Stress is something that everyone encounters. While common symptoms may include clammy hands, upset stomach, or headaches. What many people may not realize is that chronic stress can elevate your risk of serious heart problems. According to cardiologists, spiking cortisol (the stress hormone) levels may also lead to complications like heart attacks and strokes.
What Is Stress?
Stress is the body’s response to a physical or psychological trigger that the mind perceives as challenging or threatening. Similar to inflammation, stress has its place and can be healthy at the right moment. Beneficial stress, known as eustress. may seem fictional but it is real. Let’s say that you get assigned to a new project at work. Although it may seem daunting at first, it also provides opportunity to shine and learn new skills. Eustress helps you push through to the end in this situation.
There’s nothing wrong with short-term stress, which many identify as acute stress. The body recognizes that it needs to deal with the stress and then returns to a normal state. If you encounter a challenge that doesn’t have a clear end, you can develop chronic stress. Your remain hyper aware and the body doesn’t get a chance to recover or return to a normal, relaxed state. Normally, your heart beats faster, muscles tense up, and the digestive system may not operate as efficiently when the body is in a state of chronic stress.
How Does Stress Affect Your Heart?
A 2021 study included 118,706 people without existing heart disease across 21 countries. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that high stress increased the risk of coronary artery disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and death. A separate 2021 study focused on 412 adults without hypertension or cardiovascular disease. These adults had urine tests for four stress hormones: cortisol, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. As each hormone doubled in urine tests, the risk of hypertension rose from 21% to 31% over a median 6.5 year follow-up period.
Norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol, and dopamine levels can increase when you encounter different stressful events, relationships, or situations. The small 412-person study found that the connection between dopamine and cortisol and hypertension was more prevalent in younger adults than older adults. This evidence is in line with earlier research studies about stress’ relationship to heart disease. One such study linked dopamine levels to hypertension development. Earlier studies also connected higher cortisol levels to an increase in blood pressure.
Stress And Heart Disease
In 2021, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a science-backed statement regarding the impact of psychological health on heart health. Research found that the buildup of everyday stress increased the risk of heart disease. Perceived stress, work-related stress, social isolation, and childhood stress all contribute to inflammation, or increased inflammatory markers. Chronic inflammation in the body leads to factors that harm the heart, including high blood pressure and cholesterol.
The research indicates that elevated stress hormones can increase factors that contribute to heart disease. Chronic stress, however, can affect the heart in a more indirect way. When the body is in a constant state of stress, you’re less likely to exercise, make healthy food choices, and maintain weight. Additionally, stress can negatively affect your sleep, and poor sleep can lead to chronic eating or hormonal imbalance. Collectively, these things can all put your heart at risk for developing more serious conditions.
Although it may seem separate, stress has a direct connection to physical health. If you are struggling with any kind of stress, we encourage you to recognize that it can have harmful consequences. Engage in breathing exercises, start working out, practice meditation, and turn to other methods that help lower stress levels. Not only will these practices benefit your mental health, but also your heart health.