We always hear about all the different factors that go into heart health—like proper diet and exercise—but one factor that a lot of people (including myself) ignore is how your mood and things like stress can affect your heart. Thomas O'Brien, MD, Medical Director, The Christ Hospital Heart & Vascular program, recently gave me some insight into this topic.
There is a connection between your heart and your brain
I have had many nights when my lists of things I need to do or situations I need to handle run through my mind, and I can feel my heart rate go up while I'm trying to go to sleep. It's never a good feeling, and according to Dr. O'Brien, it's not good for my heart, either. He said, "Stress—whether emotional or physical—causes an increase in several chemicals throughout the body, including cortisol and adrenaline, which make the heart work harder. This reaction may be helpful in small doses, like finishing a workout, but is harmful when prolonged. Chronically elevated hormone levels lead to accelerated atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, an increased risk for heart attack and stroke—and can even make someone more susceptible to infection!" So, there is a direct connection! It's not just stress, either. He added, "Depression is similar, putting someone at an increased risk of heart disease." But that's not all; it works both ways. He went on to say, "Heart disease is associated with a higher risk of depression. Mood disorders, which are often undertreated, can lead to poor nutrition and inactivity, which impede the body's ability to heal."
A bad mood can lead to more than a bad day
We all have our "days"…some more than others. When I have a bad day, I come more than just grumpy. I am tired and have no desire to do anything fun—or really anything at all. Dr. O'Brien told me that this can also affect your heart! I was a bit surprised to learn this. I knew stress could be a problem, but just being in a bad mood…really? "Depending on a person's mood, the brain sends out different chemical signals that cause receptors in the heart and blood vessels to react—speeding up, slowing down, raising or lowering blood pressure, even causing inflammation or increasing the risk for blood clots to form," Dr. O'Brien explained.
Can it help to turn that frown upside down?
Absolutely! Dr. O' Brien wants us all to know that there is power in positive thinking… and it's not just in your head! He told me laughter is the best medicine, and I know this first-hand. I can think back to a very stressful situation I had at a job (years ago), and all of the sudden, someone did something really funny. We all laughed super hard, and that stress that I was feeling went away. I immediately thought, "YES, laughter works!" Dr. O'Brien confirmed my way of thinking. "A good laugh can reduce the stress hormone levels in the body, and allow the heart to relax. And since smiles are contagious, happiness is something we can all share and benefit from!"
Get stress in check for a healthy heart
When I get really stressed, the best thing I can do is take a walk. Preferably outside, but sometimes if I just put in my earbuds and listen to music on my treadmill, I feel better. Dr. O'Brien told me that exercise is a great stress reliever, but there are other ways to combat stress like prayer, meditation and biofeedback. He elaborated, "There are several studies showing regular Tai Chi can help keep heart patients out of the hospital and even live longer." He also told me to be aware of things to avoid that may be causing stress to affect your heart. Like inadequate sleep, too much caffeine and a poor diet. He advised, "This can create a vicious cycle that erodes your health. It can be hard to break the cycle, but you must make yourself a priority. Put your own health on your 'To Do' list! Even 20 minutes a day can be enough to get back on the right path."
As I said before, I've had my days of being super stressed, being in a bad mood or just being blue…and yes…that can affect your heart health, but there are ways to manage that. However, if you feel there is something wrong, you need to listen to your body! That's what Dr. O'Brien said, and The Christ Hospital Network can help. They have effective screening tests, preventative options, and customizable treatment plans to keep you and your heart healthy.
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