How does stress increase the risk for heart disease?
Andrew Atiemo, MD, is a cardiologist on staff at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center. His office can be reached at (602) 861-1168.
Question: How and why does stress increase the risk for heart disease?
Answer: It is very important for doctors and patients to understand the negative effects that stress can have on the body and the heart. If stress is not properly managed, it can play a significant role in a variety of heart-related conditions, such as arrhythmias (irregular heart beat), high blood pressure, and angina. Many of the effects of stress on the body are related to the release of hormones called catecholamines, which include epinephrine (adrenaline).
Poorly managed or prolonged stress can also contribute to harmful behavioral choices, which may include excessive use of alcohol, smoking or overeating. In turn, these behaviors increase the risk of further heart and health complications.
Additionally, during the past several years a condition known as stress cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” has been described in medical journals. With this condition, emotional stress leads to a temporary weakening of the heart. Mimicking a true heart attack, patients may experience severe chest pain and shortness of breath, among other symptoms. Fortunately, once other conditions are ruled out, such as coronary artery disease, the prognosis is generally very good. The heart muscle typically recovers strength and function in a few days to a few weeks.
We all deal with stress in our lives. The key is finding healthy ways to manage or release that stress. Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is maintain a well-balanced diet along with a program of regular exercise. Therapies such as yoga and meditation may also help to reverse the effects of stress. Your doctor can help determine if medications are necessary to treat associated conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Remember to keep a positive outlook on life, as your mind has a powerful effect on your body and health.
Reviewed March 2010