7 things to know about stress and your heart

Cardiovascular health and stress are linked. Here’s how

June 1, 2023

This article is provided by Heart & Stroke.

When something intense happens, your heart pounds and you can get light-headed. In some acute-stress situations, you can actually feel how much stress impacts your cardiovascular system. In the short term and long term, stress has a measurable effect on your health and your risk for stroke and heart events. In fact, the connections between stress and your health are numerous.

According to Statistics Canada, about a quarter of Canadians report their life stress to be “quite a bit” to “extremely stressful” on most days.

Heart & Stroke has shared these seven things about stress and cardiovascular health you might not know.

1. Arteries respond to stress

Plaque buildup in the arteries — known as atherosclerosis — has a major stress connection. People who live with ongoing stress are more likely to develop plaque in their arteries and are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. Plus, if they already have heart disease or have had a previous stroke, ongoing stress impacts how well they do with their disease in the future. Researchers think that stress hormones directly impact the lining of the blood vessels and damage them, leading to plaque build-up.

2. Stress impacts your blood sugar

Stress has an impact on your blood sugar, which is not good for your cardiovascular health. This is how it works: Hormones from stress cause your blood sugars to rise. For this reason, stress increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes over time, and affects how well you can manage the condition if you already have it. When your blood sugar is high, there are negative impacts on your body; in particular high blood sugar harms your cardiovascular system and increases your risk of having a heart episode or a stroke.

3. You need some stress

The stress response is also a good thing: you need it to help you react quickly when there’s danger or an urgent situation. It helps you jump into action, to, say, get out of the way from a car on the road coming your way or grab a glass before it falls off the counter. Ideally, you want the stress response to calm down right after the dramatic moment has passed. If you are constantly stressed, your body tends to not calm down as easily after these stressful incidents — and that’s when it becomes a problem.

4. Substances don’t help

Coping with stress by having a drink or smoking, or looking to other substances, can backfire in the end. Regular drinking can raise your risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Smoking comes with similar risks (and both behaviours increase your risk for other diseases, including many types of cancers). If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to small amounts, pace yourself and drink plenty of water in between. While alcohol can help you feel better in the short term, it impacts your serotonin and other neurotransmitters, so you can feel alcohol-related anxiety when the drinks wear off, and it can last for several hours or for the entire day after.

5. Sleep works to lower stress

Getting enough sleep at night influences how well your mind and body can cope with stress during waking hours. A Canadian study showed that people with sleep disorders have a higher risk for heart disease. Poor sleep is linked to obesity, depression and type 2 diabetes, all of which play a role in cardiovascular health. The link works both ways: people who are stressed have worse sleep quality and shorter sleep times, which can put them into a negative sleep-stress cycle. Getting more sleep is not easy for everyone. You may need to carve out more time for sleeping, but also develop healthy bedtime habits so you’re better able to fall asleep and stay asleep.

6. Exercise is good too

When you exercise regularly, it reduces how much your body responds to stress. Your blood pressure and heart rate don’t spike as much when you’re stressed out if you’re already active. As a bonus, exercise helps manage conditions such as depression, which is another risk factor for heart disease.

7. Chill with music

Research has shown music can help people with cardiovascular disease experience lower blood pressure and heart rates. Their moods also improve. Music is especially effective at calming you down before bed, so you can sleep. Consider queuing up this soothing playlist of soulful sounds when you’re feeling stressed or need to chill out in the evenings.

For more tips or to learn more about stress and cardiovascular health, check out these resources from Heart & Stroke


© 2022, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

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