It’s not only food and exercise that can keep your heart in good shape – reducing your stress levels and feeling happy are essential, too. We take a closer look at how stress affects your heart health, before sharing some top tips on lowering your stress levels naturally…

Words: Abi Jackson | Images: Shutterstock

From the soul-soothing magic of slowing down and savouring the little things, to getting those endorphins pumping at your favourite gym class, taking steps to de-stress brings endless rewards for your mind. And it doesn’t end there. With stress often described as a ‘modern epidemic’ there’s growing interest around how it affects your physical health – including your heart.

In many ways, these vital organs are designed to respond to stressful situations. ‘Stress causes blood pressure to rise as part of the ‘fight or flight’ response, to ensure delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles,’ explains former GP Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan. Your brain triggers a release of cortisol and adrenaline – aka ‘stress hormones’ – preparing you for quick action. For early humans who frequently faced predators, ‘fight or flight’ was crucial for survival.

‘In modern life, however, stress rarely results in fighting or fleeing, and the effects of stress hormones persist for prolonged periods of time,’ adds Dr Brewer. ‘In susceptible individuals, this over-activates the sympathetic nervous system, so that blood pressure remains elevated.’ You may also notice physical stress symptoms, such as palpitations or a racing heart, happening more and more frequently. If this is the case, even if you suspect stress is the cause, check in with your GP, just in case there’s anything else going on.

‘Palpitations can be caused by stress but there can also be underlying things that stress may exacerbate as well,’ says Vanessa Smith, a British Heart Foundation senior cardiac nurse. Examples include cardiomyopathy (conditions affecting the heart muscles) or arrhythmia (heart rhythm disorders) that may need to be monitored and treated.

how stress affects heart health

Can stress cause heart disease?

But what about major conditions such as heart disease – can stress increase your long-term risk? Vanessa says it’s early days in terms of research but there are certainly links. ‘We know from research that stress does contribute, we just don’t know how much,’ she explains. ‘And how much of a direct link it is, or whether it’s more about indirect effects.’

By ‘indirect effects’, she means that people who experience more stress may be more likely to turn to unhealthy foods for comfort, to smoke, or to not get enough exercise – things that are proven to raise your risk of heart disease.

Research is also investigating how stress affects your sleep – something which is crucial for your heart health. ‘Research [published in] the Journal of the American Heart Association shows not getting enough sleep causes inflammation of the artery linings and increases blood pressure,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘Lack of sleep can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by 24 per cent.’

Researchers analysed the blood pressure and sleep patterns of 323 healthy women for the study. ‘They concluded that even mild sleep disturbances were associated with increased blood pressure and vascular inflammation,’ adds Dr Brewer.

Can stress cause a sudden heart attack?

As for those dramatic scenes in TV shows where a stressful event triggers a sudden heart attack, Vanessa says this can be a concern for people who already have a history of heart issues. In people with healthy hearts, it’s highly unlikely acute stress will bring on a sudden heart attack. However, there is a condition called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, known to cause severe chest pain, that mimics a heart attack. It’s triggered by extreme emotional stress or grief – hence why it’s dubbed ‘broken heart syndrome’.

Although relatively rare, Takotsubo is most common in women aged over 50. It causes heart muscles to expand, resulting in pain and breathlessness. ‘How extreme stress causes this sudden heart muscle failure is not fully understood,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘But with hospital care, over 92 per cent of patients make a full recovery.’

how stress affects heart health

5 ways to reduce stress and improve heart health

Learn how to lower your stress levels and protect your heart health with these top tips…

1. Inhale relaxing scents

Certain aromas are known for their calm-promoting properties, especially lavender. Spritzing clothes with a spray containing lavender oil was found to help relieve nurses’ work-related stress for 3-4 days, according to a 2013 study. Try adding a few drops of essential oil to your pillow or bath.

2. Brew some chamomile tea

If you’re feeling stressed, pop the kettle on and enjoy a calming cup of chamomile tea. Renowned for its soothing qualities, chamomile extract was even found to be beneficial in helping reduce generalised anxiety disorder symptoms, according to a 2016 study published in Phytomedicine.

3. Join a choir

A good sing-song can transform your mood, and numerous studies have backed this up. Singing with a group brings the added benefit of socialising, too. There are thousands of community choirs out there. Why not join a local one with some friends?

4. Try belly breathing to lower stress

Diaphragmatic ‘belly breathing’ has been found to lower cortisol levels. Try it as part of your yoga or meditation practice, or simply sit or lie down and put one hand on your belly and one on your chest. First, breathe in deeply, allowing the air to fill your belly rather than your chest. Then, slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat 3-10 times.

5. Be more active

Exercise actively reduces cortisol and adrenaline levels. Whether it’s dancing, swimming or boxercise, do whatever you enjoy. Why not add a walk or jog to your daily routine?

Related: How exercise could prevent and treat coronary heart disease