Reduce stress to cut your heart attack risk

A new study links stress with heart disease, but there are easy ways to stay healthy and protect your heart.

Stress is part of modern life but a new study shows that being stressed takes a serious, and lasting, toll on your health and increases your risk of heart disease.

The multi-year study published in the medical journal The Lancet is the first to pinpoint how stress affects the body. Stress apparently triggers the amygdala – the part of the brain keyed specifically to respond to stress – which then activates bone marrow and inflames the arteries.

This is a survival mechanism that would have been essential for the earliest humans as it prepares the body to deal with a harmful experience. Bone marrow produces the white blood cells necessary for tissue repair. Wider arteries increase blood flow.

However, today, the over-production of white blood cells can cause a build-up of plaque in the arteries and lead to heart disease.

The people in the study with higher amygdala activity had a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and developed problems sooner than those with lower activity.

“Eventually, chronic stress could be treated as an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is routinely screened for and effectively managed like other major cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes,” says study author and cardiologist Dr Ahmed Tawakol.

“So far, it appears that things like mindfulness and other stress-reduction approaches seem to really nicely tamp down on the amygdala, and they appear to even cause benefits in other areas of the brain.”

The other stress-reduction approaches are diet and exercise.

Regular exercise triggers feel-good chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and endorphins. It also reduces the damage the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline cause.

Physical activity relieves tension and helps enrich your brain with oxygen and nutrients, which can improve cognitive functioning and leave you feeling energised and alert.

Exercise should be teamed with a healthy diet low in refined sugar, saturated fats, salt and alcohol, and high in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, lean meats and unprocessed foods.

As an added bonus, you may even lose weight.

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