When it comes to heart risk factors, most people think about smoking, drinking, and making poor food choices. Yet, many people (doctors included) overlook one of the most insidious, yet silent, heart risk factors—stress.
I had my first experience with the powerful impact stress can have when I was just 13 years old. My grandmother died suddenly of a stroke, provoked by her emotional reaction to an oil heater in her basement that was smoking. It was then that I realized the profound impact emotions have on our physical health.
How Stress Affects Your Body
Many people think of stress as something that happens in their minds. But while it starts in your brain, stress impacts your entire body.
When you’re confronted with stress, the hypothalamus—the tiny “control center” in your brain—releases stress hormones into your bloodstream, including cortisol and adrenaline. They put your body on high alert, called “fight or flight” mode.
This causes a cascade of reactions throughout your body—including an increase in your blood glucose levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Plus, your pupils dilate and you get a sudden surge of energy. This response is adaptive and is what enables your body to respond to acute danger, such as fleeing from an attacker. When the danger is over, your body quickly returns to balance.
Chronic stress, however, is a different story. When you’re perpetually stressed—whether it’s from listening to the news, a stressful job, health worries, and more—your body is in a constant state of high alert. This can lead to serious health issues that affect your entire body, including your heart.
Heart Problems Related to Stress
There are many heart disease risk factors related to stress. Left unchecked, stress can…
- Raise your blood pressure
- Thicken your blood, so it’s more likely to clot
- Lower your heart rate variability
- Cause heart rate increases, including arrhythmias
- Contribute to coronary artery disease by triggering the inflammatory process that leads to plaque buildup in your arteries
Chronic stress can also increase your heart disease risk factors by contributing to unhealthy lifestyle choices—such as eating sweets, smoking, drinking alcohol, skipping exercise, and making poor food choices. Plus, your body’s stress response can deplete your system of important nutrients you need for heart health, including B-vitamins and magnesium.
We can’t rid our life of stressors. Appliances will continue to break, world events will cause circumstances beyond our control, and traffic jams will make us late for important meetings. What we can control, however, is our response to stress—and here are some powerful techniques that can help:
- Make time for exercise. Just 20 minutes of physical activity—whether it’s a brisk walk around the block or dancing to your favorite songs—can release stress from your muscles and stimulate your body’s creation of feel-good endorphins.
- Get plenty of sleep. It’s much easier to keep stressors in perspective when you’ve had a sound night’s rest. Strive to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. To help yourself relax at night, avoid alcohol and caffeine in the afternoon, keep your bedroom cool and dark, and have a cup of valerian or chamomile tea before going to sleep.
- Take ashwagandha. This powerful herb is part of a group of herbs called adaptogens that help your body to adapt to stress. It works by helping to stabilize and rebalance your body’s stress feedback loop, so it releases less cortisol. You can think of it as your “protective armor” against life’s stressors.
- Connect with others. Be sure to make time for your family, friends, pets, and hobbies to stay balanced and centered.
- Fortify your body with B vitamins. Often called the “stress vitamins,” B-vitamins are quickly depleted from your body during times of stress. I recommend taking vitamin B6, 30-40 mg daily; vitamin B12, 500-750 mcg daily; and folic acid, 400–800 mcg daily.
- Take magnesium. As your cells release stress hormones, they also release magnesium—depleting your body of this vital mineral. In addition to eating magnesium-rich foods, such as nuts, seeds, avocadoes, and bananas, I recommend taking at least 400-800 mg of magnesium daily.
- Try alternate nostril breathing. Even a few minutes of alternate nostril breathing will calm an overstressed autonomic nervous system. First, take a deep breath in and out through your nose. Then use your right thumb to close your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left nostril. While still holding your right nostril closed with your thumb, close your left nostril with your right ring finger so both nostrils are closed, and hold the breath for a moment. Now open your right nostril and breathe out slowly. Inhale slowly through your right nostril. Hold both nostrils closed again briefly. Then open your left nostril and breathe out slowly. Alternate back and forth for a couple of minutes to destress.
- Practice grounding. Grounding—by walking barefoot on the grass, sand, brick, beach, or even your basement floor if it's concrete—helps to support heart rate variability and helps to balance the autonomic nervous system, which is supportive for heart health.