The difficulty with studying the effect of stress on the heart is that stress and stressors (the things that cause stress) are subjective. Public speaking is a great example of this. For some, public speaking is exhilarating, for some it is terrifying, and some are largely indifferent to the task. 

Activities or experiences that feel stressful to one person may not affect another person in the same way at all, so stress has to either be self-reported or measured by the levels of stress hormones circulating in the blood. Measuring blood cortisol happens in a clinical setting, which means the stressor must be a controlled variable and not an organic source of stress that occurs in our unique day-to-day lives.

Difficulties aside, we do know, from a combination of self-reported and clinically-quantified data, that many types of stress do affect the heart; and more generally, cardiovascular health [1-4]. Here we will explain stress, the ways in which it impacts our cardiovascular system, and then some tactics you can use to support heart health in the face of stress.

What is “Stress”?

There are different types of stress. There are physical stressors that put direct pressure on the body or organs in one way or another (think aerobic exercise in a laboratory “stress test”), and psychological stressors that put pressure on your mind or psyche, but indirectly affect your body. 

When people refer to feeling “stressed” however, psychological stress is usually the culprit. Within this category, though, there are acute stressors like unforeseen disasters, or traumatic, life-changing events that shock the system into fight-or-flight mode. Then there are chronic stressors, which are ongoing lifestyle factors (generally at work or at home) that leave us feeling irritable, anxious, or cause difficulty sleeping. 

Although the ways in which acute and chronic psychological stressors affect our body systems are different, psychological stress can have a negative impact on both our mental and physical health.

Acute Stress and Broken Heart Syndrome

A traumatic event is classified as acute stress, but “traumatic events” can range from a surprise birthday party to the death of a loved one, from an earthquake to an asthma attack. Again, stress and stressors are all subjective. When one experiences acute stress, however, the damage it causes the body is based on the magnitude of your body’s reaction. 

During that moment of fright, your autonomic nervous system is activated. Your body releases increased levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and hormones that are meant to prepare your body for “fight-or-flight”. Your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, and blood pressure increases. Blood rushes away from the extremities and digestive organs to the muscles that are needed to run or fight. If the initially-perceived threat soon registers as insignificant, the body can return to a relaxed state.

In a few, rare situations, however, the body doesn’t return to normal after an acutely stressful event. Stress can trigger a reaction much like a heart attack, called “broken heart syndrome”. When one has a heart attack, it is generally caused by a blockage of an artery leading to the heart. 

With broken heart syndrome, there is no clog, per se, but something about the hormone surge that accompanies a highly physically or emotionally stressful event damages the function of the heart or closes a previously-open artery in a way that mimics a heart attack [2,3]. 

The exact mechanism has yet to be determined, but broken heart syndrome affects more women than men, more people over 50 than under, and is more common in people that have had previous psychiatric or neurological diagnoses [3]. 

Chronic Stress 

More commonly, the type of stress that endangers the cardiovascular system is chronic, ongoing stress. Examples of chronic stress are financial insecurity, intense work environments, unsafe (or abusive) living situations, unhappy marriages, and the like.

The difficulty of assessing the direct damage from chronic stress lies in the bad habits that many people pick up trying to deal with or avoid their stress. 

Overeating or choosing fatty comfort foods, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, and choosing television or video games over exercise are all ways in which people commonly deal with stress that can also be damaging to cardiovascular health [2].

In terms of the direct effects of stress on cardiovascular health, studies show that when cortisol (the chronic stress hormone) is elevated for an extended period of time, it is associated with increased blood cholesterol, increased levels of triglycerides, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. All of these are common risk factors for heart disease [4]. 

Stress can also cause physiological changes that lead to a buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries and make a heart attack more likely, or cause poor blood flow and decreased oxygen to the heart [4]. Over an extended period of time, stress can even affect how the blood clots, making it stickier and increasing the risk of stroke [4].

Can I protect myself from the effects of stress on the heart and cardiovascular system?

Lifestyle Stress Solutions

The best solution is the healthy management of stress itself. If the source of stress is coming from your home life, consider seeking counseling to manage your relationships, or asking for help if caregiving responsibilities are becoming too much. 

