There is more to heart health than just exercising and eating right. Doctors at Baylor College of Medicine say reducing stress could also keep your ticker in tip-top shape.
"There is evidence stress is associated with cardiovascular events. It has been shown that people living a high-stress life are more likely to suffer from heart ailments," said Dr. Biykem Bozkurt, professor of medicine at BCM. "Also, during times of high stress, like natural disasters, the number of heart attack cases rise for that affected area."
Bozkurt, who is also chief of cardiology at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, director of the Winters Center for Heart Failure Research at Baylor College of Medicine and a physician with the Baylor Heart Clinic and Women's Center for Comprehensive Care at BCM, said one of the reasons for an increase in heart ailments during life-threatening situations and stress is the sudden rise of adrenaline and other hormones in the body.
Detrimental to the heart
Though the initial effect of these hormones is to allow the body to cope with stress, long term effects of these hormones and mediators can be detrimental for the heart.
"When the body goes into what is called the 'flight-or-fight' response, the heart squeezes more rapidly to meet the increased demand," she said.
Other functions of the body are also affected. For example, blood pressure rises and the artery walls become tense. Furthermore, these and other downstream hormones and mediators can result in blood to clot more readily, accelerate blockages and increase inflammation, other mechanisms by which heart attacks can happen.
For a healthy heart, this reaction in the short run might not cause a problem. In fact, Bozkurt says this response is a survival mechanism. However, to hearts that are already suffering from a pre-existing heart problem such as heart disease or clogged arteries, this type of response could lead to arrhythmias. Prolonged and recurrent stress exposure can result in mal-adaptive response even in formerly health individuals and may accelerate the development of hypertension and other cardiac diseases in individuals with other risk factors.
"The release of hormones such as adrenaline or noradrenalin have also been linked to a condition that balloons a portion of the heart muscles," Bozkurt added. "This reaction feels and behaves like a heart attack, however, the problem is not the clogging of the arteries but rather of the transient weakening of the heart muscle due to markedly increased levels of these neurohormones."
Other factors linked to heart attacks
While stress does affect heart health, Bozkurt warns that there are many other factors directly linked to heart attacks, such as age, diabetes, hypertension, smoking, family history and cholesterol levels. She suggests talking to a doctor to discuss all risk factors and how to effectively treat them.