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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.
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If eating right and exercising is the easy part, why don't people do it?

People know how to eat and they know they need to exercise, but they are making poor choices mostly driven by stress and depression. They think: 'I am depressed, so why exercise?' Or: 'I am stressed, so I will have four martinis.'

Do cholesterol and blood pressure still count?

Yes, but it's not just enough to know your total cholesterol numbers. We want to know much more advanced things, such as what kind of good or bad cholesterol and whether or not certain inflammatory blood markers are elevated. We also want to know if this person is stressed, angry, or depressed and how they are living their life.

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.

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