One Dangerous Side Effect of Being Too Stressed, According to a Doctor
Stress is a normal part of our lives. If you need to escape from a burning building, you need that fight or flight response in order to survive. In that type of situation, you should welcome stress.
But what happens when you live every moment of your life as if you're trying to flee a burning building? Those are the individuals who suffer from chronic stress, which is definitively pathological—and it can lead to chronic headaches, muscle spasms, palpitations, panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome, and insomnia, amongst many other conditions and symptoms.
As a typical teenager, I was always testing my parents' limits. On many occasions, my mother would tell me, "You're going to give us a heart attack." I am happy to report that both my parents are still alive, so the question is: Was my mother exaggerating, or is there some truth to stress having the ability to cause a heart attack?
Chronic stress can lead to inflammation
To answer that question, we first need to understand how a heart attack happens. People with cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol, high triglycerides, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, a history of smoking, or a sedentary lifestyle (among other risk factors) can develop plaque and inflammation in the coronary arteries over time. This can happen without you feeling a thing (which is why you need cardiovascular prevention visits). An individual with coronary plaque, even when he or she is not aware of it, is vulnerable simply because the substrate for a heart attack is present. Add stress to the equation, and what you have is a ticking time bomb!
Chronic stress creates constant inflammation in your body, including in the coronary arteries, which could one day lead to a critical event called "plaque rupture." This happens when one of the plaques in the coronary arteries breaks—causing an instantaneous clot—which can lead to total obstruction of the artery. That, in turn, leads to decreased blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscle, which, by definition, is a myocardial infarction… or a heart attack.
So, can stress cause a heart attack?
Yes! The caveat is that stress is a trigger in individuals who already have heart disease, whether they know they have it or not. I don't consider stress a risk factor for a heart attack if the person has no plaque in the coronary arteries. In other words, "No substrate, no risk." Unfortunately, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and millions of individuals have plaque even though they are completely unaware of it.
What follows are my recommendations for things you can do every day in order to fight stress, and therefore, keep your heart attack risk low.
Find a relaxing hobby.
Dedicate at least 30 minutes daily to do something you enjoy. It can be reading, listening to music, salsa dancing, enjoying a glass of wine, etc. "Me time" is crucial to fight anxiety.
Move your body.
Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, will lead to the release of endorphins in your body which, in turn, will give you a sensation of wellbeing.
Practice yoga and/or meditate.
Yoga can not only help reduce stress but also will improve your body's core strength. The practice of mindfulness can also be a powerful tool; my recommendation is to start with an app.
This natural supplement has helped some of my patients. Ashwagandha is a plant with a long history of use for overall health and stress release. It's medically classified as an adaptogen, meaning that it helps support the body's natural healing processes, including dealing with the intensity and effects of stress.
Dr. Juan's Santo Remedio Ashwagandha, $29.95, misantoremedio.com
Drink passionflower tea.
This tea is part of my daily routine. It increases the brain neurotransmitter GABA, which is responsible for "calming down" your nervous system.
Dr. Juan's Santo Remedio Passionflower Tea (4-pack), $14.95, misantoremedio.com
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