Improve performance and longevity with heart-healthy advice from Dr. Steven Kesten.
If you’ve been slammed at work, eating all the wrong foods at your desk, and trying to figure out where the next window of time for your next gym session is coming from, then you probably didn’t notice that April is “Stress Awareness Month.”
Fortunately, you don’t need to get extra tense for missing the memo, because taking care of your stress levels is something that you can work on all year round. Our hearts are essential for longevity and for reaching peak performance. Short-term energy levels and long-term health outcomes depend on us taking care of our ticker.
So, M&F talked to Dr. Steven Kesten, M.D. F.C.C.P., to find out how we can reduce stress levels and add a few beats.
How does stress relate to heart health?
“Clinical studies show that psychological stress may be important in predicting poor cardiovascular outcomes,” says Kesten, who is also the chief medical officer of CONNEQT Health. “In fact, among people suffering from coronary heart disease, mental stress is more likely to lead to heart attacks, strokes, and other heart problems than physical stress.”
Kesten explains that when we are mentally stressed the “fear center” of the brain, known as the amygdala, triggers a cascade of stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, causing our heart to beat more quickly and for blood pressure to increase. While this is a natural and essential “fight or flight” response to danger, it is not healthy for those that are stressed for frequent and prolonged periods of time. It can cause inflammation of the arteries, interfering with clotting and damaging blood vessels. Those physical changes, brought about by mental stress, then lead to the risk of adverse cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes. “Chronic stress can also increase inflammation in the body, which contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries,” adds Kesten.
How does stress lead us toward a ‘toxic cycle’?
Stress may also lead to negative lifestyle behaviors as we try to fix our emotions by self-medicating. “Many people self-medicate, and this can worsen health,” says Kesten. “While drugs or alcohol are sometimes mistakenly perceived as providing temporary relief from stress, they tend to exacerbate the overall impact of stress in the long term. Substance use and abuse can lead to addiction, financial problems, relationship issues, and other psychosocial impacts that compound stress. Drugs, smoking, and alcohol can also increase your risk of heart disease, liver disease, lung disease, and cancer. These diseases then increase stress levels further, saddling a person with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and addiction. It’s a toxic cycle.”
8 Ways To Manage Your Stress Levels
Dr. Kesten says that there are many ways to reduce stress naturally before picking up a prescription, and has provided some invaluable tips:
Eat a high-fiber, gut-friendly diet that includes omega fatty acids
Dietary fiber found in beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables may decrease inflammation throughout the body. Omega fatty acids found in wild salmon, chia seeds and walnuts also decrease inflammation. Fermented foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut and yogurt with live cultures help to promote healthy gut function, and this can contribute to decreasing stress.
Don’t forget: It is critically important that people work with their health care providers when using natural supplements as some can negatively interact with prescription medications.
Get off your office chair
Physical activity may contribute to beneficial modifications in stress-associated brain regions, as well as direct positive effects on the heart and overall arterial health. An overview published by The National Institute of Health recommended 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, 75 to 150 minutes weekly of vigorous exercise, or a combination of the two. If you can’t carve out the full recommended 150-300 minutes, any amount of time spent on these activities is likely beneficial for those living an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
Don’t forget: For people with cardiovascular disease or other health issues, it is important to work with health care providers to determine an exercise program that can provide the anticipated positive benefits, avoiding any potential risks from overly intense exercise.
Practice mindful meditation
Aim for 10 to 20 minutes per day to maximize the stress-reducing impact. A comprehensive meta-analysis found mindfulness-based therapy was effective for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Counting breaths is a good way to do it, according to a study of more than 400 people from the University of Wisconsin. Participants were asked to count nine breaths in a sequence by tapping one computer key for the final breath in each sequence. Those who were most successful at this task, requiring a sustained awareness of their breath, measured higher on scores for positive mood.
Only drink in moderationv
While drinking small amounts of red wine (one glass daily for women and two glasses for men) may offer some heart-health benefits and could even reduce stress, excessive drinking worsens anxiety and depression. Drinking, especially late at night, can also disrupt sleep.
Spend time in nature
A study tracked 60 people taking a 50-minute walk in either an urban or natural setting. In psychological assessments taken after the walk, the “tree huggers” scored higher than the “urban walkers” in multiple measures of stress.
Improve your sleep hygiene
Poor sleep increases stress and promotes inflammation. Commit to a consistent bedtime that provides at least eight hours of sleep, even on weekends. Also, avoid exposure to environmental and physical factors leading to stimulation before sleep, such as the blue light from screens two to three hours before bed.
Connect with others
Studies show that nurturing our relationships with others can promote emotional resilience and a decrease in isolation and loneliness.
Stop checking your email all the time
Another important study examined how checking email affected stress levels. One group was asked to check their email three times a day and the other half were advised to check their inboxes as often as possible. Not surprisingly, after one week, the three-times daily group reported less stress than the obsessive email checkers.
These are all important and natural tips that can be tried throughout the year, not just during Stress Awareness Month. Sure, you might delay the odd email, but you’ll likely add a few more beats to your legacy and there’s no email that is more important than that.