Reduce Your Stress, Improve Your Heart Health
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. But a study of 84,000 women a few years ago suggests that 82 percent of heart disease cases could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, exercising, using alcohol in moderation and avoiding tobacco.
While these suggestions may sound simple enough, it can be a challenge to maintain healthy habits, especially when external factors such as stress make it difficult to stay motivated.
"The challenge becomes determining what barriers prevent an individual woman from following those healthy habits and what sort of support we as health care providers can offer to help her improve them," said Dr. Greta Kuphal, a UW Health physician specializing in family and integrative medicine. "The answer can be as simple as help with motivation for change or as complex as dealing with deep emotional wounds that affect self-esteem and feeling 'worth' the time and energy it takes to care for herself."
Depression, job stress and communication issues, especially with a life partner, have all been shown to increase the risk of heart disease. Women can be more affected by emotional risk factors when it comes to heart health. Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, or "broken heart syndrome," is one example of a stress related complication that is found mainly in women.
"Patients with Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy present with chest pain, changes on their EKGs and changes in their blood work that all look like a heart attack caused by a blockage in an artery feeding their heart," Dr. Kuphal said. "What is found, however, is that there is no significant blockage but instead a very unique ballooning out of one of the heart’s chambers. This syndrome has shown a strong correlation with acute, emotional distress, and estimates show that 90 percent of people with this syndrome are women."
This suggests that emotional and spiritual health can impact the physical health of the heart just as proper diet and exercise do.
To avoid such complications and to reduce the effects of stress, Dr. Kuphal recommends working in about 150 minutes of joyful physical activity each week. Exercise is known to benefit the heart, lungs and bones, but it can also help reduce insomnia and stress.
"Exercise does not have to be forcing yourself to go to the gym, although that certainly works for a lot of women. It can be playing soccer with your children or grandchildren, dancing in your living room or hiking through the woods," Dr. Kuphal said. "Anything that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat a little."
Dr. Kuphal also recommends developing and maintaining a centering practice. A centering practice such as yoga, prayer, journaling or meditation can help a woman to feel more at peace and more able to relax.
"So much of the time in our hectic lives, we are ruled by the 'fight and flight' part of our nervous system - the one that raises our heart rate and blood pressure," Dr. Kuphal said. "A centering practice allows us to build up the 'rest and digest' system, the relaxation response, so that our minds and bodies are able to more readily be in a peaceful place."
Nutrition: Vitamins, Minerals and the Mediterranean Diet
Diet and proper vitamin and mineral intake can also help prevent cardiovascular disease.
For example, some studies show that vitamin D plays a role in heart disease, so Kuphal suggests talking with your health care provider about getting your vitamin D level checked. If your level is less than 34, then you may benefit from supplementation with vitamin D3.
Also, following an anti-inflammatory diet such as the Mediterranean diet can help.
"A study showed that cholesterol medication can lower the risk of having a second heart attack by 34 percent," Dr. Kuphal said. "Researchers also found that the Mediterranean diet can lower the risk of a second heart attack by 74 percent. How can you argue the importance of nutrition with data like that?"
Certainly, there are many factors in the development and prevention of heart disease but research does show that recognizing the joy in life, eating right, and exercising do help in the prevention of cardiovascular disease.
"There's a study that shows that people with heart disease were 45 percent less likely to laugh at something funny," Dr. Kuphal said. "That’s saying something about the power of enjoying life. We humans are complex beings. It is so important to give attention to not only our physical health, but also to our emotional and spiritual health as they are all intimately connected and deeply affect our overall sense of well-being."