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How does your mental health impact your heart health and vice versa?

How does your mental health impact your heart health and vice versa?

Did you know that certain mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and trauma can affect your heart?  Sometimes quite profoundly? 

In the most extreme example, some people can actually develop a “broken heart” after a very traumatic event – like the sudden death of a spouse or a natural disaster such as an earthquake.  In this situation, a person may present with symptoms that for all the world look like a heart attack, behave like a heart attack and can have the same tragic outcome as a heart attack, but have nothing to do with heart artery blockages. Fortunately, with prompt medical care, most people who experience “broken heart syndrome” will recover fully.

That’s a dramatic, relatively rare consequence of an acute, extremely stressful event.  Chronic mental health conditions are far more common and tend to have more insidious and long-lasting effects.

One recent study by Johns Hopkins researchers, for example, looked at young adults with depression and found that those who reported feeling down mentally about half of the time experienced double the risk of cardiovascular disease.

But the association can go both ways. There is no question that some people with long-term depression, anxiety or PTSD develop heart problems. It’s also clear that people who undergo bypass surgery, suffer a heart attack or survive a stroke may develop depression, anxiety or PTSD as a result.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depression, anxiety and PTSD can result in increased heart rate and blood pressure, reduced elasticity of heart arteries, and increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). And we already know that - regardless of your mental health - all of these factors increase the risk of heart disease.

Here’s how the CDC illustrates it:

 

A key point in this illustration is that poor mental health may lead to reduced focus on diet and exercise, higher likelihood of smoking, as well as lower medication adherence. And if you’re at risk of heart disease already, none of that is going to help.

But there is good news: Treating mental health disorders early can help prevent the cascade of negative impacts. Getting connected to services such as cognitive behavior therapy and following through with appointments and recommendations on medications is important. And can help you get back on track when it comes to not only psychological health but physical health as well.

All of this is really easy to say.  It’s not always really easy to do.  Despite growing acknowledgment that mental health disorders are common and the fact that the stigma around these conditions is generally lifting, people suffering with these conditions may still feel shame in bringing them up or admitting they have a problem.  Furthermore, people in the midst of experiencing mental health issues might not even recognize their symptoms (like loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities or exaggerated irritability) - or understand their significance. 

Please know that most healthcare providers want to help – if they know you are struggling.  So, if you think you – or someone you love – falls into this category, let your care provider know, or encourage your loved one to seek help.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the critical role food might play in all of this.  We are just scratching the surface of our understanding about the gut-brain connection.  But so far, it looks not only real but very powerful.  Turns out our gut bacteria are intimately involved in the production of various hormones and substances that impact mood. And that this production is heavily influenced by dietary inputs. That’s not to imply that changing diet will be the miracle cure for clinical depression – but it is to say that what we eat has far broader impacts than just helping us lose weight or improve a cholesterol number.

Which is why eating better – whether or not it results in a measurable change in weight or LDL – is still vital to our overall health.   Blue Zones people eat a whole-food plant-based diet and routinely experience feelings of purpose and joy.  These pillars might just be more intertwined than we thought.

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