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Feeling Stressed? You May be Stressing Your Heart Out Too

August 29, 2014

Stress—we’ve all felt it at some point. For many of us, it’s a normal part of our lives that we experience on a daily basis. You might be running late one morning and feel stressed as you rush to make it to work on time. Or perhaps you’re feeling stressed at work as you put in extra hours to meet a last-minute deadline. You might also find that your health, relationships, major life changes or difficult situations in your family life are the cause of your stress.

Believe it or not, in some cases, stress can actually be a positive thing. It can make us more alert, enhance our creativity and help with problem-solving. But when we start to experience chronic stress that doesn’t go away, it can take a serious toll on our health and well-being. In fact, stress has been shown to contribute to a number of health problems, including diabetes, , skin conditions, asthma, depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.

But the list doesn’t end there. In addition to the conditions I just mentioned, chronic stress can also lead to heart problems. Physicians and researchers have known for quite some time that patients with more stressful lives were also more prone to having a heart condition. But until now, how the two were connected was unknown.

New Study Finds Link Between Stress and Heart Attacks

Researchers at Harvard Medical School released a study in June that identified excess white blood cells—the same cells that help us fight infections when we are sick—as a potential cause of heart and vascular issues. The researchers studied 29 medical residents working in the intensive care unit at a hospital—which, as you might imagine, is a fairly stressful place to work.

The first step in the study was to perform questionnaires asking the medical residents about their stress levels. Then, the researchers took blood samples from each of the residents during their work hours, as well as off-duty hours. And what they found was very interesting.

They noticed that the medical residents had higher white blood cell counts in stressful situations, as compared to their counts when they were off-duty.

By studying the white blood cell counts of the residents, the researchers also discovered another important piece of the puzzle. They found that, when our body produces too many white blood cells, they begin to stick to the walls of our blood vessels. When this happens, it becomes harder for blood to flow through our body, and it increases the amount of work the heart has to do to pump blood. Now just imagine if you’re constantly dealing with chronic stress. The problem can become much worse, and it can put you at greater risk for a heart attack and stroke.

Although it took researchers a number of years to make this discovery, it makes sense that our bodies produce more white blood cells when we’re stressed. This is because our bodies think they are under attack, and white blood cells help defend us against bacteria and other toxins that are harmful to our health.

Ways to Reduce Stress and Improve Heart Health

Now that we know the link between stress and heart issues, it’s even more important that we take the necessary steps to limit our stress. Reducing our stress levels whenever possible will help reduce overproduction of white blood cells, which ultimately decreases our risk for cardiac issues. Whether it’s yoga, meditation or something else that relaxes you, try to find time every day to reduce your stress and just chill out!

While stress is a big contributor to heart issues, it’s important to recognize that it is not the only factor affecting your heart health. We also need to make sure we’re staying active, eating right, maintaining a healthy weight and staying away from tobacco products.

Personally, I recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise a day—even walking for 30 minutes has tremendous benefits for your heart and vascular health. Consuming a diet low in saturated fats will also improve heart health. I recommend trying a Mediterranean-style diet or the DASH diet. The DASH diet, which limits sodium, saturated fats and trans fats, is a simple, but proven diet that has been shown to lower high blood pressure and, ultimately, reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

Although some of these changes may not be easy to make, they will go a long way in protecting your heart health. For more information on how to reduce your risk for heart disease, visit the National Institutes of Health website.