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Long-term stress is linked to an increased risk for certain heart conditions, like heart disease and stroke.
The three key risk factors for heart disease — high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking — are linked to stress.
Making lifestyle changes like eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep and exercising can help reduce your risk of heart problems.
If you or a loved one are experiencing chest discomfort, shortness of breath, pain or any other signs of distress, please call 911. Talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle, medications or activity levels.
The link between stress and heart health
There’s no avoiding stress. We all experience it at one time or another. Whether it’s caused by feeling overwhelmed by our responsibilities, anxious about news we’re expecting or worried about a major change we’re navigating, stress is a part of life for all of us.
When stress is short-lived, it can help us — by motivating us to meet that important deadline, for example, or nail that job interview. But long-term stress can have a negative impact on our health, including increasing our risk for conditions like heart disease and stroke.
The three key risk factors for heart disease, in fact, are linked to stress. They are:
High blood pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when the pressure of the blood in the arteries and other blood vessels is too high. It typically develops because of lifestyle factors like stress, not getting enough physical activity and eating an unhealthy diet. Uncontrolled, high blood pressure can damage the heart, kidneys and brain.
High cholesterol develops when you have too many lipids, or fats, in your blood. Although genetics can play a role, high cholesterol is generally caused by lifestyle behaviors, like eating an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and stress.
Smoking, which is also a risk factor for both high blood pressure and high cholesterol, can damage the heart and blood vessels. It does this by:
Causing the blood vessels to thicken and narrow
Increasing the buildup of plaque in the blood vessels
Making blood sticky and more likely to clot
Raising the heart rate
Raising triglycerides levels and lowering “good” cholesterol levels
Reducing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, causing the heart to work harder
Strategies for reducing stress
Studies have found that taking steps to reduce stress and improve mental health can have a positive impact on heart health. According to the American Heart Association, people with positive mental health are more likely to have factors linked to a lower risk of developing heart disease, including:
Lower blood pressure
One of the best ways to start managing stress is to dial in your nutrition. Nutritious food can play a role in improving your mood, reducing your stress and lowering your risk of dementia and mental illness, says Kailey Leonard, MPH, RDN, CSO, a board-certified oncology dietitian with Providence.
“A diet that is good for your mental well-being features vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and contains only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy,” she says. “It doesn’t include foods that are heavily processed or have a lot of added sugar and white flour.”
You can also make sure you’re getting enough sleep. A 2021 study found that people who slept an average of six hours or less per night were almost three times as likely to have mental health problems.
“Sleep and mental health are closely connected and have a significant impact on one another,” says Annelise Manns, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Providence.
There are several ways that sleep problems affect us. To start, they make us more vulnerable to negative emotional reactions and decrease our positive emotions. For example, the sleep disorder insomnia, which interferes with sleep, can make anxiety and depression symptoms worse, and even contribute to an increase in suicidal thoughts.
Not getting enough sleep also affects our cognitive skills, like attention, short-term memory and learning.
If you have trouble getting enough sleep, try practicing these healthy sleep habits:
Going to bed and waking up at consistent times
Having a quiet, dark and comfortable sleep environment
Limiting screen time before or in bed
In addition to practicing healthy sleep habits and eating a nutritious diet, it’s also important to get moving. Regular exercise can help lower levels of stress, blood pressure and cholesterol — not to mention chronic health condition risk. Just 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise can benefit your heart, brain and mood. It also helps you sleep better and increases your energy. If exercise is not a regular part of your current routine, it’s best to talk with your doctor before making any big changes in your activity level.
Other ways to reduce the effects of stress and improve your physical and mental health include:
Making time for family and friends
Practicing mindful meditation and deep breathing
Seeking help from a health professional
Learning how to manage stress helps improve every area of health — from heart to mind and brain to body.
Schedule an appointment
Keep your heart and mind healthy with regular wellness visits and screenings. Find a physician or schedule an appointment today at providence.org/doctors.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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