8 Ways to Prevent Stress and Heart Disease

Yes, stress takes a major toll on your ticker. But integrative cardiologist Joel K. Kahn, MD, says there are many simple—and science-backed—ways to relieve stress and keep your heart healthy.

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Stress can dramatically affect your heart.

Stress can dramatically affect your heart.Stockbyte/Thinkstock
Even if you are healthy in every other way—you exercise and you eat a truckload of vegetables—stress can still affect your heart. When you’re under chronic stress, your immune system produces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and inflammatory proteins called cytokines, including interleukin-6. This chronic inflammation leads to hardening of the arteries and heart disease.

The good news: positive emotions are like a healing balm. They obliterate the effects of stress and lead to vitality and well-being. And even if you’re not a naturally happy or optimistic person, you can take steps to make over your mind from negative to positive. Even minor things, like human touch or playing with pets, can have a dramatic impact on mood, emotional well-being, the quality of sleep and our ability to relax. Here, little ways to make your day brighter—and your heart healthier.

Laugh at least once a day.

Laugh at least once a day.Fuse/Thinkstock
When researchers compared blood flow in people who watched a stressful movie (Saving Private Ryan) compared to people who watched a comedy like Saturday Night Live, they documented a 35 percent reduction in blood flow during the stressful movie and a 22 percent increase in circulation among those who laughed and enjoyed themselves. This increase in blood flow is on par with results from some of the most established prescription medications.

Count your blessings.

Count your blessings.iStock/Thinkstock
This simple act of gratitude leads to health and happiness. When University of Connecticut psychologist Glenn Affleck interviewed 287 people recovering from a heart attack, he found that people who found a positive benefit from the heart attack (such as becoming closer to family as a result) were less likely to suffer another heart attack within the next eight years. Research from the University of California at Davis has found that a daily gratitude practice can boost immunity, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep quality.

Keep a journal, listing one or more things a day you feel grateful for.  Make a habit of noticing the small acts of kindness unfolding all around you. When a stranger smiles and tells you to have a great day, think “Kind!”

Cuddle with a pet.

Cuddle with a pet.Digital Vision/Thinkstock
Many years ago, Dr. Erika Friedman studied 92 patients who had been admitted to a cardiac care unit for a heart attack or serious angina heart pain episode. She gathered information on pet ownership. A year after their discharge, 94 percent of pet owners were still alive, whereas only 71 percent of patients without pets were.

Other research shows that merely talking to or petting a dog can help drive down blood pressure—even if the dog isn’t yours, and amazingly, even if you don’t like dogs. If you can’t or don’t want to own a pet, consider volunteering with therapy dogs or at an animal shelter.

Get busy.

Get busy.iStock/Thinkstock
Sexual intimacy and activity can be both preventive and healing in heart disease. Men who have sex at least twice a week reduce their risk of heart attack by half, compared to men who have sex only about once a month. Not even aspirin has that kind of effect! (Similar studies are not available in women, but there’s no reason to assume sex isn’t just as good for the fairer sex).

If you have heart issues and are worried about dropping dead of a heart attack in the process, let me reassure you. Sexual intimacy is about as taxing on the body as light exercise. If you feel safe power walking or climbing two flights of stairs, you should feel safe in the bedroom.

Sleep 7 to 8 hours a night.

Sleep 7 to 8 hours a night.iStock/Thinkstock
We need sleep so that our bodies can produce antioxidants, heal wounds, repair DNA, and encourage activity of an anti-aging enzyme called telomerase. In a study of more than 80,000 women in the Women’s Health Initiative, women with both insomnia and prolonged sleep had the highest rate of heart disease. The midrange sleepers—those in the sweet spot of seven to eight hours—had rates about 50 percent lower.

Walk in the sun for 15 minutes.

Walk in the sun for 15 minutes.iStock/Thinkstock
Sunlight may help lift depression by activating the pineal gland and the body’s natural circadian rhythms. It helps your skin produce vitamin D, which is important for heart health. And when your skin is exposed to sunlight, a compound is released in the blood that helps to lower blood pressure.

Try tai chi.

Try tai chi.Fuse/Thinkstock
This gentle meditative exercise has origins in Chinese martial arts. It involves flowing arm movements, breathing, balance, shifting of weight, and focused awareness. It can get you fit and improve balance and range of motion, but its main heart benefits are emotional. When researchers from Tufts Medical Center in Boston analyzed the existing research on tai chi—which included a total of 140 studies done on thousands of participants—they concluded that tai chi significantly reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

Join a group.

Join a group.iStock/Thinkstock
We’re social creatures and appear to thrive when we have strong bonds. In research that involved more than 300,000 people, the stronger an individual’s social network, the less likely that person was to die prematurely. Or look at the power of the Daniel Plan, a program developed by Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church in Los Angeles with counsel from a panel of doctors, including Mark Hyman, MD, Daniel Amen, MD, and Mehmet Oz, MD. While some of the plan involves eating and exercise, the main power of the program has to do with the bonding that occurs when people with similar goals meet in small groups. (In one year, they collectively lost more than 250,000 pounds. Plus, everything from blood pressure to cholesterol improved).

Loneliness is a stressor on the heart, much as depression is. You might join a group you believe in—an exercise group raising money for a cause, or a service organization such as Kiwanis or Lions Club. Or simply get to know your neighbors. The more connected you feel to others who live near you, the more you’ll be able to lean on them in times of need.

More prescriptions for a Healthy Heart:

More prescriptions for a Healthy Heart:
In The Holistic Heart Book, integrative cardiologist Joel K. Kahn, MD, shares 75 traditional and alternative prescriptions to prevent and treat heart disease. Learn more and buy the book here.

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