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Stress Beats Out Bacon for Heart Disease

Polly Pitchford - Thursday, January 08, 2015
  • I slept fitfully that night worrying that my alarm wouldn’t go off at 4:30 a.m. so that I could take my oldest son to the airport.
  • Saying goodbye tore at my heartstings even though I was equally excited for his 6 month footloose adventure in New Zealand.
  • Light fog (or was that just my misty eyes?) slowed me down enough to be 20 minutes late for work.
  • I burned my two right knuckles, which immediately formed blisters.
  • My low back was nagging at me all day.
  • Did he make his connecting flight to Figi? How many hours over the Pacific Ocean?? Why won’t he text me that he’s landed???

This was my chronically stressed day.  This is NOT a bad day compared to the real suffering that many people endure but it was MY stressed out day.  Making this list helped me to recognize that for about 20 hours straight my body was chemically reacting to stress and that means that I had increased blood pressure without really even feeling it.  Since heart disease is the #1 killer in the United States I decided to study up on just what the repercussions are of chronic stress and heart health.  

What I discovered was alarming and yet manageable.  This info was explained so clearly and wittily in a fabulous book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert M. Sapolsky.  In fact, it was recommended to me by one of the attendees after my presentation on Laughing Your Way to Wellness and it has profoundly opened my eyes on this subject of modern day chronic stress! And you have to love the writing of this author.  The paragraph below caught my attention:

“Basically, your heart is just a dumb, simple, mechanical pump and your arteries are nothing more exciting than hoses. The response of the heart under stress makes them work harder for a while and if you do that on a regular basis they will wear out, just like any hose or pump you’d buy at Sears.”

So for you, my blog readers, here is a basic understanding of how chronic stress will gradually damage the cardiovascular system

1. Stress raises blood pressure

If you have chronic stress then you have chronic high blood pressure which = Hypertension.

2. Rigidity - This more forceful volume of blood flow bombards the lining of vessels, which in turn makes them develop a thicker muscle to handle the forceful blood flow.  This makes them more rigid, which in turn, increases blood pressure all the more.

3. Plaque – This high pressured blood flow damages the “fork in the road” (where a bigger vessel forks off into 2 smaller vessels and on and on all the way to teeny tiny capillaries). This damage is in the form of irregular edges and craters. The body’s immune system tries to repair the inflamed damage and that increases the likelihood that circulating crud (platelets, fats, cholesterol and others) will clump and stick to the inflamed injury sites.  Now you have Atherosclerosis.

4. Ruptured Plaque – Increase stress and you increase blood pressure.  This extra force of blood flow can tear some of this plaque loose, rupturing it. Now you have a hairball on the loose and if it clogs a smaller vessel of the heart then you suffer a heart attack.  Clog up a vessel of the brain and you suffer a stroke.

1 more piece of news: Once the cardiovascular system is damaged, it apperars to be immensely sensitive to any acute stress, physical or psychological.

What can we do to diminish the chronic stress of our modern life?  Here are a few of my go-tos.

  • Do something that makes you smile and laugh every day.
  • Breathe slowly before you begin a meal.
  • Move your body more throughout the coarse of your day.
  • Write in your gratitude journal.
  • And one of my favorite quotes to consider:

“Worry is like a rocking chair.  It gives you something to do but it gets you nowhere.”

And yes, my son landed safely on the other side of the planet!

Have a heart healthy 2015!!

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