Women's Heart Health

In Women, Less Stress Means a Happier Heart

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By Deirdre Mattina, M.D.

In an age where people are constantly tied to devices—smartphones, laptops, pagers, oh my! —it’s no wonder stress is America’s epidemic. Between taking care of kids and family, households and job responsibilities, many women find their lives are moving at light speed, and it’s a challenge for them to disconnect and just “be.”

While a short burst of stress hormones can keep you safe from an acute threat (say, a threatening bear, an impending deadline or even the common cold), the long-term impact of tense muscles, blood pressure spikes and a skyrocketing heart rate can seriously impact your ticker. In fact, recent research suggests women’s hearts are particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of mental and emotional stress. In men, physical stress (riding a bike, running on a treadmill or climbing a mountain) can induce changes in the heart function including reduced blood flow. With women, mental or emotional stress can create a similar response.

Worse, stress launches a negative chain reaction that leads to poor lifestyle habits. When you’re stressed, it launches a destructive snowball effect—you’re more likely to skimp on sleep, skip the gym, and rely on caffeine (rather than wholesome foods) to power through the day.

How Can You Manage Stress?
The good news: Keeping stress levels in check is often as simple as coaxing your body to relax, so your breathing slows, blood pressure drops and you use less oxygen. Here, seven strategies to help counteract the ill effects of stress:

  1. Delegate. If you always agree to take on another task, you’ll begin to feel overloaded, stressed, and burned out. Instead, only say “yes” to the projects and responsibilities you can achieve without causing undue stress. Then, assign some of those tasks out. The key to effective delegating: capitalize on your helpers’ strengths. Does your son love to cook? Ask him to make dinner twice a week. Is your niece great with kids? Pay her to babysit.
  2. Get organized. Combat stress before it begins by creating measurable goals, sticking to a schedule and knowing what you need to stay on track. Create a family calendar so everyone is on the same page. Pack lunches and plan dinner menus on weekends. Then, schedule time for play. Even a few minutes spent doing something joyous can rejuvenate your mind and spirit.
  3. Meditate. Daily meditation not only reduces stress and promotes well-being, it also creates a surge in feel-good hormones. Can’t sit still long enough to say “om,” much less quiet your mind for 15 minutes? Breathe deep. Even as little as five minutes of deep breathing (inhaling so deeply that your lungs inflate and your belly expands) can short-circuit the physiological reaction to stress.
  4. Get some sleep. The antidote to fatigue is to get sleep, not to pile on the caffeine. Yet, nearly two-thirds of Americans report their sleep needs isn’t being met during a typical week. Get adequate rest (aim for 7-9 hours each night), stick to a regular sleep/wake schedule and ditch artificial light (including TVs, computers and smartphones) an hour or two before bed.
  5. Move. Exercise helps recreate the flight response, burning up the stress hormone cortisol. Running, cycling, swimming and skiing are great ways to release stress and promote fitness. Recovery-based exercises including tai chi, yoga and qigong also offer a hit of “zen” to the system. The kicker: Choose something you enjoy, not just something that makes you sweat. You get an additional hit of feel-good hormones when you’re joyous.
  6. Connect. Developing close relationships can buffer you from the negative effects of stress and boost your body’s natural defenses. Studies show that men live longer when they’re married and women live longer when they have girlfriends. Why? Because humans thrive when they have close connections—people they can confide in and who can empathize with them.
  7. Eat well. Nothing is more stressful to the brain than the notion that it’s out of fuel. Fill up with snacks and meals comprised of healthy fat, fiber and protein—a piece of whole-grain toast with avocado, apple slices with peanut butter or a handful of trail mix—rather than starchy carbohydrates and refined sugars. As a general rule, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein will better balance stress hormones cortisol than processed, packaged and refined foods.

The bottom line: Self-care is critical to health and well-being; it’s not something you can catch up on when you have time.

Suffering from chest pains, heart palpitations or shortness of breath? While these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you’re going to have a heart attack, they do serve as a wake-up call to manage your stress.

So, whether you take a long hike on a Sunday morning or treat yourself to a bubble bath each night, make time to recharge your batteries. Your spouse, kids, and colleagues need a happy, calm rested leader far more than they need a superwoman who burns out before she hits her prime.

Learn more about women and heart disease or make an appointment with a cardiologist online today. Or call (313) 876-4540.