A pair of new studies recently examined the role of stress in the development of heart disease. In fact, researchers say it’s the first study ever to explore exactly how feeling stressed can trigger the physical changes that lead to heart disease.
I came to understand that stress is the real culprit behind high blood pressure and heart disease decades ago. But back then, no one would listen. Mainstream medicine still argued that the mind and the body weren’t really connected… and that mental health couldn’t affect physical health.
Doctors waved away patients who had symptoms without a pathological disease diagnosis, saying “it’s all in your head.”
They were wrong to quickly dismiss such patients. Furthermore, these problems do indeed start in the head, as the new studies show. But that fact certainly doesn’t make them less real, or less serious.
Understanding the “mechanism of action” for stress
Clinically, we used to associate acute heart attacks with the 3 “E’s”: eating, exertion and emotion. Eating draws blood to GI circulation, away from the heart and other organs. And exertion increases the load on the heart to pump blood to the muscles. Emotion is the stress component that can cause an acute heart attack.
But — prior to this study — researchers didn’t know exactly how stress (emotion) can lead to heart disease. So, they began looking closely at the stress “mechanism of action” — or how it works — in the body.
Finding the mechanism of action usually involves anatomical dissection and even “dissecting” cells and genes. Through this process, researchers have found many connections between the mind and the body. These connections involve blood vessels, lymph vessels, the immune system, biochemicals, and hormones.
Now, we know how a thought or emotional state is transferred to neurochemicals and immune cells in the blood — which then travel to all parts of the body.
Stress triggers a fight-or-flight response
After years of study, scientists began to link activity in the brain’s amygdala with a higher heart attack and stroke risk. And, you guessed it, moments of stress trigger activity in the amygdala.
This region is buried deep in the brain, away from the cortical areas of “higher” conscious functioning. Experts sometimes call the amygdala the “reptilian brain,” as it was present in dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago. It functions on instinct and acts on fear and greed (the kind of instincts that remain rampant on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C.).
The amygdala also prompts your instinctual “fight-or-flight” survival behaviors when it senses danger.
It tells the body to respond to the perceived danger by stimulating the heart and raising blood pressure. These actions deliver more blood, oxygen and fuel to muscles and cells. And they make perfect sense as an immediate defense mechanism during a potentially threatening situation.
In modern times, our amygdala perceives stress as acute danger. But these physical fight-or-flight responses aren’t appropriate to modern day stress. (Though, maybe they’re okay for fight or “fright” next week during Halloween…)
When you’re feeling stressed at the office, this primitive region of the brain directs you to flee or challenge the enemy at hand (which might not be such a good idea). In most cases, your “higher conscious” overrides the primitive impulses…and you deal with the stress in other ways. (Many reach for unhealthy foods, but that’s another article in itself.)
Nonetheless — it takes a toll on the heart, as the new study shows.
Active amygdala linked to heart events
The new study involved 293 people without heart problems. Researchers gave them a PET/CT scan to directly observe and measure brain activity, bone marrow activity, and inflammation of the blood vessels.
Four years later, the researchers followed up with the participants.
Turns out, people with the most active amygdala also had increased bone marrow activity and greater inflammation in blood vessels. They also experienced heart events sooner.
In the end, this study confirms that stress and inflammation of the blood vessels — not cholesterol — are real risk factors for heart disease. And you can control these two factors through non-drug approaches.
You don’t even need an expensive, high-tech brain scan to measure your stress levels. In a small, previous study, the researchers asked people how stressed they felt using a simple psychological questionnaire.
The participants’ answers accurately reflected the activity in the amygdala “stress center” of the brain. In other words, those who said they had the most stress really did have the most stress, as measured by brain activity and inflammation. Indeed, other studies I’ve reported over the years show that the best way to measure stress is to simply ask people how stressed they are.
Throughout my career, I’ve come across many doctors who dismissed stress because (a) they did not understand “how” it worked, and (b) they could not “measure” it.
Well, now we know “how” it works…and we can “measure” it by simply asking the patient!
The most proactive step you can take today to reduce your risk for heart disease or high blood pressure is to lower your stress levels. There are many effective, natural approaches you can use to control stress and improve heart health. To learn which will work best for you, take my short quiz:
Additionally, you can learn about the natural, heart-healing pathway to low blood pressure, a stroke-free brain, and…never take a dangerous heart med again with my brand new Heart Attack Prevention & Repair Protocol. You can learn more about it or enroll today by clicking here.
“Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events: a longitudinal and cohort study,” Lancet 2017 Feb 25;389(10071):834-845