Stress and cardiovascular disease

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We’ve all heard how stress increases the risk of cardiovascular disease – how does this happen?

When under stress, our body thinks it needs to save your life, so it does what it can to make it easy for us to run or fight. Therefore we need oxygenated blood to get to our muscles quickly.

Our sympathetic nervous system fires up increasing our breathing rate and heart rate, and releases hormones that constrict the blood vessels so that there is more pressure in the system which helps deliver the blood quickly to the muscles that need it.

If the stress is chronic, because of the extra work and forces being put through the system, the heart and vessels wear out faster than they would if the stress were not chronic, just as high-pressure hoses and pumps wear out faster than ones that are not subjected to high pressures.

The areas in our blood vessels that are the most vulnerable to injury from a mechanical perspective are the junctures where the blood vessels bifurcate into smaller vessels due to the blood slamming into those junctions causing turbulence, and eventually causing tearing and pitting in the smooth lining of the vessels.

Another part of the stress response is the secretion of glucocorticoids like glucagon and cortisol, which release sugar into the blood stream to provide instant fuel to the muscles in order to save you.

However, if the stress is chronic, and high blood-sugar levels become the norm, there is more potential for glycation where the glucose molecules bind with protein molecules, the first stage in developing Advanced Glycation Endproducts (AGEs), which also damage the lining of the blood vessels, adding to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

(Chronic high intake of sugar and flour products also leads to AGEs, and therefore blood vessel damage, which is why these foods are linked to cardiovascular disease).

Now the body needs to try and repair the damage to the vessels, as well as shore up the vulnerable areas for the future. So cholesterol is dispatched to the area to repair the tisse, and it works its way underneath the smooth lining, thickening it.

In addition to this, because now the surface of the vessel walls are roughened due to tears or pits in the lining, platelets, our blood clotting cells, are more likely to clump there.

Over time, between the thickened lining and the clumps stuck in the area, the vessel walls harden and the opening becomes narrower, and we are diagnosed with atherosclerosis.

The impact of the thickened vessels depends on where they are located. If they are in our legs, we may get claudication, or a blockage in the arteries in our legs. If the thickening is in the arteries of the heart, we get heart disease, and if the thickening is in the vessels leading to the brain, we may become a candidate for a stroke.

Ways to reduce stress include meditation, breathing exercises, parasympathetic exercise like yoga, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, tai chi or qi gong.

Other ideas include spending time in nature, connecting and laughing with good friends, living in the present moment, writing a list of at least 20 things we are grateful for and repeating this exercise each day.

Putting our problems in perspective, realizing that there is no point stressing over stuff we have no control over, finding the courage to change stressful situations that we do have control over, simplifying one’s life, and enjoying time doing absolutely nothing can be worthwhile skills to develop.

If you would like help addressing stress issues, feel free to contact me.

Related tips:
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
High cholesterol does not cause heart disease
The autonomic nervous system and fat loss
Mind and body; psyche and soma
Learn to let go

Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition WH Freeman and Company, New York, 1998

Katie, Byron Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life Three Rivers Press, New York NY, 2002.

Chek, Paul; How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! Chek Institute, San Diego, CA, 2004.

Pert, Candace PhD, Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine Scribner, New York, NY, 1997.

Copyright 2005-2007 Vreni Gurd

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