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Heart Smart Solutions to Stress and Depression

by Nancy Maneely

Depression and stress raise the risk of heart disease by 2 ½ times. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have discovered that negative emotions such as anger, stress or sadness can be as harmful to the heart as physical risk factors.

People with hostile behavior, anger and depressive symptoms respond to stress with increased production of the stress hormone norepinephrine, according to Edward Suarez, PhD. This hormone activates inflammation, which increases the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Another study at Duke found that heart patients with mild to moderate depression are more likely to experience reduced blood flow to heart muscles during mental stress which can lead to chest pain, heart attacks or death. Irregular heartbeats that lead to heart attacks are also associated with depression.

Our bodies were designed to handle normal amounts of stress. Modern lifestyles, however, with long working hours, traffic, conflicting demands of job and family, ever-intrusive technologies, and other stressors produce a constant flow of chemicals that can damage cellular tissue and increase the risk of heart disease.

Heart Smart Solutions to Stress and DepressionWhat can we do? Here are some suggestions to incorporate into your life to support lower stress levels and a healthier heart: 

  • Learn to use stress management techniques such as meditation, prayer, yoga and qi gong; seek out cognitive training or counseling to control chronic stress; develop social networks (the real-world kind); and get enough high-quality sleep.
  • Exercising is especially beneficial for heart attack patients who are depressed and lacking in social support. In a 2004 study, patients who exercised had an almost 50 percent reduction in risk of dying and further heart complications compared to non-exercisers.
  • Certain foods and herbs can help our bodies cope with stress better. Those high in B vitamins such as leafy greens support the nervous system. Ginseng can help the body adapt to stress. Oats contain tryptophan which soothes the nervous system. Reducing sugar and no-fiber carbohydrates reduces the cortisol adrenalin trigger and alleviates nervousness.
  • Eating foods rich in omega-3 such as wild salmon, tuna or sardines reduced the hostility score in 3,581 young urban white and black adults, according to a study reported in the January 2004 issue of European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
  • Taking herbal and mineral supplements can calm the body and help sleep. Some helpful ones are chamomile, skullcap, passionflower, valerian, lemon verbena, catnip, tilia flowers, with a good balance of magnesium and calcium.

What strategies help you to manage stress?

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