This is how stress can cause heart attacks

Myocardial infarctions are the leading cause of death worldwide. It is a type of coronary heart disease related to lifestyle; in particular, the onset of heart attacks is directly influenced by sustained stress and unhealthy habits.

In this article, we will analyze the mechanisms by which stress can make heart attacks easier. This is why we must first stop at the definition of these two concepts.

    What is stress?

    We can define stress as a set of physiological responses that occur to the onset of stimuli or situations that the body perceives as threatening or demanding.

    These bodily reactions are nonspecific and stereotypical; this means that they are not dependent on a specific type of environmental stimulation and that they are very similar regardless of the causes that cause them.

    Physiological responses to stress depend on the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the autonomic nervous system. Short-term effects include an increase in heart rate and consumption of stored energy, as well as other signs of physical activation.

    Physiologist Hans Selye described three phases of stress in his model of general adaptation syndrome. During the alarm phase, the body recognizes the stressor and mobilizes to face it; if this is the case and the stress persists, it enters the resistance phase, in which the activation decreases slightly to be able to stay in the long term.

    When the body has consumed its resources the third phase appears, called “exhaustion” and characterized by the reappearance of the intense symptoms of the alarm phase. Although the advanced stages of the stress response are harmful to the body, the alterations usually go away after a period of rest during which the person generates new reserves of energy.

      Consequences of stress

      When stress is sustained, it causes what we call stress syndrome, which consists of the appearance of a peptic ulcer, an increase in the size of the adrenal glands and a decrease in swelling. These alterations are linked to massive secretion of glucocorticoids and suppression of the immune response, Which facilitates the development of diseases.

      Today’s increasingly stressful lifestyle has led to a marked increase in the prevalence of blood circulation disorders, such as heart attacks and hypertension. High blood pressure increases the risk of accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques and therefore cardiovascular events.

      There are also many psychological symptoms that can be influenced by stress: anxiety, irritability, apathy, sadness, emotional instability … Among the disorders caused by stress anxiety and depression stand out which, like cardiovascular disorders, are considered lifestyle diseases.

        Definition of heart attack

        Heart attacks are the leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and their frequency continues to rise; while in 1990 they represented 12% of deaths, in 2013 this figure was around 17%.

        A heart attack is the death (or necrosis) of part of the tissue in an organ. Necrosis usually occurs consequence of the obstruction of the artery that irrigates it.

        When the necrotic tissue is found in the heart muscle, it is called a myocardial infarction. Heart attacks can also occur in other organs; in addition to the heart, the most common are the brain, kidneys and intestine.

        If the accident takes place in the kidneys, it is called renal infarction, while if it occurs in the intestine, the correct term is “mesenteric intestinal infarction”. Strokes are called “strokes” or “blows”.

        Arterial obstruction is usually due to the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques (or atherosclerosis) but can also be the consequence of hernias, the presence of tumors or deformity of the organ.

        Among the most relevant factors that predispose to the onset of heart attacks are tobacco and alcohol use, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, Diabetes and high cholesterol levels. They also occur more frequently in men, in people over 40, and in those with a family history of cardiovascular disorders.

        How Does Stress Cause Heart Attacks?

        The onset of heart attacks as a result of stress is due to the conjunction of a number of interrelated causal mechanisms. Specifically, scientific research has linked heart attacks to increased cortisol levels and hyperresponsiveness of the amygdala.

        Cortisol is a steroid hormone which occurs in the adrenal gland and is released in response to stressful conditions. While it is essential for the body to consume energy, continued excessive secretion of cortisol can inflame the arteries, narrowing them, and making them easier to block.

        The tonsils are two brain structures located in the temporal lobes and involved in the learn emotional responses, Including those of fear, anxiety and stress. When stress levels are high most of the time, neurons in the tonsils learn through classical conditioning to elicit stress responses to stimuli that are not really a threat.

        Therefore, continuous stress in itself negatively affects the cardiovascular system, but also facilitates it that the amygdala associates the fear response with harmless stimuli. This results in a vicious cycle in which stress causes more stress, increasing the risk of heart attack and other circulatory problems.

        However, continued practice of physical and cognitive relaxation exercises can help the body stop giving stress reactions at inappropriate times. Scientific research particularly supports progressive muscle relaxation procedures and slow, deep breathing.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Ressler, KJ (2010). Tonsil activity, fear and anxiety: modulation by stress. Biological psychiatry, 67 (12); 1117 – 1119.

        • Tawakol, A. et al. (2017). Relationship between resting tonsil activity and cardiovascular events: longitudinal and cohort study. The Lancet, 389 (10071); 834 – 845.

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