Monday Medical: Stress and your heart |

Monday Medical: Stress and your heart

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

If 2020 were a feeling, for many people, it might be “stress.” But all that stress can take a toll on your health, including on your heart.

“We all have stress, and it does impact cardiovascular health,” said Alexa Pighini, a physician assistant at UCHealth Heart and Vascular Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “There are lots of different triggers — work, family, relationships, health. But there are steps we can take to reduce and address stress.”

The stress response

Stress is more than just a feeling. It’s a complex physical and emotional response involving various systems in your body.

When you encounter something stressful — whether it’s getting cut off by the car ahead of you or learning that your child care provider is out sick — your brain sets off your body’s alarm system, causing your adrenal glands to release hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline primes your body for the fight or flight response by speeding up your heart rate and breathing, and causing your blood pressure to rise. Cortisol increases the amount of sugar in your bloodstream and helps your body prepare to react and repair itself quickly.

Usually, when the stress passes, those hormones decrease, and your heart rate and blood pressure get back to normal. But if the stressors don’t go away, a stress response can continue, and your body can stay in a heightened state. That may increase inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease.

Lessen stress with a healthy diet and exercise

“When possible, prevention is the first step,” Pighini said. “That means taking steps to eat better, move more, lose weight, stop smoking and acknowledging and managing your stress.”

Eat a heart-healthy diet by limiting saturated fats, such as red meat and whole-fat dairy products, as well as salt, sugar-sweetened drinks, refined carbohydrates like desserts and candy, and processed meats, such as hot dogs, deli meats and bacon.

Make exercise a priority, as moving results in a surge of mood-enhancing endorphins and benefits heart health.

“Increased activity leads to a stronger heart and increased circulation, promotes sleep, decreases blood pressure and cholesterol, and helps manage weight,” Pighini said.

The American College of Cardiology recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.

Mood matters

Practices such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga help ease tension and reduce stress. And don’t underestimate the value of sleep.

“The majority of us need 7 to 10 hours of sleep a night, but we often don’t provide ourselves with enough sleep opportunity,” Pighini said.

Make time for sleep, even if that means cutting back on other commitments, and set yourself up for a good night’s rest by avoiding screens and following a calm routine for an hour before bedtime.

The COVID-19 impact

From the loss of jobs and continued social isolation to the threat of illness or death, it can feel harder than ever to keep stress at bay.

“The fear and anxiety from COVID-19 can lead to poor sleep habits, overeating and unhealthy choices with food, and increased use of alcohol and tobacco, all of which contribute to increased stress,” Pighini said. “The best goal is still to manage stress while doing our part to protect ourselves, our family, our neighbors and our community.”

Wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands. Be sure to seek medical attention when needed. Telehealth visits are an option in many scenarios, and medical practices and hospitals have implemented strong protocols to safely care for patients.

“Get your influenza shot,” Pighini said. “That’s essential for patients with cardiovascular disease.”

Do your best to stay connected with other people and seek help if the stress becomes overwhelming.

“Reach out to your family and friends for social engagement,” Pighini said. “And tell your health care provider if you are having a hard time managing or coping with stress. There is help — you don’t have to work through it alone.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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