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Modern Life Takes a Toll on Our Hearts

An expert describes antidotes to the heart-damaging lifestyle of today's stress-filled world.

So is it the stress that is taxing our hearts?

It's not stress that kills you, it's how you respond to it. We teach people to control stress with mindfulness-based stress reduction. This helps people control how they respond to stress so when they get into stressful situations, they will have the tools to keep them from being flooded with stress hormones.

How can the influx of stress hormones cause a heart attack?

One of the first hormones to be released is cortisol. Cortisol goes to the liver and releases sugar. If you are under stress, you need sugar to fight, be alert, and to feed your muscles. So right there, you have higher blood sugar, which increases the risk for diabetes.

If you are chronically stressed, cortisol makes you gain weight in your middle, and as you gain weight there, levels of inflammation go up. Then comes an influx of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure increases, cholesterol levels go up, your blood vessels constrict, and your blood platelets get stickier. All of this sets the stage for heart disease.

The third stress hormone that increases is called aldosterone. Aldosterone goes to the kidney and tells the kidney to conserve salt and water. If we are running from a saber tooth tiger, you don't want to stop and urinate, but if you conserve salt and water, your blood pressure goes up. It is this bath of hormones that leads to diabetes, obesity, and all cardiovascular risks.

How can we stop this bath of hormones before it stops us?

There are a couple of techniques that we can learn to help control our response to stress so that we don't fire off stress hormones. Breathe in for five seconds and breathe out for five seconds to get your body to start to calm down. This is a gift that you have with you all the time.

You can also learn to control your response to stress through biofeedback or you can learn how to live in the moment with mindfulness. Biofeedback teaches people to use their mind to control body functions including muscle tension and heart rate. Mindfulness teaches you to stay in the moment, stay focused, be present, and not let your mind drift. Take just a few seconds to start doing deep breathing and then think about something that you love or appreciate. You will start to calm down.

Any Valentine's Day prescription to help combat the effects of modern life on our hearts?

Wake up and say, 'I will take responsibility for my health and well-being and ask myself the deeper questions.' There is nothing more important than health and family, and we take that for granted until we don't have them anymore. We need to get people back on track.

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