Stress and The Heart
A Typical, Stressed Individual
Helen had felt somewhat stressed recently and had shown a rise in blood pressure . She had a “slight dilemma”, in that her elderly mother was not coping well, and was in ‘temporary’ care in Helen’s home, the same home from which her teenage son periodically threatened to leave. Helen had resumed smoking cigarettes for “stress relief”. She was experiencing a sense of tightness in the chest, and her GP had recommended a heart check-up.
By good fortune, a subsequent Exercise Stress Test showed no evidence of heart disease. However, it was evident that a different kind of stress was placing her at high risk of some “event” in the future.
How Stress Affects the Heart
As our hand recoils from the hot iron, as a reaction to the pain, and smell of burning flesh, we fail to appreciate that our nervous system is working overtime to protect us from our environment. Thereafter, the smell, the thought, the sight of ironing repels us from any similar encounter. At other times, our learned memory evokes an excessive response to a challenge from our personal environment. The modern phenomenon of ‘road rage’ is an example of how we react to daily hassles, such as traffic delays, and to other ‘road rage’ drivers, in the same way that we would respond to an attack by a pre-historic sabre-toothed tiger.
Cavemen at the time did not know it, but survival from stress requires stimulation of the Sympathetic Nervous System, which produces survival effects through increase in blood pressure and heart rate. In modern times, this phenomenon, over a longer term than a caveman’s average lifetime, increases modern man’s susceptibility to heart attack.
How to Measure Stress- Heart Rate Variability
Fortunately, our nervous system has a protective component in the Parasympathetic Nervous System, This is conducted via the ubiquitous, cardio-protective, tenth cranial nerve, the ‘wandering’ Vagus Nerve , which counteracts stress in a similar way to the braking system in a car.
A five-minute test of monitoring Heart Rate and its Variability (HRV) gives an indication of how well the Parasympathetic Nervous System is performing.
In the absence of Vagal control, Reduced Heart Rate Variability has been shown to be a significant risk for heart disease.
In other quality of life issues , monitoring of Heart Rate Variability can be helpful in areas such as stress management and response to exercise therapy.
What to do for Stress – and promote protective Vagus Tone and HRV
• Exercise regularly – and monitor progress with HRV analysis;
• Avoid smoking, alcohol to excess and caffeine;
• Identify if you are at risk for diabetes;
• Attain ideal body weight; and
• Confirm a normal sleep pattern to exclude Sleep Breathing Disorder.
Beta-blocking drugs, when used as a first-line for control of blood pressure or palpitations due to rapid heart rate, will lessen adrenaline, and slow heart rate. The common patient response is “thanks for putting me on that”. This is a reflection of the improvement in their quality of life with less adrenaline. “Thanks” is a rare response to any medical therapy!