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Is Stress Affecting your Heart Health?

Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition


Heart health depends on many things related to diet and lifestyle stress. Unlike some events in life, you can mitigate several stressors that affect your cardiovascular health. How you respond to stress is often more important than the actual type of stress. Take steps to improve your stress tolerance and support cardiovascular health.


Stress


The word stress applies to so many things. It includes daily life challenges in your immediate world with family, work, and schedules. Uncertainty, worry, feeling helpless, isolation and loneliness, lack of or too much sleep, sedentary lifestyle and no exercise, or workaholic hours and excessive exercise are stressors.


Infections, gut dysbiosis, toxins, dental infections and hidden problems with root canals, pesticides, alcohol, and drug-nutrient depletions add to your total stress burden. Then add in your stress reactions to world events.


Stress includes your diet. This is a controllable factor for most individuals. Yet, diets often fall short of being optimal. American diets cause such significant physiological stress that scientists use the high-fat, high-sugar, nutrient poor “Western diet” to induce cardiovascular stress in animals and study its impact on health. In order to manage life’s challenges, you must utilize self-care, education, and good choices to positively manage stress reactions.


Physical Reactions in Response to Stress


The effects of stress are more than the emotions related to an event. Emotions and your response to the event trigger many physiological changes inside your body via the fight/flight response from your nervous system.


Immediate stress reactions in your body affect:


• Blood sugar levels, insulin management, and pancreatic function

• Blood vessel relaxation and constriction

• Blood viscosity and coagulation

• Cholesterol usage and management

• Heart rate and rhythm

• Sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system activation and adrenals

• Digestion, bowel motility, and gut mucosal lining integrity

• Immune surveillance and cytokine activity

• Metabolic syndrome and obesity

• And much more


Prolonged stress response in your body manifests as increased blood sugar, weight gain around your heart, other internal organs, and abdomen. It leads to blood vessel constriction and increases blood pressure, contributes to insomnia or poor quality sleep, makes you more susceptible to colds and flu, and increases production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. It affects your heart rate and activity, injures the endothelial lining, and affects blood viscosity and coagulation mechanisms. These latter two effects are discussed further.


Stress Injures the Endothelial Lining


The endothelial lining is a thin one-cell layer that lines your veins, arteries, capillaries, and heart. It is highly sensitive to free radicals and stress compounds.


During an event of stress, adrenaline, cortisol, and other pro-inflammatory immune chemicals are released into the bloodstream from the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight). High amounts of these compounds are abrasive and contribute to microscopic, cellular damage to the endothelial lining.


Dietary stress from lots of sugar or foods that are cooked with high heat or are burnt, fried, or rancid injure the endothelial lining. These factors increase advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that provoke oxidative stress against the endothelial lining.


In order to repair the oxidative stress, antioxidants like cholesterol and other immune compounds attach to the endothelial lining to protect the vascular barrier from further disruption. As the stress response continues, further cholesterol deposition occurs and develops into visible plaque buildup upon the endothelial lining within blood vessels. Stress and inflammation are the problem, not cholesterol.


You can learn more in the articles:

Cholesterol: Protect this Vital Compound

Health Clues and Tips for Your Heart and Weight: Part II


Stress Activates Your Natural Clotting Mechanisms


Your body’s natural clotting systems with coagulation and fibrinolysis are activated during stress. This is a natural response to protect a healthy body from excess bleeding if injured during an acute fight/flight activity.


However, chronic stress perpetuates red blood cell and platelet stickness. This affects blood flow and increases coagulation tendencies. This has been seen in individuals with chronic stress such as job strain, caregivers for those with dementia or other high needs, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders.


Dietary Stress, Oh My


Diet is a major stressor for many Americans and people of other industrialized countries. The “Western Diet” and eating while rushed induces pro-inflammatory reactions with nutrient-poor foods. Scientists frequently use the “Western Diet model” of high-fat, high-sugar and stress situations to induce adverse health changes with heart, obesity, metabolic syndrome, etc. in animals to learn about the effects in human health. What you include or exclude in your diet matters!


The Basics


Everyday, strive for a minimum of 5-9 servings of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables rich in a variety of colors. Consume 15-20 grams or more protein at each meal.


Fiber is also extremely important for internal metabolic stress as this helps blood sugar management, binds onto toxins, feeds your gut flora and helps cholesterol management. Consume a minimum of 25-35 grams of dietary fiber per day.


Strive for whole grains rather than foods made with white flour and white sugar. Keep your added sugar intake to 25 grams or less per day.


