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Calm Down! Stress Can Kill You

May. 15, 2014|623 views

office-stress-978868-mHeart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, and most fatal heart disease is directly linked to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the inner lining of the blood vessels. Most of us have heard that excess cholesterol in the blood can stick to blood vessel linings, forming plaques. But the link between blood cholesterol and atherosclerosis is not that simple. On its own, cholesterol is not harmful. In fact, your body needs a more or less constant supply of cholesterol to make a number of important hormones. It’s so important, the body makes its own supply. Only about one quarter of your blood cholesterol comes from the foods you eat.

But diet does play a role in atherosclerosis. When the diet is poor in antioxidants from vegetables, fruits, grains and herbs, so-called “bad” LDL-cholesterol is more likely to become oxidized. It’s this oxidized form of cholesterol that is responsible for the formation of plaques in blood vessels. Over time, these plaques can break apart and form clots. Clots can travel to distant blood vessels, where they may block blood flow, and provoke a heart attack or stroke. A heart attack or stroke can strike—and kill—with shocking speed. But the atherosclerosis that sets the stage for these events takes years to progress.

Atherosclerosis is an inflammatory condition. In most cases, the immune system operates in a heightened state of alarm for years. Sometimes, for decades. That’s why it’s helpful to eat a healthful diet featuring foods that are essentially anti-inflammatory. Examples include colorful fruits and vegetables, which contain natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds. Omega-3 fatty acids from cold water fish are also anti-inflammatory. The body uses omega-3s to build natural inflammation-fighting compounds, such as the aptly named “resolvin,” which helps resolve (halt and reverse) inflammation in the body.

In contrast, foods that are high in fat, sugar, and omega-6 fatty acids tend to encourage inflammation. (Should it be any surprise that the kind of fatty acids in most prepared foods and snacks are pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids?) If you need examples of these types of foods, visit the center aisles of virtually any grocery store in the country. 

Stress, and the negative emotions that go with it, are also drivers of inflammation. And that encourages atherosclerosis. So, indirectly stress, anger, and other negative feelings can promote heart disease. Try to release negative feelings. The old adage that harboring anger and resentment only hurts you is essentially true. It’s not worth it to dwell on negative emotions. Forgive others—and yourself—and move on. Your heart will thank you.

What are some ways you distress? Do you feel burdened? 

Peter J. Gianaros, Anna L. Marsland, Dora C.-H. Kuan, Brittney L. Schirda, J. Richard Jennings, Lei K. Sheu, Ahmad R. Hariri, James J. Gross, Stephen B. Manuck. An Inflammatory Pathway Links Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease Risk to Neural Activity Evoked by the Cognitive Regulation of Emotion. Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 75 (9): 738 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.10.012

Tags:  chronic illness, stress