Cardio-vascular related stress symptoms
In the article, What are the Symptoms of Stress, we looked at 50 of the more common signs and symptoms of stress developed by The American Institute of Stress.
Sometimes these symptoms are minor, and will disappear as soon as our stress has gone, however sometimes these symptoms indicate a more significant underlying health problem – and one of the most potentially serious are cardio vascular problems.
Physical symptoms such as chest pain and palpitations, light headedness, faintness and dizziness, as well as constant tiredness, weakness, fatigue are all symptoms of stress that involve our cardio-vascular system.
Cardiovascular disease is a grouping of conditions that either affect the heart, or the impact blood vessels that circulate our blood through the tissues and organs throughout our body.
Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve high blood pressure and the damage or disease in the heart’s major blood vessels, all of which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
While stress can also trigger other heart problems including abnormal heart rhythms, such as atrial fibrillation, palpitations and premature ventricular contractions, chronic stress has been shown to directly contribute to serious cardio vascular diseases in a number of different ways.
Nine controllable risk factors, all impacted by stress, are responsible for 90% of heart attacks
So does stress cause or contribute to heart attacks?
When considering the results of a major international study, that identified that nine controllable risk factors, were responsible for up to 90% of all heart attacks, it is clear that the effects of stress and the implications of our response to stress, are at the core the leading cause of death in the US.
These nine controllable risk factors are:
- High cholesterol levels
- History of high blood pressure
- Abdominal obesity
- Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
- Excessive consumption of alcohol — more than one drink per day for women, or more than one or two drinks per day for men
- Not getting enough regular physical activity
Each of these risk factors are impacted by the way that we manage (or don’t) manage the stress that we experience in our lives.
High blood pressure and chest pain
How does stress cause high blood pressure and chest pain?
During the fight or flight stress response, we learnt that the stress chemicals epinephrine and norepinephrine are released into the blood stream.
Part of their role, is to increase the heart rate and contractions of the heart, to help pump the blood from the body’s core to the peripheral muscles, and to also help the heart deliver a greater supply of oxygenated blood to our muscles to drive energy production.
In addition to their effect on the heart, these stress chemicals also work to dilate the blood vessels to our peripheral muscles to increase blood flow, and also to constricting blood vessels and blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract (to restrict digestion).
These efforts to re-distribute the blood to areas where it is needed, has the net effect of significantly increasing blood pressure far beyond its normal resting level.
It’s important to also realize, that it’s not just physical stress, but any stress – including the psychological stress of the pressure of our argument with our boss at work – that triggers this physiological response to our cardio vascular system and so increases our blood pressure.
When the stress is short lived, our blood pressure returns to normal, but exposure to chronic stress, means high blood pressure over a long period of time, which is dangerous for a number of reasons.
As our heart is forced to pump harder and faster to circulate the blood when we are under stress, over time, the muscles of the heart respond by thickening.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean a stronger heart – in fact, often the heart’s blood supply doesn’t increase to the same degree, and, over time, the heart weakens, which can lead to heart failure.
Even more significant, are the effects that this long term high blood pressure has on our blood vessels, and the catastrophic effect this can have on our health.
High blood pressure causes cardiovascular disease
As a result of the long term, high blood pressure, the otherwise smooth surface of the linings of our blood vessels suffer microscopic tears and become rough, uneven and damaged.
This damage, then triggers a cascade of events within our body, which causes the resulting, often fatal, heart attack, stroke and other major organ damage.
The irony of this, is that it isn’t the initial damage to the vascular tissue that causes the problem, rather, it’s a series of processes within our body, that begin with the natural inflammation process of our body’s immune system, but significantly exacerbated by the double one-two punch of our stress and stress response, in combination with our low exercise, high saturated and trans-fat diet.
Chronic blood vessel inflammation causes atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries)
Stress is also core to the cause of atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries).
This damage to our blood vessels, occurs as small tears in the lining of the vessel walls within our heart. Our body’s inflammation process, then acts to repair these small tears, by binding a sticky substance that floats in our blood to the walls of the damaged vascular tissue.
This sticky substance, known as cholesterol, is created in the liver, and has a role, ironically, to act as a healing agent, to repair our artery walls.
Cholesterol is carried around our body by a particle called lipoprotein – of which there are two types:
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – cholesterol carried by this type is known as ‘good’ cholesterol, as HDL carries this cholesterol to the liver for removal from the body;
- low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – cholesterol carried by this type is known as ‘bad’ cholesterol, (that results from poor diet of saturated and trans fats, genetics & lack of exercise), and these particles are too large to be removed by the liver and is the cholesterol that sticks to our artery walls.
As this cholesterol adheres to our artery walls, it builds up as plaque and grows over the years.
The growth of cholesterol plaques slowly blocks blood flow in the arteries and, worse, when the cholesterol plaque ruptures, the sudden blood clot that forms over the rupture then created major health implications. These clots narrow our artery walls and cuts off blood flow to nearby tissue, causing chest pain, heart attack, or these clots may break off and travel through the arteries – if it get stuck in our heart arteries, it triggers a heart attack and if it gets trapped in a brain’s blood vessel, we suffer a stroke.
It’s these blocked arteries caused by plaque buildup and blood clots, which are the leading cause of death in the United States.
The platelets in our blood become stickier
Yet another driver of stress response related blood pressure problems, is the change to the structure of our blood in response to the stress chemicals, where our platelets become stickier, helping clots to form more easily to minimize bleeding from potential injuries.
The problem however, is that blood clots can form when they aren’t needed, or break off and travel through your bloodstream and cause heart attack, stroke, causing organ damage or even death.
Preventing cholesterol plaques & reversing atherosclerosis
The build-up of cholesterol plaques and atherosclerosis are progressive – they get worse over time. But, they are also preventable, and research has shown, that it is possible to not only stop the progression, but even reverse atherosclerosis.
Through lifestyle changes of diet, exercise, stress management, it has been shown that blood flow to the heart and its ability to pump normally, improve in less than a month.