October 27, 2021

How can chronic stress affect your heart?

By The Montreal Heart Institute’s Prevention Watch

A recent study has found a link between chronic stress and heart problems. This highlights the importance of effectively managing stress to maintain good heart health. 

It’s now common knowledge that acute stress is a risk factor for heart attack. Less well known, however, was the impact of chronic stress. The reason? There was no way to measure it. But not anymore!

Need some assistance with managing your stress?

The Lumino Health provider search tool can help you find a health care professional.   

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What’s the difference between acute and chronic stress?

Acute stress is short-term. It happens when you’re in a situation where you feel out of control. For example, you may have acute stress when you almost get in a car accident. Or, when giving a speech to a room full of people. 

Chronic stress is long-term. It’s a state of stress that persists over a longer period. For example, working a high-pressured job, or dealing with loneliness from isolation can cause chronic stress. Chronic stress seems never-ending and can negatively impact your health.

How is chronic stress measured? 

Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones. A way to measure chronic stress is to evaluate the presence of cortisol in hair. Why hair? Because the level of cortisol contained in hair is representative of the blood level during the period when it has grown. The higher the hair’s cortisol content, the higher the level of chronic stress experienced by the hair’s owner.

recent study in Sweden compared the cortisol levels of two different groups:

  • 174 people who had suffered a heart attack, and
  • 3,156 persons in apparent good health. 

The results were clear. The median cortisol concentration in people who had suffered a heart attack was 2.4 times higher than that of the other group. 

Increased cortisol levels in the blood can lead to: 

  • atherosclerosis (a buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries that supply blood to the heart), and 
  • a possible heart attack over the longer term. 

In other words, the more cortisol there is in the blood, the greater the risk of myocardial infarction.

How can you manage stress? 

When it comes to preventing certain heart problems, it’s important to learn how to manage your stress. For example, you can: 

  • practice cardiac coherence, a way to control your breathing that can help to reduce anxiety,
  • do some meditation, or 
  • exercise to help ease anxiety.

If you’re interested in meditation, reading about it is a great place to start:   

  • Looking at Mindfulness, by Christophe André. 
  • The Art of Meditation, by Matthieu Ricard. 
  • Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. 

Want to try meditation right away? If you’re a beginner, that’s ok. There are steps you can follow to get started:

The bottom line? Don’t let stress take a toll on your cardiovascular health.

Need help managing your stress?

Consider one of these two options: 

1. If you have benefits with Sun Life, sign into my Sun Life to get your coverage details. 

  • You may have access to Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This often includes free virtual therapy sessions. Talk to your employer or HR department for more information.  

2. Find a mental health professional for virtual and in-person appointments on Lumino Health.

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This article is meant to provide general information only. It’s not professional medical advice, or a substitute for that advice.  

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