How Stress Affects Your Heart and Gut Health
ll of your feelings, positive or negative, create physiological changes. Your skin, heart rate, digestion, joints, muscle energy levels, the hair on your head, and countless cells and systems you don’t even know about change with every emotion.
Stress plays a major role in your immune system, and can impact your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, brain chemistry, blood sugar levels, and hormonal balance. It can even “break” your heart, and is increasingly being viewed as a cardiovascular risk marker.
Women are more vulnerable to feeling sadness and anxiety than men, according to research, and feel the pressures of stress more than their male peers, both at work and at home.
You cannot eliminate stress entirely, but you can work to provide your body with tools to compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting that can cause serious disruption in many of your body’s important systems.
By using techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), you can reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and meditation are also important “release valves” that can help you manage your stress.
How Women Experience Stress
Some stress is unavoidable; mild forms of stress can even be helpful in some situations. A stressor becomes a problem when:
- Your response to it is negative.
- Your feelings and emotions are inappropriate for the circumstances.
- Your response lasts an excessively long time.
- You’re feeling continuously overwhelmed, overpowered or overworked.
According to the featured article in The Guardian,1 certain themes connect women’s experience of stress. Stomach-churning anxiety, for example, is far more common in women than men. As is feelings of sadness in response to stress, and not being able to stop thinking about that which worries them.
This in and of itself may feed into a vicious cycle that makes matters progressively worse, because when you dwell on negative emotions you internalize the stress, which can make it more difficult to come up with constructive ways to address the problem.
According to Dr. Tara Chaplin, who led a 2008 study2 investigating the role of gender and emotion, sadness and anxiety are very passive emotions, so while you’re sitting there thinking and worrying, you’re less likely to assert yourself and engage in active problem-solving.
This could be particularly problematic in the workplace, she warns. She suggests finding other, more active methods of coping instead of ruminating and dwelling on negative emotions. What can you change about the situation to make it better? What can you do to lessen those stressful feelings?
“Take an active role and thinking of healthy ways to cope – which could be anything from exercise, meditating, using some new mindfulness techniques, taking breaks for yourself,” she told The Guardian.
“I focus my research on how women and men cope with stress, but we also need to have a conversation about what can be done societally to reduce stress on women… Are there programs that can be in place for subsidizing daycare so you have good daycare? Could we have longer maternity leave? These sorts of things are really important.”
How Stress Affects Your Heart
In related news, mounting research shows that people exposed to traumatic and/or long-term stressors, such as combat veterans, New Orleans residents who went through Hurricane Katrina, and Greeks struggling through financial turmoil, have higher rates of cardiac problems than the general population. According to NBC News:3
“Disasters and prolonged stress can raise ‘fight or flight’ hormones that affect blood pressure, blood sugar and other things in ways that make heart trouble more likely, doctors say. They also provoke anger and helplessness and spur heart-harming behaviors like eating or drinking too much.
‘We’re starting to connect emotions with cardiovascular risk markers and the new research adds evidence of a link,’ said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association spokeswoman.”
In one such study, which involved nearly 208,000 veterans aged 46 to 74, 35 percent of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) developed insulin resistance in two years, compared to only 19 percent of those not diagnosed with PTSD.
Insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes and hardening of the arteries. PTSD sufferers also had higher rates of metabolic syndrome — a collection of risk factors that raise your risk of heart disease, such as high body fat, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. More than half (about 53 percent) of veterans with PTSD had several of these symptoms, compared to 37 percent of those not suffering with PTSD. According to the featured article:
“The numbers are estimates and are not as important as the trend — more heart risk with more stress, said one study leader, Dr. Ramin Ebrahimi, a cardiologist at the Greater Los Angeles VA Medical Center and a professor at UCLA. It shows that PTSD can cause physical symptoms, not just the mental ones commonly associated with it.
‘Twenty or 30 years ago PTSD was a term reserved for combat veterans. We have come to realize now that PTSD is actually a much more common disorder and it can happen in veterans who did not undergo combat but had a very traumatic experience such as losing a friend,’ he said. That goes for others who suffer trauma such as being raped, robbed at gunpoint or in a serious accident, he said. Nearly 8 million Americans have PTSD, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates.”
Is It a Heart Attack, or ‘Broken Heart Syndrome?’
Extreme grief, regardless of the cause, can actually “break” your heart according to previous research. In comparing how grief affects your heart disease risk within a period of time, researchers found that losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by 6 times.4 The risk of heart attacks began to decline after about a month had passed, perhaps as levels of stress hormones begin to level out.
The study did not get into the causes of the abrupt increase in risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack, but it’s likely related to the flood of stress hormones your body is exposed to following extreme stress. For instance, adrenaline increases your blood pressure and your heart rate, and it’s been suggested it may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily unable to function properly.
