February is “Heart Health Month”: Mind Your Heart!

February is “Heart Health Month”: Mind Your Heart! February is “Heart Health Month”: Mind Your Heart!

February is heart health awareness month and the perfect time to talk about how we can better care for our hearts. We know to eat right, exercise and check up with our cardiologists, but our emotional well-being plays such an important role too. Stress, anxiety, and depression are proven to be major risk factors for heart disease, the leading cause of death in our country. So, let's take a step back and take a deeper look at the importance of mental health.

The connection between mental health disorders and heart disease
(From: https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/mentalhealth.htm)

 A large and growing body of research shows that mental health is associated with risk factors for heart disease before a diagnosis of a mental health disorder is even made. These effects can arise both directly, through biological pathways, and indirectly, through risky health behaviors. People experiencing depression, anxiety, and stress over a long period of time may experience certain physiologic effects on the body, such as increased cardiac reactivity (e.g., increased heart rate and blood pressure), reduced blood flow to the heart, and heightened levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). Over time, these physiologic effects can lead to calcium buildup in the arteries, metabolic disease, and heart disease. Mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression may increase the chance of adopting maladaptive behaviors such as smoking, lack of exercise, or a failure to take prescribed medications. This is because people experiencing a mental health disorder may have fewer healthy coping strategies for stressful situations, making it difficult for them to make healthy, positive choices to reduce their risk for heart disease.

Why is Stress Bad for Our Heart?

We used to think stress and anxiety were bad for heart health because they would lead to harmful behaviors. While it's true that emotional distress could induce smoking, drinking, and overeating, we are now learning that our mental well being has a way more direct role. Hormones released by the body, like cortisol, during prolonged periods of stress could induce inflammation in our cardiovascular system and have negative impacts on blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin and obesity.

6 Ways to Relieve Stress and Improve Heart Health!

  1. Get plenty of sleep.
    7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted quality sleep has tremendous benefits. During normal sleep your body naturally relaxes, and blood pressure decreases. If you're having trouble getting to sleep, there are plenty of things to try. For starters, take some time to relax before you go to bed. A structured sleeping schedule could help set you up for a successful night's rest.
  2. Make time for activities you enjoy.
    We can get stuck in the mundane but breaking out of our norm and doing activities that bring us happiness can be a huge relief. Arts and crafts, music or even spending time with a pet could decrease stress levels and give us an opportunity to express positive emotions.
  3. Get in some steps!
    Light to moderate walking has tremendous impacts on our physical and mental health. Health professionals can't recommend this enough. Even thirty minutes of walking a day has been shown to dramatically decrease cholesterol levels, reduce risk for heart disease, improve memory and lift mood. Some studies suggest that walking for only 2.5 hours a week can decrease your risk for heart disease by 30%. Put on your shoes, soak up the sun, and rediscover the joys of walking!
  4. Eat right!
    This is an interesting one. Our diet can have more implications than we think. Eating an excessive amount of refined sugars is linked to poor energy levels, increased depression and of course heart disease! Making sure to eat a healthy balanced diet can have wondrous benefits. Putting a healthy plate together and taking the time to eat mindfully is a great way to bring cortisol levels down, keep your insulin in check and keep that heart happy.
  5. Reach out to friends.
    Taking the time to build deep connections gives us a place to vent and talk about what's on our mind. Good friends help us relieve stress, while providing us with comfort, joy and laughter.
  6. Reach out to a professional.
    If you're having trouble with depression or stress don't be afraid to reach out. A professional therapist or mental health counselor may be able to help you. Working with a therapist could allow you to better understand the origins of your emotions. Increasing personal awareness and developing actionable strategies to manage harmful behaviors is crucial for our health!

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