinner at least three hours before your bedtime and loading up on protein (20-30 grams) at dinner to avoid snacking before bed.
Practice stress management techniques
There are highly effective evidence-based stress management techniques that we can incorporate into our daily routine to help alleviate stress.
Meditation is recognized for having a profound ability to reduce stress and promote overall wellbeing.
One of the best things about meditation is that you can practice it anywhere you can find a quiet spot. Meditation helps you cultivate a focused state of awareness, allowing you to observe your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment or attachment. This practice helps to create a space of inner calm amidst the chaos of daily life, meaning you can detach from stressors and hone a sense of present-moment awareness.
Research has shown that mindfulness and relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation are beneficial in reducing stress. Consciously focusing on the breath or systematically relaxing muscles activates the body’s ‘rest and digest’ response, which counteracts the physiological and psychological manifestations of stress.
There is now research that supports the idea that even something as small as a daily 5-minute routine of focused breathwork can improve mood and reduce anxiety.
Cultivate strong social connections
We now know that loneliness can cause both mental and physical distress.
A recent study by the University of Oslo shows that seeking support during challenging times helps to increase resilience to stressful situations. By reaching out to others, we tap into a social network that can help us to regulate our emotions. This provides a sense of comfort, understanding, and validation. Recognizing that we don’t have to face stress alone empowers us, fostering a greater sense of wellbeing and enabling us to effectively manage and reduce stress levels.
Stress and heart disease are indeed connected, but the good news is that we have the power to manage stress effectively, which can positively impact our mental and physical health. By starting to make small changes today, we can improve our overall health now and in the future. Focus on stress reduction through regular exercise, a healthy diet, quality sleep, and stress management techniques. Your heart will thank you for it.
Are you looking to make wellness a priority at your organization? LifeSpeak Mental Health and Resilience, a product of LifeSpeak Inc., can help your members better understand and manage stress levels through on-demand, expert resources, tools, and microlearnings. To learn more about our full suite of solutions, request a demo today.