Interestingly, while your risk of heart attack increases following severe stress, so does your risk of what’s known as stress cardiomyopathy — or “broken heart syndrome” — which is basically a “temporary” heart attack that occurs due to stress. The symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome are very similar to those of a typical heart attack — chest pain, shortness of breath, low blood pressure and even congestive heart failure can occur. There are some important differences, however.
In broken heart syndrome, the symptoms occur shortly after an extremely stressful event, such as a death in the family, serious financial loss, extreme anger, domestic abuse, a serious medical diagnosis, or a car accident or other trauma.
This stress and the subsequent release of stress hormones are thought to “stun” or “shock” the heart, leading to sudden heart muscle weakness. This condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention, however it is often a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage.5 In most cases a typical heart attack occurs due to blockages in the coronary arteries that stop blood flow and cause heart cells to die, leading to irreversible damage. But people with broken heart syndrome often have normal arteries without significant blockages. The symptoms occur due to the emotional stress, so when the stress begins to die down, the heart is able to recover.
How the Stress Response Affects Your Digestion and Health
Your heart is not the only organ that takes a beating when you’re stressed. While under stress, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure rises, and blood is shunted away from your midsection, going to your arms, legs, and head for quick thinking, fighting, or fleeing. All of these changes are referred to as the physiological stress response.
Under those circumstances, your digestion also completely shuts down, which can have severe ramifications for your overall health. Americans are notorious for “eating on the run,” which can negate the benefits you’d otherwise reap from eating a healthier diet (or make the effects of a poor diet worse). The stress response causes a number of detrimental events in your body, including:
Decreased nutrient absorption Elevated cholesterol Increased food sensitivity Decreased oxygenation to your gut Elevated triglycerides Heart burn As much as four times less blood flow to your digestive system, which leads to decreased metabolism Decreased gut flora populations Decreased enzymatic output in your gut – as much as 20,000-fold!
Perhaps most importantly, when your body is under the stress response, your cortisol and insulin levels rise. These two hormones tend to track each other, and when your cortisol is consistently elevated under a chronic low-level stress response, you may experience difficulty losing weight or building muscle. Additionally, if your cortisol is chronically elevated, you’ll tend to gain weight around your midsection, which is a major contributing factor to developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Many nutrients that are critical for health are also excreted during stress, particularly:
- Water-soluble vitamins
- Calcium (calcium excretion can increase as much as 60 to 75 mg within an hour of a stressful event)
Tending to Your Gut is Important to Help Combat Mental Stress
What this all boils down to is that when you eat under stress, your body is in the opposite state of where you need to be in order to digest, assimilate nutrients and burn calories. You could be eating the healthiest food in the world, but if your body cannot fully digest and assimilate that food, then you will not reap the benefits from it, nor will you be able to burn calories effectively.
Interestingly, neurotransmitters like serotonin are also found in your gut. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and suppressing aggression, is found within your intestines, not your brain. It’s no surprise then that scientific evidence shows that nourishing your gut flora with the friendly bacteria with fermented foods or probiotics is extremely important for proper brain function, including psychological well-being and mood control. For instance, the probiotic known as Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 has been shown to normalize anxiety-like behavior in mice with infectious colitis.6
Research published in 20117 also demonstrated that probiotics have a direct effect on brain chemistry under normal conditions — in such a way that can impact your feelings of anxiety or depression.
In short, the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had a marked effect on GABA [an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is significantly involved in regulating many physiological and psychological processes] levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior. The authors concluded:
“Together, these findings highlight the important role of bacteria in the bidirectional communication of the gut-brain axis and suggest that certain organisms may prove to be useful therapeutic adjuncts in stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.”
For Optimal Health, Take Stress Management Seriously
You cannot eliminate stress entirely, but you can work to provide your body with tools to compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting that can cause serious disruption in many of your body’s important systems. By using energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), you can reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips while tapping on specific key locations, custom-made verbal affirmations are said repeatedly. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.8
Seeking the help of a licensed therapist is particularly recommended if you’re dealing with trauma-based stress such as PTSD or grief following the loss of a loved one. There are also many other stress-management strategies you can employ to help you unwind and address your stress, including:
- Exercise. Studies have shown that during exercise, tranquilizing chemicals (endorphins) are released in your brain. Exercise is a natural way to bring your body pleasurable relaxation and rejuvenation, and has been shown to help protect against the physical effects of daily stress
- Restorative sleep
- Meditation (with or without the additional aid of brain wave synchronization technology)
- Schedule time to eat without rushing, and make sure to maintain optimal gut health by regularly consuming fermented foods, such as fermented vegetables, or taking a high-quality probiotics supplement