In South Africa, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the leading causes of death according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa. World Heart Day is observed every year on 29 September to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease, and the importance of living a heart-healthy lifestyle.

One of the factors that affect cardiovascular health is chronic stress. Dr Hema Kalan walks us through the relationships between chronic stress and how it affects the heart, and how you can live a heart-healthy lifestyle. 

Chronic Stress Explained

Firstly, acute stress is when the body is stressed for a short period during the ‘danger’ and then returns to its normal, resting, calm state.

Dr Kalan says, ‘’chronic stress is when this acute phase doesn’t end and can go on for weeks, months or even years. The stressors could be physical, mental, emotional or even a combination of all three.’’ 

Given the current pandemic, where the end doesn’t seem in sight, it could be the reason why so many people are suffering from chronic stress. 

Symptoms can be physical, emotional, behavioural and cognitive as stress affects the entire body. Here are some symptoms of chronic stress:

  • Headaches.
  • Unsettled stomach, nausea, constipation, and diarrhoea.
  • Back pain, muscle aches, tenseness.
  • Loss of libido and/or ability to perform.
  • Cold/sweaty hands and feet, jitters, tinnitus.

Dr Kalan further shares that Chronic stress actually shrinks the size of the brain resulting in:

  • Hormonal dysregulation.
  • Decreases your ability to think clearly and come up with creative solutions.
  • Decreases memory, learning, and attention.
  • Further impairs stress regulation leading to even more stress (a vicious cycle).
  • Dysregulation of emotions.

How Does Chronic Stress Affect Cardiovascular Health?

Things like a good diet, exercising, getting adequate sleep, and managing your stress levels are the foundation of your health. 

‘’If any of these are not optimal, it will lead to diseases. Heart disease is just one of them. Stress increases your blood pressure which is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes,’’ says Dr Kalan.

Coping mechanisms such as overeating, smoking and a lack of physical exercise, further accentuates the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

Consequences Of Untreated Chronic Stress On The Heart

Dr Kalan shares that the Autonomic Nervous System is made up of the Sympathetic (stress) response and the Parasympathetic (relaxation) response. A little bit of stress is healthy for us but too much stress harms us. Chronic stress can cause the following: 

  • Hypertension.
  • Increases your heart rate.
  • Increases subsequent cardiac events.
  • Risk for stroke is increased.
  • Spasm of the coronary artery.

Maintaining Good Heart-health 

‘’A diet high in plant foods will not only maintain heart health but can stop further damage from happening. Dr Caldwell Esselstyn showed an opening up of a blocked artery on angiogram after putting a patient on a plant-based diet,’’ advises Dr Kalan. 

Dr Kalan further advises that moving a lot helps. With the new ‘online’ culture where work hours have been extended, we should aim to increase our number of steps each day. Sleep as well is essential.

Wrapping up

We must ensure that we limit our exposure to environmental stressors such as electromagnetic pollution, toxins in the environment (toxins in the air we breathe, chemicals, pesticides), chemicals in water, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and pesticides in the food we consume.