A brand-new study published in one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world finally links heart disease directly to stress.
Of course, I came to this very conclusion 40 years ago, based on my own independent research as a young medical student.
My investigation into the real cause of heart disease began with my observations in the 1970s of a population in Southeast Asia with very different diets, lifestyles and stress exposures. Eventually, my international search took me to the University of Southern California Human Centrifuge Lab where researchers were doing stress studies for NASA. My search also took me back to the University of Pennsylvania and even Harvard University where I had my very first contact with a young Dr. Walter Willett, who eventually became my colleague (and “the dean” of diet and health studies in the U.S.).
I became convinced that the government’s favorite risk factors — salt, saturated fats, cholesterol, eggs, and meat — could not explain heart disease. I determined that stress was the silent, common denominator.
I published my findings and my conclusions in the American Journal of Public Health. For that work, I received the undergraduate research prize from the American Heart Association in 1979. (You can learn all about my journey in my special report called The Insider’s Secret to Conquering High Blood Pressure & Protecting Your Heart. If you’re a subscriber, you may download this report for free on my website, www.drmicozzi.com, with your username and password. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now’s a great time to become one to access this important report.)
But, apparently, it would take another four decades before the world was ready to hear it.
Back in the 1970s, doctors thought that stress was “all in your head.” They could not imagine how it could affect anything “real” like heart disease. So — over the next 40 years — big pharma, big government, cardiologists, and primary care doctors pursued their flawed approaches to heart disease.
These approaches included (and still include) largely useless and toxic drugs, and dangerous open heart surgeries (that several studies show work no better than placebo). They eventually built another huge medical industry that’s bankrupting our people, our healthcare system, and our country.
New findings about stress in humans
In the new study, medical researchers have found that activity in a stress-related center of the brain relates directly to the development of cardiovascular disease.
Previous experimental studies in lab animals had already found the connection between stress in the brain and the reactions of cells in the cardiovascular system and immune system. But this was the first time they measured it directly in humans.
For the study, neuroscientists measured activity in the amygdala of the brain, which is critically involved in responding to stress. In fact, the amygdala is a very ancient, “primitive” structure of the brain in animals. Some researchers call it the “reptilian brain,” going back at least 100 million years in biological history.
This primitive brain center perceives and responds to stress by directly stimulating the heart and blood vessels. Indeed, this very ancient, “fight-or-flight” survival tool serves animals well in survival situations.
But, in our modern world, stress continuously activates the amygdala, which constantly stresses our cardiovascular system. But you can’t really fight or flee this kind of modern stress. And it’s clearly not a healthy state.
Other human studies also found that the amygdala is more highly activated in people with PTSD, anxiety and depression. But before the new study, no research had directly connected this important region of the brain to cardiovascular disease — the nation’s No. 1 cause of disease, disability and death.
Researchers evaluated brain function with CAT and PET scans in 293 people. They also evaluated activity in the bone marrow and the spleen, and inflammation in the blood vessels, indicators of stimulation of the immune system and chronic inflammation.
Then, they followed the patients for 3.7 years. During that time, they observed 22 cases of cardiovascular disease, including angina, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease.
The researchers also measured C-reactive protein (CRP) — a key indicator of inflammation — in a subset of 13 patients. Those patients who reported the highest levels of stress also had both the highest activity in the amygdala and the highest levels of chronic inflammation in their cardiovascular system as measured by CRP.
This measurement also provides an all-important mechanism of action for how stress directly causes heart disease — so doctors may finally believe it.
The deadly domino effect of stress
The researchers found that stress has a cascade effect in the body. It starts by stimulating a “fight-or-flight” reaction in the amygdala. Then, the amygdala signals the bone marrow to activate the immune system and make more white blood cells. This activity then causes chronic inflammation, which harms the heart and blood vessels.
So — what are your two, important take-aways from this study?
First, your cardiologists and doctors should always measure your CRP, a key indicator of chronic inflammation. (Instead, they remain unaccountably obsessed with cholesterol.) They can measure this key indicator in the blood routinely, just like all the other “routine” (and mostly useless) lab tests for heart disease.
Second, as they did in this study, doctors should also just ask patients about their stress level. Other studies I have reported on show that the best way to measure stress in people is to simply ask them!
On a final note, as I mentioned above, this study wasn’t published in an obscure, overspecialized science journal — but in The Lancet, one of the top medical journals in the world. It is the U.K.’s equivalent of the New England Journal of Medicine in the U.S.
I won’t get the credit for coming to this conclusion four full decades ago (except for my American Heart Association Award back in 1979). And that’s fine with me. I’m glad to hear stress finally seems to be getting some real attention.
- “Stressed brain, stressed heart?” The Lancet (www.thelancet.com) 1/11/2017