The Relationship Between Stress, Heart Disease and Stroke
So, what happens to our body when we get stressed?
More importantly, can stress make you sick?
Even worse, can stress kill you?
The answer, unfortunately to both these questions is – YES.
Which is why we need to understand how stress works and the damage that it has on our physical and mental health.
In this medical review of stress, we revisit our body’s response to stress, and begin to examine the problems caused by stress to our physical and mental health. In this article, we specifically look at the relationship between stress and cardio vascular disease.
Researchers have examined and now have clinically proven the link between long term, chronic stress and damage to our:
• Cardio vascular system, including heart attack, high blood pressure, chest pain and stroke;
• Gastrointestinal System;
• Respiratory System, with asthma and emphysema;
• Musculoskeletal system, including tension and migraine headaches and neck, shoulder and back pain;
• Immune system and cancer, including rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel disease, and even multiple sclerosis;
• Brain damage, with Alzheimer disease and Parkinson’s disease;
• Male and female sexual and reproductive health.
We start with our cardio vascular system, where we look at how stress is a cause of high blood pressure, chest pain, heart attacks and strokes.
1. Stress is not necessarily a bad thing
Stress is a subjective response from our mind and body, to a difficult or threatening situation in which we find ourselves.
Stress arises when our body perceives/determines that the a difficult or threatening situation, exceeds our ability to cope.
Stress is everywhere, we can’t avoid it – we can’t hide from it
In today’s 24/7 always-on world, stressful situations (or stressors) are everywhere. They come from an ongoing situation, such as a difficult work or home environment, or long-term family, health or financial pressures; or a time or work pressure, such as an imminent work deadline.
It could be a psychological stress, such as a persistent worry about losing your job; or it could be an immediate threat or situation, such as a dog chasing you on the street, the sound of screeching brakes behind you when you are driving or the critical presentation you are about to give to an important group of clients.
We now know, that our body is very cleverly “designed”, to deal with danger or physical threat.
We know that in response to a threatening situation, our body’s physiological response to stress, known as the “stress response”, takes over and releases a series of stress hormones into our system, that make significant physiological changes, that supercharge our body, helping to prepare us to defeat, or escape from, a physical threat.
A snapshot of the effects on our body of the stress hormones, epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol, when we are under stress is that:
- Glucose and fats are released into the bloodstream, to provide extra fuel for our muscles;
- Our breathing is now faster, as your lungs take in extra oxygen to better fuel your muscles;
- Our sight and hearing are now improved, as we become more alert;
- Our heart is beating up to 2-3 times faster than normal and our blood pressure rises;
- Certain arteries narrow, which helps direct blood away from our skin and other organs (that are deemed less important), to our muscles and brain, which have a higher priority function;
- Our blood platelets are now stickier, so clots can form more easily to minimize bleeding from potential injuries;
- Our muscles are more tense & tighter, preparing us to spring into action.;
- Body systems not needed for the immediate fight or flight, are restricted, so energy can go where it’s needed – so stomach and intestines cease operations, repair and growth of body tissues slows and sexual arousal lessens.
We also know, that the homeostatic nature of our body, means that we are designed such that once the stress has passed, our parasympathetic system is activated, in order to switch-off our body’s stress response and stress chemicals and so return our body to a state of calm balance.
However, today’s 24/7, always-on, iPhone-connected lifestyle, means that our body is always under stress, our Stress Engine NEVER switches off, and so our parasympathetic nervous system never gets the chance to switch-off the flow of dangerous stress chemicals throughout our body.
This situation, where our bodies remain under long term stress, is called chronic stress and in this state, these dangerous stress chemicals continue to flow through our bodies for months, years or worse.
The question is …
what does this do to our body??
2. What are the symptoms and signs of stress?
While there has been a qualitative link between stress and disease for centuries, but the cause and effect link has only become accepted scientifically in the past few decades.
Research has now well documented the numerous emotional and physical illnesses that have been linked to stress including depression and anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, increase in infections, virus based diseases from the common cold and herpes to certain cancers, as well as autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
In addition, stress can have direct effects on insomnia and degenerative neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, as well as skin diseases such as rashes, hives, atopic dermatitis, and the gastrointestinal system causing irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux and ulcerative colitis.
Stress affects the whole human body starting from the cellular level to the cognitive functions of the brain, and you can consider the impact of stress on both the primary systems of the body, as well as the specific illness and disease that results.
3. Stress and damage to our cardiovascular system
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.
So what is the solution to living and working in a 24/7 always-on stressful environment?
And more importantly, reducing stress related high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
In our 24/7 always-on “real world”, our lives will always be stressful – with work, family, relationship, finance, social, health and other challenges, we can’t simply walk away or escape the situations that cause us stress.
The answer therefore, is stress management solution that allows us, at any time, to control our body’s response to a stressful situation and to the symptoms of stress when we feel them.
A system that allows us to:
- switch-off our “Stress Engine” and stop the effects of the dangerous stress chemicals in our body, and switch-on our body’s “Relaxation Engine” and the flow of the neurotransmitters that encourage the relaxation and healing process.
- relieve the symptoms of stress that we feel, and switch-on calm, when we’re feeling tense and frustrated; switch on energy when we are exhausted; switch on sleep, when our mind is still spinning; and switch-on concentration when our brain feels scrambled.
- repair the damage done to our body by past stress, but more importantly, to defend and protect our body against the effects of future stress.
A stress management solution that will allow us to live, work and love life – healthy and happy – within our 24/7 always-on high stress environment – safe from the damage that stress causes.
- The Lancet. “How stress may increase risk of heart disease and stroke.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 January 2017.
- Ahmed Tawakol, Amorina Ishai, Richard AP Takx, Amparo L Figueroa, Abdelrahman Ali, Yannick Kaiser, Quynh A Truong, Chloe JE Solomon, Claudia Calcagno, Venkatesh Mani, Cheuk Y Tang, Willem JM Mulder, James W Murrough, Udo Hoffmann, Matthias Nahrendorf, Lisa M Shin, Zahi A Fayad, Roger K Pitman. Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events: a longitudinal and cohort study. The Lancet, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31714-7
- Steptoe A, Kivimäki M. Stress and cardiovascular disease. Nat Rev Cardiol. 2012 Apr 3;9(6):360-70. doi: 10.1038/nrcardio.2012.45. Review. PubMed PMID: 22473079.
- Dimsdale JE. Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2008;51(13):1237-1246. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2007.12.024.
- Brian Luke Seaward, PhD, Managing Stress, Jones and Bartlett learning
- Kalanuria AA, Nyquist P, Ling G. The prevention and regression of atherosclerotic plaques: emerging treatments. Vascular Health and Risk Management. 2012;8:549-561. doi:10.2147/VHRM.S27764.
- Yusuf, Salim et al. Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study. The Lancet , Volume 364 , Issue 9438 , 937 – 952
- D, Currie, K. Depression, anxiety and their relationship with chronic diseases: a review of the epidemiology, risk and treatment evidence. Med J Aust 2009; 190 (7): 54-60.
I help people understand & manage stress & help fix the damage that stress does to our health & lives.
20+ years as tech CEO, left me plugged into machines in the hospital ED.
It took me 4 years of R&D, but I fixed my stress, my health & got my life back.
I now help thousands of others, get their life back too.