Take time to sit down at a table to slowly eat your meal and take a time-out from the tech devices and TV, too. Digestion works best when you engage the parasympathetic (rest/repair/relax) nervous system. Watching the news, texting, exercising, driving, or having difficult conversations when eating engages more of the sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system. Negative behavioral patterns add to your daily stress burden and impact heart health.


Rancid Vegetable Oils


A substantial dietary offender against heart health, inflammation, and endothelial lining stability relates to cooking with polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) at high temperatures. PUFA oils include vegetable, canola, corn, sunflower, and soybean oils, etc. They cause tremendous levels of dietary stress when used to fry foods. This may be contrary to what you learned a few decades ago when butter and other monounsaturated fats were deemed as problematic. Check the “flash point” of your oils when cooking with high heat to reduce this stress.


In addition, when PUFA oils are reused, stored at room temperature long-term, are exposed to oxygen or the container is not properly closed, it creates toxic compounds. These factors cause the oils to produce high amounts of free radicals and stress your heart, blood vessels, endothelial linings, and cell membranes. PUFA oils are commonly used in restaurants and fast-food places for fried foods, chips, and fried bakery goods and other packaged foods.


Other helpful information may be found at:

Saturated Fat Myth: Debunked Again


Nutrient Highlights: Resveratrol and Tocotrienols


Many nutrients support healthy cardiovascular function. Potassium, magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, vitamin C, coenzyme Q10, fish oils EPA and DHA, arginine, lipoic acid, glutathione, and others provide integral support. Resveratrol and vitamin E tocotrienols also deserve special mention for their effects on cardiovascular stress and resiliency.


Resveratrol


Resveratrol, a polyphenol antioxidant found in red wine, grapes and other plants, is known for the “French paradox” effect with cardiovascular health. It helps mitigate the stress of a high-fat diet.


Resveratrol supports blood vessel relaxation, helps glucose management and insulin sensitivity, enhances cholesterol management, and provides stellar antioxidant protection to the endothelial lining from chronic stress. It buffers against free radical stress and immune inflammatory compounds that pummel and injure the endothelial lining. This helps keep blood vessels soft and flexible rather than hard and stiff.


Results from a 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials confirmed resveratrol advantages. Resveratrol provides favorable cardiovascular benefits and cholesterol stress management in adults. Other research showed that resveratrol antioxidant activity positively affects fibrinogen metabolism.


Additional information about resveratrol:

Resveratrol for Skin, Brain, Heart Health

Taking a Resveratrol Supplement? Read this First


Tocotrienols


Tocotrienols are the most potent form of vitamin E and offer powerful antioxidant support for heart health. A recent animal study evaluated the effect of tocotrienols on a typical high-fat Western diet. Rats were divided into different groups and fed the diet for 12 weeks. High amounts of free radicals were produced which stressed cardiovascular health and impaired vascular relaxation.


The group that received vitamin E tocotrienols with their diet in the last four weeks of the study did not experience the same level of cardiovascular stress. Tocotrienol intake “prevented diet-induced changes in vascular functions, reduced vascular superoxide production and abolished the diet-induced changes in eNOS” while it also supported natural endothelial relaxation.


In other animal studies with high dietary fat used to induce blood sugar, cholesterol, and cardiovascular oxidative stress, tocotrienols provided very favorable antioxidant support against tissue stress reactions.


Tocotrienols helped management and reduction of protein glycation or AGE in the circulatory system and the liver, too. AGE occurs when high blood sugar levels and other toxic substances like rancid oils damage proteins and makes them stiff. This affects your hemoglobin A1C levels.


Additional information about tocotrienols:


Remarkable Tocotrienols for Cardiovascular, Brain, Immune Health, and More

Are Antioxidants Safe?


One More Thing


Vitamin C deserves a special mention. Multiple studies have shown that it also protects the delicate lining in blood vessels. Vitamin C tightens cellular junctions in the endothelial lining. This supports barrier strength when oxidized LDL cholesterol particles bump against it.


Stress Response and Resiliency


Stress happens. How you respond to stress is often more important than what type of stress you encounter. Use things under your control to manage the effects of stress. Deep, belly breathing, good sleep practices, nature walks, prayer, meditation, visualization, progressive relaxation techniques, laughter, snuggling with your child or pet, knitting/crocheting, wood working, playing a musical instrument or listening to your favorite relaxing music, etc. engages your body’s parasympathetic nervous system (rest/relax/repair) response and de-stresses. Exercise and physical activity are essential, too.


Makes sure you address underlying things that provoke high cellular stress. These include chronic dental problems, mold toxicity, drug-nutrient depletions, and poor gut health, etc.


Your diet and nutritional status are major defense and offense against stress. No matter what your family history and genetic risk factors, what you feed your brain and body determines its resiliency and vitality. How are you doing with this?