Stress is a normal part of life. It is the feeling of butterflies in our stomach on a first date, or exhilaration when we are on a roller coaster or the stress that helps us to meet a deadline or compete for a promotion.
Chronic stress, when we are stressed almost daily, has serious implications on our health. This kind of long-term stress can be from a demanding job, relationships or from our high expectations of ourselves. It can result in feelings of anxiety, irritability, inability to concentrate, frequent colds and flu, pains and aches in the body, low mood, difficulty sleeping, and fatigue.
Clinical data has shown that chronic stress has serious implications for your heart health including an increase in plaque build up, cholesterol imbalance, triglyceride, blood sugar imbalance, inflammation and high blood pressure.
If you ever wondered how stress translates in the body to heart disease, here are three ways that stress negatively impacts your heart health:
1. Stress Increases Blood Pressure and Blood Sugar Levels
When we are stressed our body produces stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are pumped through the body causing your heart rate to increase. As this happens your body needs more energy, which triggers a release of glucose into the blood. This spikes your blood sugar.
These changes put your body into fight or flight mode. This allows your brain to focus and take action quickly (as if it was being chased by a predator).
In people with chronic stress, this minute of focus can turn into days or weeks resulting in high blood pressure (hypertension) and high blood sugar levels. This response can also lead to a hyper-alertness that makes it difficult to relax or sleep, as well as difficulty focusing on longer or more concentrated tasks.
2. Stress Inflammation and Immunity
Chronic inflammation as a result of an always on, hyper alert stressed state of being also has an effect which activates the immune system causing white blood cells to be activated within our bodies. This immune response may cause damage to the lining of our arteries, reducing NO needed for blood pressure regulation and increasing plaque build up, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The continuous stimulation of the immune system caused by stress and inflammation can go two ways, the immune system can become overactive which may result in an autoimmune condition or it can become depleted. Leaving our immune defences lowered and our bodies open to pathogens such as bacteria, fungi (yeast) and viral infections including cold sores, mouth ulcers, colds and other viruses.
3. Stress and Nutrient Deficiencies
Stress depletes our body of much needed nutrients. The body needs vitamins like B5 and vitamin C to produce cortisol. To clear up the after effects of stress our body requires antioxidants such as vitamin C, E, A, D and K. Our body also requires magnesium and calcium for contraction of muscles which you will recognise get tense in times of stress.
In addition to the nutrients our bodies need directly to cope with stress, our behaviour when stressed also plays a role. In order to provide our stressed out body with enough energy we will often make unhealthy food choices to get a quick fix of glucose - favouring sugary, processed or high fat foods.
Coping mechanisms such as alcohol and smoking also deplete our body of essential vitamins including B Vitamins and Vitamin C. While high impact exercise (e.g. running it off) can further lead us into fight or flight mode which does not prioritise digestion. This compromised digestion means that even if we eat well, we could struggle to make use of the nutrients in our food.
In addition to dietary changes to support your body’s nervous system, heart, immune and hormonal health, actively putting in place lifestyle supports and learning to manage our stress well is critical to your health. Here are seven practical ways you can actively manage your stress:
7 Tips for stress reduction:
- Put on the kettle: A cup of herbal tea such as chamomile can help to reduce stress. Chamomile is a soothing herbal brew that has been used for centuries to create calm, settle an anxious tummy and reduce nervous tension. Teas such as valerian, lemon verbena, and passionflower can have a sedative-like effect that can help us to unwind and sleep well. These teas should not be used for longer than a month.
- Get out in nature: Humans are naturally programmed to feel peaceful in nature. Being surrounded by plants and natural scenery has been shown to reduce anxiety and relieve feelings of stress and overwhelm. Even going outside for 5 minutes when you wake up in morning or at lunch time can be beneficial.
- Try some aromatherapy: Essential oils such as lavender, frankincense, jasmine and bergamot can relieve anxiety and bring a sense of well being. Lavender and frankincense are relaxing and are known as emotional anti-inflammatories. Jasmine is recognised as being calming and can reduce anxiety and fatigue. Bergamot is a fresh citrus smelling essential oil that helps to reduce stress and improve mood.
- Remember to breathe: Many of us go through a whole day without breathing properly - that is inhaling through our nose, filling our abdomen and letting go of that breath completely. Instead we sit with our shoulders towards our ears breathing shallowly. Research shows that deep breathing for 5-15 minutes has a calming and de-stressing effect on our body and mind.
- Express your gratitude: Clinical studies have shown that journaling and keeping a gratitude diary where you focus on the things in life to be thankful for, can reduce stress and increase feelings of well being. Start by writing 1 thing you are grateful for each day, after 21 days you’ll have formed a heart healthy new habit!
- Pump up the volume: Yes! Blasting out your favourite music can have a hugely positive effect on your stress. Music alters our brain and quite literally can put us into a different mood. While singing helps improve the vagus nerve which is proven to reduce anxiety and chronic illness.
- Pamper yourself: Finally, an at home pamper session can do wonders to de-stress and let the day melt away. Whether that is a relaxing Epsom salt bath or mini-facial is up to you.
These are some suggestions to relieve your stress however, if you find that you are overwhelmed or feeling anxious it is best to talk to someone. Reach out to a counselor or service like the Samaritans or talk to a trusted friend or family member. You are not alone!