Smorgasbord Health Column – Major organs of the body – Part Three – The Heart and Stress Connection by Sally Cronin

Over the last three weeks I have been looking at the heart, its structure, function and some of the more common health problems associated with the organ. Also the food that provides the nutrients necessary for the organ’s health:

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to our heart health, as whilst there may be some factors beyond our control, our diet and lifestyle is usually our responsibility, as is the management of the stress in our lives.

One of the leading causes of heart attacks in men and increasingly in women is stress. It is a silent killer that lies in wait and pounces when you least expect it. It is not helpful that the stress that we experience is as unique as our own bodies.

What is Stress?

You need stress in your life, does that surprise you? Perhaps so, but it is quite true.

Without stress, life would be dull and unexciting. Stress adds flavour, challenge and opportunity to life. Too much stress, however, can seriously affect your physical and mental well-being. In recent years several high profile personalities have died suddenly and we recognise that most of them lived highly stressful lives, which finally took its toll. But how many times have we been surprised by the premature death of someone we know, a friend or family member, who on the outside seemed to be healthy and active with a good diet. Unfortunately, what is going on with major organs inside the body tell a different story. Stress is silent and can be deadly.

What causes a stress reaction?

Stress is the modern day equivalent of our ancestral ‘flight or fight’ mechanism that was necessary in the highly competi­tive and predatory world throughout our evolution. There may no longer be sabre-toothed tigers or mammoths in our world but the modern day alternatives can be just as daunting.

A threatening or tense situation triggers this stress response demanding that we take physical action. Unfortunately most modern day stress involves situations that we cannot run away from; such as relationship issues, a demanding job and boss and not forgetting the traffic jams on the way home.

There are two types of stress, Acute Stress and Chronic Stress, and both have very distinctive patterns.

Acute Stress is a short-term response by the body’s sympa­thetic nervous system and the response may only last for a few minutes or a few weeks. How many times have you said that your heart stopped or your stomach lurched during a moment of intense stress such as an accident? We have all heard stories of mothers and fathers who have been suddenly infused with superhuman strength and able to lift cars and other heavy objects off their trapped children. They are empowered to do this by the actions of their body in a moment of crisis.

Blood sugar levels rise and additional red blood cells are released to carry strength giving oxygen levels a boost. The pulse quickens, blood pressure rises and the digestive process stops to enable the focus to be entirely on regaining safety.

Chronic Stress is when this acute stress response is repeated on a continuous basis. Whilst the body, after a hundred thousand years, is well able to handle the occasional stress response and in fact uses it positively, if the response becomes a normal way of life, other parts of the brain and body become involved leading to long term damage.

For example, ongoing stress causes the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, which are the master controllers for the body, to release a chemical called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) which stimulates the adrenal gland to produce and release cortisol which disrupts sleep patterns leading to increased levels of stress.

Our bodies are simply not designed to live at high alert for sustained periods of time; it just wears it down leading to illness.

How can we manage this modern day stress that is going to be a part of our lives in one way or another?

A major challenge in this stress filled world today is to make the stress in your life work for you instead of against you. Stress is with us all the time. It comes from mental, emotional and physical activity. It is unique and personal to each of us because we all handle it in a different way. So personal in fact that what may be relaxing for one person may be extremely stressful to another. For example, my husband loves the challenge and rush of downhill skiing on the most difficult of runs. When I tried skiing I created so much stress and fear for myself that I lasted about two days. I was terrified and it made me feel physically sick.

Another example might be a busy high level executive who can find ‘taking it easy’ at the beach on a beautiful day extremely frustrating, non-productive and upsetting. You can be stressed simply doing nothing.

Too much emotional or mental stress can cause physical illnesses such as high blood pressure, ulcers and heart disease, whereas physical stress from work or exercise is not likely to cause these problems. The truth is that physical exercise can help you relax and to handle your emotional and mental stress. Following a healthy diet that provides you with all the essential nutrients to help your body manage stress is even more important.

Symptoms of stress can be subtle such as fatigue, insomnia, depression, headaches, back or neck pain, irritability and sudden weight loss or gain. The less common but more damaging are heart palpitations, shortness of breath, diarrhoea, nausea, panic attacks, inability to concentrate and chronic fear.

Many people resort to stimulants such as smoking, alcohol or even drugs in the efforts to calm themselves down but in fact they are merely stoking the fires and increasing the levels of stress on the body, which can lead to disease.

Others create stress for themselves and those around them. They love the drama it creates and they rarely know how damaging this behaviour is for all concerned. We have all had drama queens in our lives and knowing how to handle them to prevent a knock on effect on your own health is essential.

Here are some basic techniques to help you manage whatever stress you do have in your lives.

It would be a perfect world where we had absolutely no worries whatsoever but I am afraid there are only a few people who live in that serene an environment.

It is easier said than done, but you must find a way to relax that suits you. Think carefully about what makes you feel alive but calm, that gives you satisfaction and creates a feel good factor.

For you as an individual it could be skiing down a mountain or it could be walking along a sandy beach at sunset. For me it is sitting in the garden, in the sunshine with music.

As unique as the causes of stress are, so are the ways that we find to counteract the tension. It might be that you have several physical, mental and emotional activities that you find distracting and calming. Perhaps a game of tennis, followed by doing the Sunday crossword and then watching a weepy movie.

Certainly you will find it very beneficial to learn some deep breathing techniques. Counting to ten before blowing your top can actually be very effective.

You will find some excellent breathing exercises here that only take a few minutes at the beginning and the end of the day: Breathing exercises

If you really cannot think of anything on your own then find yourself a professional advisor who can help you find your bit of space and peace. It is always a good idea to find someone who has been referred by a friend or family member but your G.P should also be able to recommend someone.

Keep to a regular sleep pattern, although people do need varying amounts of sleep the average is seven hours. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time even at the weekends. Lack of sleep is one of the leading causes of stress. After several nights of less than your normal quota you will begin to feel stressed and also very tired.

I am afraid that stimulants such as cigarettes and alcohol and recreational drugs are absolutely the wrong things to rely on during a stress episode, as hard as it may be, avoid these at all costs.

When other people are the cause of your stress.

I mentioned that others can induce both acute and chronic stress on you and your life. Sometimes it is difficult to manage if the person is someone dependent on you; an elderly parent for example. In my experience a lack of reaction is probably one of the best strategies in those circumstances as a calm response is no fun at all! Walking away is not always an option but if you are to remain both physically and mentally healthy you need to fix the situation or ask professional advice.

Next Time: foods and nutrients that are vital when your body and your mind are under stress.

©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2019

My nutritional background

I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.

If you would like to browse by health books and fiction you can find them here:

As always delighted to get your feedback and questions. This is not intended to take the place of your doctor’s presence in your life. But, certainly in the UK, where you are allocated ten minutes for a consultation and time is of the essence; going in with some understanding of how your body works and is currently functioning can assist in making a correct diagnosis.

Some doctors believe that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. However, I believe that understanding our bodies, how it works, how we can help prevent health problems and knowing the language that doctors speak, makes a difference.  Taking responsibility for our bodies health is the first step to staying well.

Thanks for dropping in and I hope you find useful.. Sally.