Stress and your heart

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Unchecked stress hormones affect our body in a manner similar to an unhealthy eating style. They stimulate the production of triglycerides and LDL (the ‘bad cholesterol’), they interfere with blood pressure regulation, and they fuel inflammation at the sites where blood vessels have been damaged. Constant stress, even at low levels, harms our blood vessels in the same way that a poor diet will, and may contribute to heart disease. Heart disease is a chronic illness that drains a person’s good health and his bank account. David Katz, author of “Disease Proof”, says that it takes from life “vitality, capacity, and the pleasure of living.”

A notable study published in 2004 in the Lancet involving over 24,000 participants from 52 countries revealed that increased stress levels were a greater risk for heart attack than were high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and several other risk factors.

This may be surprising, but it is good news. There are many factors about our health that we cannot control because they come to us genetically. Our response to stress is completely under our control, however. Like healthy eating, stress management is yet another remarkably effective, inexpensive ‘controllable’ when it comes to adding years to our life and life to our years.

Managing stress starts by moving our bodies more, in whatever way we can. The more stress we have, the more our bodies need to move. I’ve often said that a common phrase I heard growing up was, “I’m going to go pull some weeds and then I’ll feel better.” Neither my Mom nor her friends knew the neuroscience behind it, but they knew that even though it seemed counter-intuitive, the stimulation of physical activity was somehow calming. The circumstances of the stress didn’t change, but somehow the person did. A total of 30 to 60 minutes on most days spent in moderate physical activity, whether working out at the gym, using a shovel, wrestling with your kids or walking briskly, will help keep yourself young at heart. Breaking the time into segments as short as 10 minutes or doing it all at the same time makes no difference. Be sure to break up any long periods of sitting with light physical activity as well throughout the day.

The daily acts of stretching, meditation, deep breathing, learning to progressively relax your body, using relaxing imagery, strengthening relationships, and anger management are huge parts of the two nationally recognized programs for successfully reversing heart disease primarily through lifestyle management. These are the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine and Undo It, developed by Dr. Dean Ornish.

Choose a stress management skill to practice today. Feel in control and make your life not just longer, but better.

Debbie Coblentz is a registered dietitian living in Churchill County. Your comments in response to this article are welcome at


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