Concrete Evidence Linking Stress and the Heart

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Canadian researchers have provided the first direct evidence that shows how chronic stress puts you at risk of a heart attack. It further illuminates the importance of proactively trying to reduce stress in your life — because nothing is worth your health.

Stressors such as job, marital and financial problems have been linked to the increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease, including heart attack. But, until now, scientists haven’t been able to look inside the body and pinpoint precise ways to measure chronic stress. The new study used an amazing method to measure cortisol levels in strands of hair. This provided an accurate assessment of stress levels in the months prior to an acute event such as a heart attack. The research is published online in the journal “Stress.”

Cortisol is widely known to be a stress hormone. It is secreted in higher amounts when you are stressed. Traditionally, it’s been measured in blood, urine and saliva, but that only shows stress at the time of measurement, not over longer periods of time. But here’s the rub: cortisol is also captured in each strand of hair!

Basically, we know stress isn’t good for us, but we can’t measure it well. Researchers here know that hair grows one centimeter a month, so if a sample is six centimeters long, they can determine stress levels for six months by measuring cortisol in that hair.

In the study, hair samples three centimeters long were collected from 56 male adults who had suffered heart attacks. Another group of 56 men who did not have a heart attack were asked to provide hair samples. Sure enough, researchers found higher hair cortisol levels in the heart attack patients within the past three years.

The prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, smoking, and family history of coronary artery disease did not differ significantly between the two groups, although the heart attack group had more cholesterol problems. Hair cortisol content emerged as the strongest predictor of heart attack.

Stress can be limited and managed by a variety of means. You can adapt your lifestyle to better handle stress by integrating relaxation techniques, such as visualization, meditation, yoga and breathing exercises. Eating well, exercising regularly and perhaps using alternative techniques such as aromatherapy will help you stay on an even keel.

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