If it is your work that is causing chronic stress, consider opportunities to delegate your tasks or better organize your time. Finding ways to relieve your work stress and balance responsibilities will prevent more acutely stressful consequences, like losing the job completely or quitting due to burnout. 

Alternatively, finding ways to let go of stress at the end of the day may help you show up ready to conquer more tomorrow morning. 

Finding a type of exercise you enjoy doing is key. First off, if you enjoy doing it, it can be a reward at the end of a hard day, rather than feeling like yet another item on your long to-do list. And second, when we exercise, the body releases endorphins that bring on an instant and natural mood boost. Exercise also protects against heart disease by lowering blood pressure, strengthening the heart muscle, and helping to maintain a healthy weight [1]. 

Meditation has also been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure [1]. It can be a spiritual practice including prayer but certainly doesn’t have to be. Try sitting quietly and focusing on deep breathing for a few minutes or choose a guided meditation designed around stress relief. There are many free or inexpensive options available online, through YouTube, or within downloadable meditation apps for your smartphone.

Speaking of smartphones, consider unplugging for a period of time every day. Especially if you feel like work follows you home, set up boundaries around hours of availability. It may be easier to be present with yourself or for your family if your colleagues or clients know you are unreachable during dinner time or after a certain hour. Avoiding the blue light given off by smartphones, tablets, and computer screens in the hours before bed can also help better prepare your brain for sleep. 

Nutrition for Stress Relief

Diet

As mentioned earlier in this article, many of the health problems related to stress are exacerbated by unhealthy habits, one of which is a poor diet. 

A poor diet could mean skipping meals because eating when you’re stressed can be unappealing. The problem is that a skipped meal leads to low blood sugar levels which can have a negative effect on both your mood, focus, and energy level throughout the day [5]. Regularly undereating can set you up for deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, which can affect mood balance, energy levels, and your body’s overall ability to deal with stress.

At the other end of the spectrum, a poor diet may also refer to comfort eating. Some people reach for densely caloric foods to soothe them, ignoring satiation signals, rather than choosing foods that meet your nutritional needs at an appropriate meal or snack time. Fatty foods may taste good, but they can make us feel lethargic and affect our productivity and stress levels in the short term. In the long term, a diet too high in saturated fat can cause build-up in our arteries and unnecessary weight gain, which are both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Doing our best to make varied, healthy choices in the foods we eat throughout the day is important. We must also remember to ask if it is hunger or stress that’s prompting us to reach for the fridge. 

Supplements

There are additional, natural, nutritional supplements that may aid in stress relief available as well. For example, GABA (or gamma aminobutyric acid) is a calming neurotransmitter that may help balance your mood or anxiety in times of stress. Metabolic Maintenance® offers blended products like Anxiety Control Plus and MetaCalm®, which are designed specifically to support your mind and body in times of acute stress or chronic stress, respectively. 

You may seek nutritional support for increased energy if stress leaves you feeling lethargic. B vitamins are an excellent choice for energy support, as they contribute to mitochondrial function as well as the synthesis of “happiness” neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine.  

Perhaps you are seeking support for sleep and relaxation because stress is interfering with your nighttime wind-down. There are many natural options to help you reach these goals without turning to synthetic chemicals or medication. Glycine and GABA (again), can provide relaxation support, and products containing melatonin use your body’s natural signals to bring on sleep, without a groggy morning-after.

Whatever the source of your stress, we hope you find a healthy solution and talk to your doctor about the best long-term care for your body to protect the valuable health of your cardiovascular system.

References

  1. Steptoe, Andrew, and Mika Kivimäki. “Stress and cardiovascular disease: an update on current knowledge.” Annual review of public health 34 (2013): 337-354.
  2. Harvard Medical School. “Stress and your Heart”. Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Dec, 2013. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/stress-and-your-heart
  3. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Broken heart syndrome”. Mayo Clinic. Nov 14, 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/broken-heart-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20354617
  4. University of Rochester Medical Center. “Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease”. Health Encyclopedia. 2020. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=2171
  5. Scott, Elizabeth. “How to Combat Stress with Good Nutrition”. VeryWell Mind. June 24, 2019. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-combat-stress-with-good-nutrition-3144529