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Why It’s Important to Avoid Stress After You’ve Had a Heart Attack

Cardionomic Circuit

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Carrie Lam, MD; Jeremy Lam, MD

An image of someone clutching their chest as they have a heart attackNow more than ever, a heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI) is proving to be one of the most devastating conditions and can affect someone throughout the rest of his or her life. Unfortunately, the problem has also become a lot more common. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 790,000 American suffered from heart attacks each year. Of those, 580,000 experienced one for the first time. Meanwhile, 210,000 suffered a subsequent attack following a previous one. Indeed, surviving a heart attack is incredibly lucky. But to help make sure that another MI does not occur, it’s crucial to avoid chronic stress and the possibility of developing Adrenal Fatigue.

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack refers to a condition that occurs when blood supply to the heart is suddenly blocked. When this happens, it can cause serious damage to the heart muscle and potentially death.

Coronary heart disease is one of the leading causes of heart attacks. With this condition, major blood vessels that supply the heart become clogged with cholesterol deposits or plaques. When a plaque ruptures, it causes a blood clot to develop, which blocks the blood supply to the heart and triggers an MI.

Someone having an MI may experience a number of warning symptoms, including chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, lightheadedness, and overwhelming anxiety.

Typically, the treatment for an MI involves immediate surgery and blood thinning medications. Today, the odds of surviving this condition have improved greatly. However, in saying that, many people don’t realize that stress can trigger another heart attack episode quite easily.

How a Stressor can Affect the Heart and Trigger Another Attack

NEM Cardionomic CircuitWhen your body encounters any type of stressor, it immediately activates the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response System. The NEM stress response system is made up of six interconnected circuits including the Cardionomic, Hormone, Bioenergetics circuit, Neuroaffective, Inflammation, and Detoxification Circuits.

The heart is part of the Cardionomic Circuit and the circuit responds to stress by bringing your heart rate up. Moreover, blood pumps more vigorously throughout your system and your breathing rate gets quicker. The goal is to give you the best possible chance of escaping the threat or putting up a good fight.

At the same time, your heart interacts with hormones produced by the adrenal glands as part of the Hormone Circuit. The moment your body perceives stress, the adrenals respond by producing the primary stress hormone cortisol, along with norepinephrine and adrenaline.

When stress is detected, the adrenals secrete more cortisol, which directly affects the heart. Once cortisol is released and enters the circulatory system, your blood vessels narrow in order to increase blood flow. Cortisol also ensures energy produced by the mitochondria of the cardiac muscle is available to be used immediately instead of stored. This means your heart is now forced to pump harder, essentially increasing your cardiac workload.

All the circuits involved in the NEM stress response usually resume their normal functions once the stress passes. However, chronic stress forces the circuits of the NEM Stress Response to keep working until they eventually become worn out. Moreover, continuous stress lead to chronically high levels of cortisol in the body. If this happens, you may be at higher risk of suffering from coronary heart disease. In fact, one study published in the journal PLoS One found an association between cortisol reactivity due to stress and the progression of coronary heart disease.

On the other hand, the hormone norepinephrine travels via the sympathetic nervous system to the heart where it triggers excitation responses in the cardiac nodes and heart muscle. This leads to a faster pulse and higher resting heart rate.

As for adrenaline, the hormone is only released when, without a doubt, survival is threatened. Adrenaline quickly gets to work to rapidly increase your body’s heart rate. This allows your heart to pump more blood throughout the body to oxygenate the skeletal muscles that will help your body run from the immediate danger.

With chronic stress, the adrenals continue to pump out cortisol and other stress-related hormones until they are no longer able to keep up with demand. When this occurs, your body experiences widespread hormonal imbalances, which gradually develop into Adrenal fatigue syndrome (AFS). Interestingly, one study carried out in Germany found an association between blood cortisol imbalances and a higher prevalence of coronary heart disease.

As you can see, stress is not good for the heart, especially in the long run. Therefore, if you’ve just survived an MI, it is best to avoid stressors or use effective stress-relief methods that will keep your stress levels as low as possible. That way, you can avoid the risk of suffering another MI episode.

Easy Ways to Combat Stress and Lower Your Risk of Another MI

Now that you know how stress can affects your heart health and can trigger another MI, it’s time to discover some simple ways to prevent both. When it comes to reducing the risk of future heart attacks, it can be helpful to work closely with your physician and/or a qualified healthcare professional. This is important since some remedies could potentially interfere with existing medications or worsen your condition.

That said, here are some ways to manage stress better and prevent the possibility of further heart attacks.

Manage your blood pressure

An image of a forarm holding a weight with a blood pressure cuff on the arm taking their blood pressureThe higher your blood pressure, the more strain on your heart and arteries. Consequently, high blood pressure also results in an increased risk for heart attacks. One of the best ways to keep your blood pressure at normal levels is by learning how to manage stress and preventing it from becoming worse. At the same time, you could also reduce your caffeine intake, since it can cause spikes in your blood pressure.

Manage your cholesterol levels

Since high levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) can trigger heart attacks, it’s important to make sure you manage your cholesterol intake. That means staying away from harmful foods such as fried foods, processed meat, and junk food.

Exercise regularly

Exercise allows your body to burn off fat and can kickstart your metabolism. This can prevent cholesterol from building up as plaque in your arteries. Moreover, regular exercise has also been shown to improve mood and help reduce stress levels. And it also lowers your chance of developing Adrenal Fatigue.

Consider taking certain supplements

This is definitely one to consider if you’ve already experienced a heart attack. Certain supplements can support heart health and prevent stress from wreaking havoc on your body. For starters, Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) contains natural antioxidant properties. Not only that, studies have shown that this supplement improves survival rates following heart attacks.

Aside from CoQ10, supplementing with magnesium has also been shown to improve the chances of surviving heart attacks. Furthermore, magnesium plays a vital role in maintaining good energy flow, allowing you deal with stress more efficiently.

Include more heart-healthy foods in your diet

An image of a display of heart-healthy foods on a table with heart-shaped bowlsCertain foods which are rich in vital nutrients the body needs to keep the heart healthy and manage stress. For instance, wholesome foods such as fatty fish and legumes are naturally rich CoQ10. Meanwhile, whole grains are rich in fiber, which can help manage your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease. Even better, whole grains keep you fuller for longer and provide you with a continuous supply of energy to combat stress throughout the day.

Remember, if you’ve already experienced an MI, it is incredibly important to take better care of your heart. That means doing your best to avoid stress. And if you do encounter stressors, it’s important to find appropriate stress relief to prevent the situation from getting worse.

© Copyright 2020 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam's Key Question

When the body experiences stress, the NEM stress response system is activated and triggers a hormone response. This involves the release of hormones like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. If stress becomes chronic, these hormones can eventually cause serious heart problems and possibly, another heart attack.

© Copyright 2001-2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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