Got Your Heart In A Vice?

heart-in-viceWhile stress is associated with heart disease and heart attack, it may not lead to these conditions but it can make them worse. We lead busy lives. The next problem or challenge is always right around the corner. We go to sleep with problems on our minds and wake up with even more. We stress over money, work, loved ones, health, trauma – the list is endless. Have you taken time to think about the impact of stress on your heart?

When we are under stress the body releases the stress hormones cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Cortisol is the hormone most associated with the body’s fight or flight response. The body dumps a high volume of this hormone into the blood stream when activated. It’s also thought to be responsible for storing fat around the belly. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that increases blood pressure, heart rate, glucose from energy stores and it constricts the smooth muscles of the kidneys. Epinephrine is most commonly used in the form of an EpiPen to halt, or at least delay, anaphylaxis (extreme allergic reaction). It is responsible for relaxing smooth muscles in airways and arterioles.

Prolonged release of norepinephrine and epinephrine can lead to high blood pressure and/or blood clots. Once a blood clot is big enough it can block a blood vessel completely. If this occurs in the coronary arteries (the arteries supplying the heart) it can lead to a heart attack. The increase in blood pressure also causes the heart to work harder than it should weakening it over time. Remember that the heart is a muscle. Exercise makes the heart stronger while increasing its workload in the wrong way can make it weaker.

If you have been diagnosed with heart disease, the leading risk factor of heart attack and coronary artery disease, stress can be a trigger that brings the system tumbling down. African Americans are genetically predisposed to hypertension, high blood pressure, so its important to limit all risk factors associated with heart disease. 41% of African Americans suffer from hypertension versus 21% of Whites. They are also effected at younger ages than any other demographic. One reason for the disparity is that Blacks are more sensitive to sodium than Whites. One theory is that Blacks weren’t exposed to high levels of sodium until slavery in the US. Prior to that their diet didn’t consist of high levels of sodium and biology hasn’t adjusted yet. Another reason is the healthcare disparity that exists for African Americans. They are less likely to have access to quality care and also respond differently to hypertension medications yet major pharmaceutical and medical device companies mainly conduct their trials using a sample of majorly White male patients.

Given the impact stress has on our heart health we must actively reduce it. This is easier said than done. A large portion of the African American live in densely populated areas where stress in inherent. According to the 2012 census 28.1% of Blacks live in poverty up from 25.5% in 2005, the national average is 11.8%. This means more Blacks are under stress just to make ends meet. Until now the rate of poverty has trended downwards since the 1960’s when it was 54.9%. At the other end of the spectrum are highly educated and successful Blacks under constant stress to maintain that level of success at work or in their businesses. Regardless, it’s important to start small and give your heart a break.

  1. Meditate. Even 10 minutes of mindfulness a day or multiple times a day can have huge benefits. The point is to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and relax your blood vessels. This also provides clarity in order to better solve problems. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Find a quiet spot – your car, the bathroom – become aware and breathe deep.
  2. Exercise. The best way to relieve stress is to work it out. The energy of stress actually builds up in your body. When it has no where to go it wreaks havoc. This also uses up the cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine that was dumped into the blood stream.
  3. Balanced diet. Eating right has a positive effect on stress because it keeps your energy levels constant. The more tired you are the more stressed you become. Hunger can also trigger stress. Your body may think it will never eat again and moves you to find food in a hurry. Eating right prevents hunger. Obvious, right? Have you ever eaten a fast food meal but were hungry sooner than you thought you should be? That’s because your body isn’t only hungry for carbohydrates and glucose (fuel), it’s hungry for vitamins and minerals as well. If it didn’t get them, it will trigger hunger signals again.
  4. Say “no”. When you have reached your limit do not feel guilty about letting others know. Reducing your work load or responsibilities is a sure fire way to reduce stress.
  5. Sleep. Everyone should be getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night. It’s sort of seen a badge of honor to brag you only get a few hours of sleep a night. A lack of sleep actually deprives the body of several daily repairing processes that can only happen when you sleep. And lack of energy increases your stress response. It’s hard to get it in when you’re working two jobs or you have a big project at work. Maybe you can slip out to the car and catch a 20-minute nap. Quick naps have been shown to have a benefit.
  6. Laugh. Laughter is the best medicine. Laughing releases the feel good hormone. It’s like fighting fire with water.
  7. Get a pet. Okay, if you don’t want one don’t get one, but you can always visit one or volunteer at an animal shelter to get a fix. People who own pets decrease their immediate stress levels by petting their animal and have an overall reduced risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. Invest in a dog. No real reason other than I’m a dog person and have a dog.

We have a lot to do in this world but we can’t let it take priority over our health. Reduce your stress to contribute to a longer, healthier life. Share this post with someone you love, get your heart checked and comment below.


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