January 26, 2017 at 8:52 pm #3215
The joke about the stressed out, type A personality being a heart attack risk has been around for a long time. And in recent years, science has shown that there’s actually something to it: People undergoing emotional stress are in fact more likely to develop heart disease. A similar connection exists for people with depression. The underlying mechanisms haven’t been totally understood, though inflammation has been thought to play a role. Now, a study in the journal The Lancet this week finds an interesting link between stress and the heart: The brain.
Two complementary studies were carried out to explore the connection. In the first, the researchers looked at data from people who had undergone brain imaging that can detect not only regional brain activity but also inflammation in the brain’s arteries. The participants were tracked over the next two to five years, during which time their heart health, including cardiovascular events, was also monitored.
The findings from this study were fascinating: People who had more activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that governs fear, stress and emotion, were also more likely to suffer from heart disease in the future–heart attack, stroke and angina (chest pain). Activity in the amygdala was also linked to more activity in the bone marrow tissue that gives rise to blood cells, and to inflammation in the arteries.
In a smaller study, people with histories of chronic stress, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), filled out questionnaires about their current stress levels. Their brains were also scanned, and activity in the amygdala measured, along with inflammation of the arteries. Here, too, there were clear links between perceived stress in the present, and both activity in the amygdala and inflammation.
So there’s quite a chain of events occurring here, from emotion to brain to bone marrow to arteries to heart disease. The findings suggests that stress may activate the amygdala which can then promote extra immune cell production by the bone marrow, that in turn, may impact the arteries, causing inflammation, which then could lead to a cardiovascular disease event, such as a heart attack or stroke.
Stress has, thankfully, been taken somewhat more seriously in recent years, as mounting research has suggested that it really does have large, and measurable, effects on the body and brain. Feeling stressed is not something one should just power through, but rather something one should actively address and try to reduce. And there are many ways to do this: Exercise, meditation, talk therapy and other methods have been shown to be effective.
Stress reduction exercises have been shown to reduce both the size and activity of the amygdala, while having beneficial impacts on other neural tissues. It is possible that these activities also affect the whole sequence of events, all the way to inflammation and heart risk. But more research will be needed to understand the entire reaction more fully. It is reasonable to advise individuals with increased risk of cardiovascular disease to consider employing stress-reduction approaches if they feel subjected to a high degree of psychosocial stress.
It’s probably also reasonable to recommend stress reduction to anyone who perceives that their stress levels are high. If your mind is feeling stressed out, your body is probably reacting.
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