Stress has long been associated with various health conditions, including heart attack and stroke. However, scientists have been unable to pinpoint exactly how stress triggers adverse effects on the body. Now, a new study, conducted by researchers with Harvard Medical School, may provide a partial answer.
While it is still not entirely understood, the study found that stress increases activity in a brain region known as the amygdala. This area is responsible for processing certain emotions like fear and anger. Even though other sections of the brain also become activated, the amygdala’s function is to tell your body what to do when a threat is detected.
“The amygdala is a critical component of the brain’s stress network and becomes metabolically active during times of stress,” said Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, one of the study’s lead authors, as reported by CNN.
— ACEP (@energy_psych) December 27, 2016
When a person is under constant stress, the amygdala has a hard time figuring out what response it needs to send to the body. As a result, it sends a message to the bone marrow to produce more white blood cells. These additional cells overwhelm blood vessels, ultimately inflaming them. This continued irritation and increased activity of the bone marrow have been linked to cardiovascular disease in previous studies.
People who are more sensitive to stress often have a much higher amount of activity in the amygdala. While smoking and high blood pressure certainly play a part, this specific group of people is more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than others who are not as prone to stressful situations. According to the study, people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression also have a more active amygdala region, putting them at an increased risk as well.
For the study, nearly 300 people were subjected to brain scans, bone marrow tests as well as various examinations of the spleen and arteries over a four-year period. Of the participants, 22 had developed some form of cardiovascular disease and were also found to have the highest level of artery inflammation and amygdala activity in the brain. These same individuals also reported being exposed to a high amount of stress.
“Our results provide a unique insight into how stress may lead to cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Tawakol, according to a BBC report. “This raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological wellbeing.”
While the study does suggest a link between emotional stress and a physical response in the body, more research is needed before a definite link between stress and cardiovascular disease is proven. However, the results do serve as a reminder that reducing stress in life can go a long way toward developing and maintaining both physical and mental well-being.
Simply by finding ways to reduce stress will likely help you live longer. WebMD suggests some different activities, such as mediating, exercising, and listening to soothing music, that may help you relief stress and relax. By removing yourself from a stressful situation and spending a few minutes decompressing could significantly decrease the chances of heart attack and stroke.
Cardiovascular disease refers to any adverse health condition related to the heart or blood vessels. It is currently the leading cause of death in the world. Just in the United States alone, nearly one-third of adults have some type of heart disease.
The results of the study, published in The Lancet, could help health practitioners predict the possibility of a heart attack or stroke by looking at the activity of a patient’s amygdala. However, the research does suggest exploring ways to avoid stress may be a way to prevent heart attacks and strokes in the first place.
[Featured Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]