If you’re a regular watcher of the show, you probably know that I’m pretty serious about yoga and meditation. It wasn’t always like that. I loved college and med school, but I wasn’t doing much in those days to lay a solid foundation for my future health. Fortunately, a lot has changed since then and I’ve realized how central mental health is to health of the body overall. I love yoga and meditation because they clear my mind and help me relax, even during the most stressful of times. So why bring this all up? This month is American Heart Month and I want to spend some time over the next month giving you tips you can use to get your heart in better shape. First stop: mental health.
Your Mind and Heart Are Interconnected
Think back to the last time you felt really stressed. Maybe you were under the gun at work or you had a loved one who just fell sick. Think about what it felt like. You probably felt your heart start beating faster, your blood pressure rising, and your breathing quickening. Our heart and our brain move together in an intricate dance to keep our body functioning and supplied with all the blood it needs to stay alive. The heart sends signals to the brain about what’s happening with blood flow and the brain sends signals to the heart about what might be required of it in the near future. (Assess your stress level with this quick survey.)
Now imagine for a moment watching this delicate waltz when someone suddenly starts to speed up the soundtrack. At first, the dancers pick up their speed without a hitch. But slowly the dance gets more frenetic, the steps more disorganized. One partner misses a move, the other trips and nearly falls. You can think of stress as turning up the tempo dial and starting to wreak havoc on the healthy dance of the brain and the heart. With the wrong stress signals, the brain starts dancing to the wrong tune and the heart just can’t keep up. That can lead to damage both in the heart and throughout the network of blood vessels it supplies.
It’s Not All in Your Head
When I talk about this relationship with my patients, a light bulb often seems to go off. It’s like they knew intuitively that the stress of illness, family trouble or work was linked to what was happening to their heart, but they were afraid to admit it. Many of us in medicine and society in general are still pulling ourselves out of a time when diseases of the mind were “all in your head.” But we know now these diseases are all too real. Untreated, mental illnesses like depression and anxiety that often stem from chronic stress can have real, biological impacts on your body.
Problems in the Mind Can Lead to Heart Disease
You might be surprised to know that a little bit of stress can actually be good for us. Research over the last decade or so has found that short-term, manageable stress can help us perform better. But once stress becomes constant, long-term and overwhelming, we cross into distress mode. The stress you experience isn’t pushing you to do better. It’s washing over you and drowning you. When this happens, you heart is working over time. You blood pressure spikes and your heart rate goes up, putting significant long-term stress on your blood vessels. That constant tension can contribute to vessel damage and lead to build up of some of the cholesterol plaques that are part of heart disease. Your heart can start to beat irregularly and blood vessels tighten up as they try to follow orders to shunt blood to various essential parts of the body. Even your blood changes during times of stress in ways that can be harmful.
But it’s not just stress that can leave your heart damaged. New research is showing us that mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, that often go hand in hand with chronic stress, are also linked to heart disease. While the details haven’t all been worked out, this finding shows us once again that having a healthy brain plays a huge role in promoting health in the rest of your body and your heart in particular. When your brain’s not working properly, neither is your heart.
Women Are Hit Particularly Hard
Unfortunately, we also know that women suffer more than men from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety and this spills over to heart health. What researchers have found is that women who suffer from chronic stress, anxiety and depression are also more likely to end up with heart disease. In fact, these mental illnesses can sometimes be better predictors of heart disease in women than traditional measures like cholesterol levels or blood pressure. Some researchers in the field think this might explain part of why women having heart attacks also tend to have different symptoms than men.
You Can Take Action Now
Fortunately, research has also shown that cutting stress levels can have real benefits for the health of your heart and there are great, medication-free ways to so. Here are a few tips to cut your stress and put yourself on the road to better mental health.
- Meditate. You might think meditation is for monks, but everyone, and I mean everyone, can meditate. Meditation is a great way to center yourself, put your sources of stress into perspective, and hit the brakes on stress overdrive. Try starting with just five minutes a day.
- Exercise. It’s amazing how a good workout can melt the stress away and put you in a great mood. That doesn’t have to mean pumping iron in the gym for an hour. A walk in the park nearby or a Zumba class with a friend can be just as recharging.
- Connect with friends. This can be anything from a venting session to afternoon tea. Strengthening social connections has all sorts of great benefits and lower stress and better mental health is just one. Pick up the phone and call that friend you’ve been meaning to get in touch with.
- Use deep breathing. Sometimes when stress hits, it’s not possible to take even five minutes for meditation. But doing some deep breathing exercises can really help to melt the stress away and get you ready for your next task.
- Get some sleep. Many studies have established the link between poor sleep and a variety of mental health issues, stress included. Not only that, poor sleep has also been linked to heart disease. So if you’re regularly dropping below seven to eight hours per night, take some steps to get your sleep back on track.
- Talk to your doctor. The fact of the matter is that sometimes these efforts won’t work, especially for serious mental illness. If you feel as though something is seriously wrong, you should always touch base with your doctor. Often times they can suggest strategies you might not have tried, put you in touch with a therapist, or prescribe a medication that might help get you to a better place.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s make February the month you turn your heart health around. Happy American Heart Month!