Think back to the last time you experienced a highly stressful moment. Perhaps you made a mistake at work and your manager reprimanded you. Maybe your child was playing too close to the stairs and almost took a serious tumble. Or perhaps you were running late for an important appointment or interview.
Whatever the case, you likely experienced an increase in blood pressure and/or heart rate. Perhaps you could even heart your heart pounding in your ears. Why does this happen? Simply put, your adrenal glands (your body’s “control center,” responsible for your ability to manage stress) have a direct, undisputed link to your cardiovascular system. And this means that the effects of stress on the heart is a major piece of your overall health picture.
Stress and Cardiovascular Disease
As a nation, we have a bad habit of deprioritizing our heart health. Yet, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 1 in 4 deaths every year.  Furthermore, did you know that someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds?  Likewise, with the rising demands placed on us each day, we’re becoming more stressed, with almost 50 percent of the nation reporting regularly lying awake at night due to stress.  But how is your daily stress impacting your heart health? What are the specific effects of stress on the heart?
We’ve talked a lot about my bear scenario: You’re walking through the woods when you’re confronted with a bear (i.e., a stressful situation). When this happens, your adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol along with epinephrine, norepinephrine, and aldosterone. But why does this happen?
Well, the release of these hormones actually increase your blood pressure to deliver more blood to your muscles so you can run from the bear (or react to the stressful situation). Your cardiovascular system is responsible for moving blood to your tissues, and your adrenal glands can control that mechanism at a moment’s notice. And this is a natural and healthy response, for the short-term.
4 Effects of Stress on the Heart
Here’s where the problem lies in relation to the effects of stress on the heart: When you’re constantly “running from bears” (or dealing with stressful situations), your body switches from reacting to short-term bouts of stress to dealing with chronic stress. And there are serious cardiovascular ramifications to experiencing chronic stress. Here are some of the top effects of stress on the heart.
1. Stroke and/or heart attack
It’s been scientifically proven that when you experience chronic stress, your white blood cell count increases.  As supported in a 2014 study, stress specifically increases your disease-promoting and inflammatory white blood cells. And when this happens, it actually contributes to the rupture of certain arterial plaques, which can result in a stroke or heart attack.  But that’s not all. Chronic stress raises your baseline blood pressure as well, which also increases your risk of cardiovascular event.
Think about this: Have you ever heard the statement that worrying will kill you? Well, unfortunately, that statement holds merit. In fact, the Normative Aging Study (which studies the effects of aging on numerous health conditions)showed that negative emotions associated with high stress levels are significant risk factors for heart disease. When compared with people reporting no anxiety symptoms, those reporting two or more symptoms of anxiety triple the risk of developing fatal coronary heart disease. They were also approximately six times more likely to experience a heart attack.  This study proves that anxiety can increase your risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event, and, sadly, these events are responsible for the majority of deaths in America.
2. Elevated blood pressure
Think about it this way: After years of constantly running from bears, you will naturally adapt to expect a bear around every corner. This means you’ll constantly have elevated blood pressure so that you always have blood supply you need just in case you need to start running. But that’s not the only way you see the effects of stress on the heart.
In the process of your body adapting, your mineral balance also changes. Why? Well, anytime you see a bear, your adrenal glands raise your levels of the hormone aldosterone, which helps to manage your blood pressure. This also contributes to raising your baseline blood pressure over time. Now, what typically happens at this point is that your physician will prescribe a medication to lower your blood pressure. So, all is fine, right? Wrong!
What actually happens is that this medication fights your body’s attempts to raise your blood pressure while it also fights your adrenal glands. This resulting imbalance causes further inflammation in your body. And this process just goes on and on until you end up developing additional diseases and health concerns.
In addition to changing your mineral balance, stress also lowers your vitamin B levels. Interestingly, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and methylated folate are all required to maintain homocysteine, which also plays a massive role in cardiovascular inflammation and blood pressure. As you can see, the effects of stress on your heart are far-reaching.
3. Elevated cholesterol levels
Did you know that cholesterol is essential to your body’s ability to manufacture hormones, maintain cellular integrity, form bile from your liver and even produce vitamin D?
If your body is under stress, your cholesterol may rise in an attempt to make more cortisol. This causes a chain reaction by creating more inflammation that can result in a heart attack. How? Well, if you have inflammation inside your arteries, they will swell and become more prone to infection and scarring, which ultimately will cause more cholesterol to deposit there as they pass through your bloodstream. This results in plaque buildup, which puts you at risk for developing a clot.
Now, doctors commonly prescribe statin drugs for this issue. And this drug may lower your circulating cholesterol, but, in response, your body actually may attempt to make more cholesterol to cover other deficiencies this creates. And this can lead to a perpetual cycle of inflammation. It’s important to note that inflammation is far more dangerous than cholesterol alone, due to the damage it inflicts on your arteries. So, if you’re prone to high cholesterol, make sure to ask your doctor to always screen for inflammation (specifically, high sensitivity CRP).
4. Irregular heart rhythms
Another one of the top effects of stress on the heart is experiencing irregular heart rhythms. Here’s how: Simply having moments of cortisol surges in response to stress will cause changes in your mineral balance between potassium and sodium. Now, both of these minerals impact your heart rate, rhythm, and pressure. And don’t forget about the changes in aldosterone that occur to help raise your blood pressure. When aldosterone rises, this also impacts your balance of potassium and sodium, which means it affects your heart rate, rhythm, and pressure as well!
So, these factors often cause premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), or changes in your heart rhythm. Coupled with inflammation, this can cause some serious consequences.
If your arteries are inflamed and develop plaque buildup, your blood will be unable to flow through as quickly as it needs to. And when your blood flow slows, this provides a greater opportunity for that cholesterol to stick to your artery walls. Interestingly, this can happen when you’re dehydrated as well. But dehydration can also result in mineral imbalances, which can then cause irregular heart rhythms. If your heartbeat becomes too irregular, it could cause your blood pressure drop, which can impact blood supply to your other organs.
As you can see, the effects of stress on the heart are serious and, sometimes, scary. But the good news is that by learning how to improve your body’s stress management by supporting the health of your adrenal glands, you can limit the impact stress can have on your heart. To learn more, check out my article on how to support your adrenal health.
- Your adrenal glands, which are responsible for your ability to manage stress, have a direct, undisputed link to your cardiovascular system.
- When you’re constantly dealing with stressful situations, your body switches from reacting to short-term bouts of stress to dealing with chronic stress. This can lead to serious cardiovascular ramifications.
- Some of the top effects of stress on the heart include: increased likelihood of experiencing a heart attack or stroke, elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and irregular heart rhythms.
- Fortunately, learning how to improve your body’s stress management by supporting your adrenal health can limit the impact stress has on your heart.