Heart attacks in women are becoming the number one cause of premature death in North America. Whether you think you thrive on stress or not, prolonged, chronic psychological stress has the capability and tendency to erode your health. For many years, heart disease was thought of as primarily a male issue.
I am sure you are familiar with the image of a stressed out, type-A businessman, dropping dead from a massive heart attack. However, within the last ten years, it has become clear that women are just as much at risk for heart attacks and strokes. In fact, women are more likely to die of a heart attack or suffer a second heart attack.
Heart Attack Risk is Higher for Women!
A recent study published in Circulation found that women who have already had one heart attack in their lifetime, have twice the risk of having another heart attack triggered by mental stress compared to men with a similar heart attack history. This study found that there were more significant changes in circulation, or blood flow, due to stress in women than in men.
When the women perceived themselves to be under stress, the blood vessels in their bodies constricted more than those in their male counterparts. When blood vessels constrict, blood flow is restricted to the area they supply. When that happens in the heart, the muscle of the heart does not get enough blood flow, and heart tissue can die from lack of oxygen supply.
You may have heard of Raynaud’s disease where a person’s fingers and toes can turn cold, numb, and blue in response to cold or stressful emotions. This study in Circulation illustrated that the constriction of the blood vessels in response to stress doesn’t only happen in the limbs, it can also occur in the heart and this makes heart attacks in women more likely.
Women Are Stressed Out- And It’s Putting Pressure On Their Heart Health
Modern women are experiencing an increased amount of daily stress, and a decreased ability to managing stress constructively. Stress management is taking its place among those familiar concepts because more and more research is supporting a healthy stress resilience and the importance that has to combat the diseases that plague us the most.
Women’s bodies are more sensitive to the effects of stress in relation to cardiovascular disease and heart attack risk and mortality, and therefore any plan to protect women from heart disease MUST include stress management and cultivating stress resilience.
When you experience stress, hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are secreted to help the body adapt to the challenges it is facing. We have two automatic systems in the body, the sympathetic, which prepares the body for a fight, or to flee danger, and the parasympathetic that supports digestion and repair. During stressful events, the sympathetic system is activated, resulting in blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate all increasing. Over time, an imbalance between the two systems can occur causing health problems.
7 Things Women Should Do To Reduce Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke
The importance of a healthy diet, nutrition, and exercise are not likely to surprise you. Stress management techniques also help you to achieve health and vitality by reducing the negative impacts of stress. Here are seven things you can start doing today to reduce your likelihood of a having a heart attack or stroke.
We know that physical fitness helps keep people healthy due to the beneficial effects on the heart, lungs and blood vessels. Physical fitness and activity also blunt the hormone imbalances that occur in the body from chronic stress.
Mindfulness and healthy thought patterns can decrease inflammation and help with circulation, especially after heart attacks. (Dal Lin, 2018) People at known risk of coronary events who participated in a meditation program experienced a significantly reduced risk of dying from heart attacks and strokes. (Schneider, 2012)
A lack of adequate sleep increases a person’s likelihood of death. Period. Getting an average of 8 hours of sleep a night helps to balance the hormones and function of the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems and allows the body time to repair. (Find out your ideal sleep time here)
4. Adaptagenic Support
Supplements can help support healthy stress resilience and minimize the systemic effects of stress. Herbs such as Tulsi (Cohen, 2014) ginseng (QI, 2018), Ashwagandha, and Rhodiola have long been proven effective. Other supplements such as B1, B6, coenzyme forms of B5 and B12, alpha lipoic acid, phosphatidylserine and tyrosine can also help the body insulate itself biochemically from stress. (Kelly, 1999)
5. Make love, get a massage, or enjoy a companionable touch
Recent research has shown many benefits to the hormone oxytocin including its ability to modulate the body’s reaction to stress. (Wdowin, 2016)
6. Disconnect from screens and electronics
Prolonged exposure to screens, especially at night, can decrease sleep quality and increase the effects of stress on the body.
7. Go outside and enjoy nature
People who take time to walk outside and enjoy nature also enjoy lower blood pressure, lower stress hormones like cortisol, lower pulse rate, and a more balanced sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. (Park, 2010)
Elizabeth Banks illustrating the signs of heart attacks in women:
Common heart attack signs in women:
Dr. Heather Wdowin is a Cornell University educated Naturopathic Medical Doctor specializing in functional medicine and complex chronic disease cases. She is an eclectic practitioner with 15 years experience treating a diverse range of patients.
She has worked with professional athletes, recovering drug addicts, people battling cancer, and patients no one else could help.
She determines the cause of disease with advanced medical testing and diagnostics, and treats that cause by working with the patient through education and functional, logical, evidence based medicine. She is an educator of both the public as well as physicians and health care workers, a world traveler, and nature lover.
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