Everyone experiences stress. A frustrating day at work, a close call on the highway or a bit of bad news can make your body go into fight or flight mode to protect you from real or perceived threats. While this response could help save your life in a dangerous situation, it can also have some harmful effects on your body.
If you’re under severe stress every day, you might be putting your health at risk—particularly your heart health! Chronic stress can have myriad effects on your cardiovascular system, potentially increasing your risk for things like coronary artery disease and heart attacks or strokes.
Be mindful of these three effects stress can have on your heart.
- Spikes your blood pressure: Blood pressure is the force of your blood pumping through your blood vessels. Although you want your blood pressure to be strong enough to consistently move blood and oxygen throughout your body, blood pressure that’s too high can be damaging. When you’re stressed, your body releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol, which constrict your blood vessels and make your heart beat faster. These effects can raise your blood pressure temporarily. Unfortunately, chronic stress may prolong these effects, keeping your blood pressure high for longer periods of time. As a result, high blood pressure (also called hypertension) can weaken and damage your blood vessels. As tiny tears develop in your arterial walls, plaque accumulates, causing buildup that may eventually lead to a heart attack.
- Elevates blood sugar: The stress hormone cortisol raises your blood glucose levels by allowing the liver to secrete concentrated glucose molecules called glycogen back into the blood. At the same time, cortisol makes the body more insulin resistant, which can further destabilize your blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, high blood sugar may cause your blood vessels to contract. The tightening of these blood vessels does a number of things, including restricting blood flow, raising blood pressure and increasing your risk for a blockage. This is particularly dangerous for people with diabetes, but chronic stress can cause lasting effects for anyone.
- Raises frequency of bad habits: When you’re stressed, you may be more likely to skip the gym and pick up a pizza or other comfort food to make yourself feel better. You may even begin smoking or smoke more frequently and have a few more alcoholic drinks than you normally would. All of these bad habits—unhealthy eating, smoking and drinking—can contribute to poor heart health in their own ways. Eating unhealthy foods may increase your dietary cholesterol intake and/or increase your blood cholesterol through the ingestion of trans and saturated fats. Frequent drinking may increase your blood pressure and even cause irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmia). Smoking is one of the most dangerous habits; cigarettes contain a range of chemicals that can harm your entire body, and nicotine and carbon monoxide have been shown to increase blood pressure, constrict and weaken blood vessels and harden arterial walls.
Reduce your stress and improve your heart health!
Chronic stress can impact your heart health in many ways. Fortunately, there are even more ways for you to combat stress and reduce your risk for heart attacks, strokes and more!
Many habits that improve heart health directly—such as exercising regularly and eating healthy foods—also work to reduce stress levels, helping you feel good physically and mentally every day. Exercise is a great way to blow off steam and fill your body with “feel-good” chemicals that reduce stress naturally, all while strengthening your heart and cardiovascular system. Eating well reduces your risk for high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes, but can also reduce irritation and brain fog that takes stress from bad to worse.
You may also benefit from more specific stress-targeting methods, such as daily meditation sessions, mindfulness and yoga, as well as adaptogenic herbs or stress-relief supplements that promote internal balance. Therapy, support from family and friends and healthy coping mechanisms like partaking in a new hobby may also help.
Finally, examine your current stressors and find ways to minimize their effects on your life. Perhaps you need to look for a new job, consider cutting off a toxic relationship or re-prioritize your schedule to keep chronic stress at bay.
By making these changes, you can shield yourself from persistent stress that is more than likely taking a toll on your entire body.