Modern Life Takes a Toll on Our Hearts

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

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 04, 2008
5 min read

We all know that eating loads of saturated fat and leading a sedentary lifestyle can be damaging to our hearts, but today's supercharged lifestyle replete with BlackBerries, cell phones, sky-high mortgage payments, and seven-day work weeks can also wreak havoc on our hearts.

WebMD spoke with Mimi Guarneri, MD, the founder and medical director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, Calif., and the author of The Heart Speaks: A Cardiologist Reveals the Secret Language of Healing, to find out how modern life affects our heart health and what we can do about it before it's too late.

Here's what we found out:

Everything. The new definition of normal is going to work every day in a car that is not paid for so you can pay for the house that you never get to use because you are always at work. We are stressed out to say the least. Not to be doom and gloom, but this so-called modern life is not conducive to health. Today, people are so focused on mergers and acquisitions and the accumulation of things that the question becomes when is enough, enough. Sometimes our body has to put the brakes on for us with a big heart attack.

Today there is constant bombardment with emails, faxes, and BlackBerries. It's nonstop. We are forced to make split-second decisions because we don't have time to think. It's extremely stressful and as a result, we are flooded with stress hormones. The release of stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol can increase the risk of having a heart attack.

Start by thinking about the heart physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Physical care involves choosing the right foods and exercising. That's the easy part. The emotional aspect involves asking yourself if you are stressed, depressed, anxious, or angry. And the deeper, spiritual issue is asking yourself 'who am I [and] what is my purpose?'

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.'

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Turn off your BlackBerry and go for a walk.

Remember that you are love -- and be love. When you become love, you stimulate hormones that lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol.

Instead of looking to give love, just be love: Do something good for someone. The feeling you get when you see their face light up brings joy to your heart. Be grateful for your life and have gratitude for the gifts you have been given.