Stress and your heart

Stress and your heart

Let’s be honest. Who isn’t feeling stressed these days?

We’re all used to dealing with life’s little curveballs. However, the new world created by COVID-19 can feel like one endless rollercoaster.

Stress affects our mental health, of course, but also our physical health. Added stress takes a huge toll on our hearts. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting men, women and people of all ethnic backgrounds.

Knowing how to manage stress can protect our hearts and can prevent a potentially deadly chain of events.

How does stress impact my heart?

A little bit of stress is fine and actually healthy. It’s the chronic or long-term stress that’s harmful to our bodies. Chronic stress releases high amounts of cortisol, which increases heart rate and blood pressure and stiffens arteries. It suppresses the immune system, which causes inflammation that leads to heart disease. Cortisol can also increase your appetite and lead to weight gain. And, when we’re stressed, it’s common to soothe ourselves by indulging in comfort foods, drinking too much alcohol or skipping exercise, which can also create heart problems.

How can I better manage stress to improve my heart health?

  1. Deep-breathing or regular meditation: Even one minute of deep-breathing can reduce heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones. There are many great apps out there that guide you through meditation.
  2. Connect with others regularly (virtually and when safe to do so, in-person)
  3. Find a hobby or creative outlet you enjoy
  4. Get up and move: Exercise lowers blood pressure and opens up your blood vessels. It also removes glucose from the bloodstream and reduces cortisol, therefore managing stress.
  5. Follow a heart-healthy eating plan to keep blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose and weight in healthy ranges. This will keep your heart muscle strong and your blood vessels open and elastic.

What are some heart-healthy foods that I can add to my diet?

Focus on eating enough whole, unprocessed foods each day. This includes vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains along with small amounts of lean protein and healthy fats. Limit sugary foods and beverages, refined grains, processed meats and highly processed foods with little to no nutritional value. Aim for a balance 80-90% healthy foods and 10 to 20% “fun” foods.

Want to find out how healthy your heart is? Take our free, online heart health assessment here..

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About the Author

Heather Klug
Heather Klug

Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.