Everyone knows that being stressed out isn’t a good feeling. Turns out, it goes a little deeper than that — stress can actually have some pretty severe effects on your body.
Research scientists in Canada performed a study and found that people who had heart attacks and returned to a stressful career were twice as likely to have a second attack as those who held down reasonably stress-free jobs [source: Time Magazine]. University of London researchers found similar results for people who had stressful intimate relationships.
There’s an area at the base of your brain called thehypothalamus that sets off an alarm whenever you get stressed. This alarm sends a signal to your adrenal glands to release a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This is also known as the fight-or-flight response. Your heart rate increases, which elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. If you’re always stressed, then your body thinks it’s in a constant state of threat — not a good thing. Reducing your stress levels will lead to a reduced heart rate and ultimately help you to lower your blood pressure.
If you lead a stressful life, try to chill out by relaxing with friends after work. Take a walk or give meditation a try. Exercise and the right amount of sleep also go a long way toward combating your stress level. If none of these tricks work and you still find yourself stressed, see a professional counselor or psychotherapist. It can help your head and your heart.
Undergo Preventive Screenings
Here’s a novel idea — preventive medicine. In other words, trying to stop a problem before it becomes one. Preventive health screenings can give you and your doctor a lot of information about how at risk you are for cardiovascular disease. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that you start getting your blood pressure checked every two years starting at the age of 18. It also recommends having your cholesterol levels checked at age 18, and from then on, as often as your doctor thinks is necessary.
The great thing about preventive screenings is that they don’t take very long and are basically painless. Blood pressure checks involve a stethoscope and an aneroid monitor. You may not recognize the aneroid by its fancy name, but it’s the arm cuff system that you’ve likely seen before. Your cholesterol levels are determined through a simple blood test, so you’ll need to get your arm tapped for the red stuff. Aside from these standard checks, there are ultrasound tests that can detect arterial blockage, and you’ll also likely have your body mass index (BMI) calculated so you’ll know exactly how out of shape you are. Your BMI is your weight divided by the square of your height, and multiplied by 732.You may not want to hear some of these numbers, but getting information early on about your risk level can help you avoid a heart attack down the road.
Know Your Family Medical History
This one isn’t as easy as you might think. Some families never suffer through a divorce and are open and honest about everything that goes on. Other families are fractured and distant, with medical goings on swept under the rug for the sake of not worrying children. Because of divorce, death and parents giving their children up for adoption, many adults may not even be acquainted with one or both of their parents at all, much less their medical histories. Some people have genetic predispositions to certain diseases and illnesses — heart disease is no exception. If your father died from a heart attack at the age of 50, then chances are you may be headed down that same road. Even the healthiest of individuals can’t do anything about the genes they inherited.
The first thing you should do to get your information is to interview your siblings and parents and record the information they give you. Your doctor will ask you these questions anyway, so you may as well have the information. From there, go on to interview other family members. Find out about chronic illnesses, disease and any major surgeries they’ve undergone. Ask your grandparents about their siblings and parents. Take down all the information in detailed notes, no matter how limited it is. Even knowing how and at what age your great-grandmother passed away can be important to your risk level. The last thing you should ask in your interviews is what kind of lifestyle your relatives lived. If your grandfather who died from a heart attack at 50 drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney while he stuffed his face with salt pork, then you should take that into consideration.
Adopt a Heart-healthy Diet
You really are what you eat. If you dine on a steady flow of bacon and eggs, cheeseburgers, French fries and Twinkies, then you and your heart aren’t going to be in the best condition. Adopting a heart-healthy diet is the most important thing you can do to benefit your ticker. It will help you to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol and limit the amount of bad fat you take in.
As far as a broad approach goes, try to get as far away from processed foods as possible. The closer your four food groups are to their original, unprocessed form the better. It’s called a whole foods lifestyle. Include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and eat fish at least twice a week. Salmon is your best bet for supplying your heart with healthy omega-3 fatty acids that will help you reduce arterial plaque. Whole grains like oatmeal and whole wheat bread are a must as well.
Legumes like beans and lentils are loaded with protein, fiber, iron and calcium and are free of fat and cholesterol. Nuts are packed with antioxidants, omega-3s, fiber and vitamin E, among other things. The important thing is to not think of it as a diet, but as a lifestyle change. Stay away from boxed food, head for the fruit and veggie aisle, and you’re on your way to making sure there are no ambulances in your future.
Lower Your Blood Pressure
A lot of people may hear the words blood pressure and not even know what that actually means. It’s pretty simple —blood pressure is the measurement of the force of the blood against the walls of your blood vessels. When your blood pressure is measured, there are two readings — systolic and diastolic. The systolic part refers to the pressure when your heart is expanded, and the diastolic reading is when your heart is at rest. They’re given as systolic over diastolic, like a fraction.
The American Heart Association estimates that about one-third of all Americans have high blood pressure, or hypertension, and that a third of those people don’t know it. This is because there really aren’t any symptoms. It’s called the “silent killer” because the only way to find out if your pressure is high is to check it. Some people sit down at the machines in pharmacies and grocery stores, but unless it’s a new machine or you know that it’s been maintained and recently recalibrated, you can’t really trust those numbers.
If you get your pressure checked and it falls under 120/80, then you’re doing fine. Anything between 120-139/80-89 is called prehypertension, and above this level is considered high. The first step in controlling your blood pressure is to have it checked on a regular basis. Once you find out you have high blood pressure, your doctor will ask you to eat less fatty foods, cut your salt intake, stop smoking if you’re a smoker, exercise and limit the amount of alcohol you drink. If this isn’t enough to get your pressure down, you may need to go on blood pressure medication like diuretics, which get rid of excess fluids and salts, and beta-blockers that actually reduce the amount of blood your heart pumps.
Avoid or control diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes (non-insulin-dependent), which affects more than 42 million Indians, is an important risk factor for both CAD and hypertension. Diabetic men have two to three times the risk of having coronary heart disease than those without diabetes. Weight control and exercise can improve the utilization of blood sugar and prevent or slow down the onset of diabetes–and reduce the incidence of heart disease.
Eat less saturated fat, more produce & more fiber.
Diets low in saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Also, a recent study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine journal confirmed that eating fruits and vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables and vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables, seems to have a protective effect against coronary heart disease. You may even think about moving toward more flexitarian or vegetarian eating habits: A vegetarian diet reduces the risk of coronary artery disease, and may even reverse existing coronary artery disease when combined with other lifestyle changes. A Mediterranean diet that uses olive oil can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.