If you’ve done research on any disorder, disease, or ailment in the last few years, no doubt you’ve turned to the internet (sites like WebMD and MayoClinic, among others) to help you figure out what’s going on. As you scroll through the pages, you may notice that there is something many illnesses have in common. In at least 80% of the health problems, stress is a risk factor.
Chronic stress is linked to the vast majority of health issues and disorders affecting the modern man and woman. Stress affects just about every part of our bodies: from our endocrine systems to our metabolism to our immune system to our digestive system. Multiple studies have proven that stress can have long-term negative effects on both cardiovascular and neurological health. However, until now, there has been no definitive link to indicate precisely how stress causes brain and heart problems.
A team of researchers from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Massachusetts General Hospital conducted an investigation in order to find a concrete link between stress and brain/heart conditions. The investigation involved two studies: The first study analyzed PET and CT scans for close to 300 people, using a radiopharmaceutical that can measure brain activity and arterial inflammation. The participants were all healthy at the time of the scan and had visited a clinic at least three times in the previous five years.
The second study followed 13 patients with a history of PTSD. The patients’ levels of stress were analyzed, and similar scans were carried out. The researchers found that higher levels of stress at the onset of the tests increased the risk of a cardiac event (heart attack, angina, stroke, etc.). The stress increased activity in the amygdala, which in turn increased the risk of cardiovascular problems.
Another fascinating discovery was that amygdala activity could actually be used to predict the timing of cardiac events. The higher the activity in the amygdala, the sooner the cardiac event. The increased brain activity was also connected to a higher risk of arterial inflammation.
The findings of this study go beyond just pointing out how dangerous stress can be. Basically, it proves that high levels of physical and emotional stress can be linked to heart problems. After all, the amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for processing emotion. When the patients felt the stress, their amygdala was more active, which in turn led to cardiac events.
Combatting physical, mental, and emotional stress is vital in order to prevent cardiovascular health problems. If excessive activity in the amygdala can cause arterial inflammation, it stands to reason that reducing activity in this part of the brain can help to reduce the problem. This study proves that stress-coping mechanisms are more important than ever.
1. Ahmed Tawakol et al., “Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events: a longitudinal and cohort study,” The Lancet, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31714-7, published online 11 January 2017.