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Why Stress Causes Cardiovascular Disease (and What To Do About It)

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Why Stress Causes Cardiovascular Disease (and What To Do About It)

Snow-Covered Tracks by Marie Lossky
(@Marie.Lossky on Instagram)

“These clinical data establish a connection between stress and cardiovascular disease, thus identifying chronic stress as a true risk factor for acute cardiovascular syndromes, which could, given the increasing number of individuals with chronic stress, be included in risk assessments of cardiovascular disease in daily clinical practice.” — Dr Ilze Bot, Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research, Leiden University

For as long as we’ve been blogging, we’ve been saying that chronic stress is dangerous for your physical health because, among other things, it can cause heart disease and strokes (see About Stress: Acute Versus Chronic for information about what chronic stress is and why its dangerous). And through the years, we’ve provided many different recommendations for how to reduce chronic stress and anxiety both to enhance emotional wellbeing and to reduce your risk of stress-related diseases, including cardiovascular diseases.


But one thing we never did was say WHY chronic stress caused cardiovascular diseases. In fact, until I read this article Scientists finally discover how stress causes heart attacks and strokes, I never really thought about it. I think I just assumed chronic made your heart and cardiovascular system work harder so they wore out faster.
Now in a new study published in The Lancet Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events: a longitudinal and cohort study, researchers have identified a mechanism that is contributing to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease in people who are experiencing chronic stress. It all has to do with the amygdala, a region in your brain that plays a primary role in your emotional reactions.When you are experiencing feelings of stress, your amygdala signals your bone marrow to temporarily produce more white blood cells (the cells in your body that fight infection and repair damage). Because you might be in a physically dangerous situation, the increase in white blood cells is intended to prepare you in case you suffer an injury of some kind. Obviously these extra white blood cells are not always needed but they will surely be useful in those acute stress situations when you actually might get injured, such as when you’re in a fight or car accident. And when your episode of acute stress is over, the production of white blood cells returns to normal levels. 
However, when you’re chronically stressed, the amygdala triggers the ongoing production of higher levels of white blood cells. The researchers concluded that this ongoing overproduction of white blood cells can form plaques in your arteries, which in turn lead to heart and other types of cardiovascular disease. 
“In this first study to link regional brain activity to subsequent cardiovascular disease, amygdalar activity independently and robustly predicted cardiovascular disease events. Amygdalar activity is involved partly via a path that includes increased bone-marrow activity and arterial inflammation. These findings provide novel insights into the mechanism through which emotional stressors can lead to cardiovascular disease in human beings.” — Tawakol, et al
That’s one very solid explanation for WHY chronic stress is dangerous for your health!
Here’s a bit about the study. The researchers followed 293 Massachusetts General Hospital patients with a median age of 55 years who had no known cardiovascular diseases or active cancer. The patients were tracked for an average of 3.7 years to see if they developed cardiovascular disease. During that period, 22 of the subjects suffered from a “cardiovascular disease event.”
For all the subjects, the researchers assessed activity in both the amygdala and bone-marrow, as well as inflammation of the arteries. They also analyzed the relationship between “perceived stress,” activity of the amygdala, inflammation of the arteries, and C-reactive protein (which indicates the presence of inflammation in the body). They concluded that activity of the amygdala was associated with increased bone-marrow activity, inflammation of the arteries, and risk of cardiovascular disease events. 
As the lead author put it:
“This raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological well-being.
“Eventually, chronic stress could be treated as an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is routinely screened for and effectively managed like other major cardiovascular disease risk factors.” — Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, Harvard Medical School, and Massachusetts General Hospital
(I’m kind of baffled that “reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological well-being” is being proposed as if it was a new possibility, but, hey, who knows what kind of backgrounds those scientists have or what kind of careful language they feel they have to use.)
Although the study itself does not discuss how stress can be “effectively managed,” I think you know at least one of the answers: yoga stress management techniques! Yes, using yoga for stress management can help you stay physically healthy as well as emotionally healthy. If you haven’t already been reading our various articles about using yoga for stress management, here are some articles to get you started:
6 Ways to Bust Stress with Yoga
Stress Management for When You’re Stressed
Using Stress Management Techniques for Medical Conditions
The Relaxation Response and Yoga 
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