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Effects Of Stress on the Heart

By Rachel Martin

Does stress cause heart disease? The answer is far from simple. Scientists have yet to discover whether stress is an independent risk factor for heart disease—meaning stress alone is enough to cause heart disease — or whether the behaviors and other problems associated with stress increase other risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, obesity, or poor dietary habits.

One thing is known, however, the effect of chronic stress on your mind, body, and heart are detrimental enough to warrant as much attention as confirmed risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The more you can do to find healthy ways of managing stress today, the better your life (and heart) will be.

How your body responds to stress
When you experience stress, your body goes through a series of physiological responses that feed into your nervous system and circulatory system and affect everything from hormones to heart rate.

The “fight-or-flight” response of the body during times of stress is well-documented. This instinctive response floods your body with adrenaline and cortisol, which increases heart rate, redirects blood flow to the muscular system, releases fats into the bloodstream for use as energy, increases breathing rate, tenses muscles, and increases your blood’s clotting ability—all of which are intended to help you fight off (or run from) an opponent. The only problem is, most often the cause of stress is not a saber-toothed tiger but a long day at the office. Your body doesn’t know the difference, so it reacts to all stress in the same way. Over time, this can wreak havoc on your health physically, mentally, and emotionally.

How your heart is affected by stress
Stress affects your cardiovascular system in several ways:

  1. Heart rate increases.
  2. The rate of blood flow speeds up, increasing blood pressure.
  3. The release of fatty acids into the bloodstream for energy increases cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
  4. Under chronic stress, the continued release of cortisol seems to have some effect on where fat is deposited in the body, most often in the abdomen.

The effect of chronic stress on your heart
Over time, the physiological reactions to stress can take a toll on your cardiovascular system:

  1. Due to an increased heart rate, it's possible that your heart could take on an abnormal heart rhythm or you could have problems with the heart muscle itself.
  2. Due to the increase in blood pressure, your cardiovascular system can have all of the usual associated problems with hypertension including increased risk for heart disease and stroke.
  3. Due to the increase in cholesterol and triglycerides in your bloodstream, there is potential for your arteries to thicken with plaque over time, which could lead to coronary artery disease or heart attack.
  4. The deposit of fat in the abdomen, leading to an “apple” shape, is a marker of metabolic syndrome and is considered a risk factor for heart disease.

The bottom line
Regardless of whether stress is enough to cause heart disease on its own or it impacts other factors that lead to heart trouble, it’s known that chronic stress negatively affects your health. Finding healthy ways to manage stress is vital to your future, because we all know that stress isn’t going away anytime soon (unfortunately). Click here for ideas on how to reduce stress. 

SOURCES: Web MD, Human Physiology (McGraw-Hill, 7th edition), The American Institute of Stress, Mayo Clinic, eHealth MD, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, American Heart Association, Yale Medical School.

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