Chronic Stress and Vascular Disease – Detection can mean Prevention

NYC, Chronic Stress, and Taking care of your Heart and Vascular System:

At Avicenna cardiology, we practice in NYC, and it will come as no surprise that a significant portion of our patients are undergoing various forms of chronic stress.  Take a demanding job, often self-imposed expectations of a picture-perfect social life or relationship, and tack on anything else from family to money to, of course, health, and you have a recipe for chronic stress.   Now, not all stress is bad…in fact, stress is a a natural response to challenges and adversity (think: Flight or Flight) and isn’t always a bad thing. However, when it becomes chronic and unrelenting, it can have serious consequences on our health – including the development and worsening of vascular diseases.

Vascular diseases encompass a wide range of conditions affecting the blood vessels, such as atherosclerosis, hypertension, and stroke. These conditions can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. In this blog post, we’ll dive deep into how chronic stress can lead to vascular diseases, even in individuals who appear otherwise healthy, and explore strategies for managing stress and safeguarding vascular health.   These generally have a few things in common:  1.) they start “small” 2.) they get worse over time at a slow but persistent rate and 3.) without the ongoing diagnostic care of a cardiologist, they don’t usually get better, in fact, the outcome can be fatal.    The good news:  many of the warning signs can be seen early on, and can be treated through a variety of methods, or completely reversed.

Understanding Stress, and the difference between Acute and Chronic Stress:

While early man may have required the adrenaline response for a variety of very good reasons (contributing to us being around to write and read this today!), acute stress is very different from chronic stress, which I’m willing to bet is more prevalent today than back then, but of course, that’s just one woman’s guess.  The ongoing presence of stress driving the aforementioned response in various forms (though generally manifesting itself in a constant state of alertness) can lead to a range of physical and psychological health problems.

The Link Between Stress and Vascular Disease:

When the body experiences stress, it releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. While these changes are helpful in dealing with short-term stressors, they can be harmful if sustained over long periods. Chronic stress can lead to inflammation, oxidative stress, and endothelial dysfunction – all of which contribute to the development of vascular diseases.  How?  Simple, they all create inflammation, and the body responds to that inflammation.

Inflammation is a key player in the development of atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries. Similarly, oxidative stress can damage the cells lining the blood vessels, leading to endothelial dysfunction – a precursor to hypertension and other vascular diseases. The cumulative effect of these factors makes stress a silent but potent contributor to vascular disease.

While exercise contributes to a healthier vascular system, it alone is no match for irregular or insufficient sleep, the impacts of chronic stress, or a work-hard, play-hard pattern of behavior.   Worse still, it is easy for people who are in these aforementioned groups to rationalize their semi-regular cycles of stress inducing behavior as “temporary”, only to find that an honest assessment of their last few years, and likely next few years, will not have a significantly different profile in terms of chronic stressors.  In fact, the advent of a family, illness of elderly family, job relocation, etc. can all make matters worse than the “current baseline” being experienced.  Finally, behaviors such as smoking cigarettes, excessive alcohol consumption, or a sedentary job (behind a desk for more than 6 hours a day) all exacerbate the effects of stress on vascular disease.  These factors all increase the risk of inflammation, oxidative dress, and endothelial dysfunction.

Not all is lost…in the hands of knowledgeable care providers, you can understand your current level of risk, develop a plan for managing it through a variety of proven methods, and intervene early and often to have an objective understanding of your vascular health, and the impacts that your environment has either had, or is having on a system that is fragile, despite its beautiful complexity and fascinating mechanics.

At Avicenna Cardiology, we perform a variety of tests that are nearly always covered by insurance plans (we take most), and within days you can learn where you stand today, and how we can help you have a healthier tomorrow.

About the Author

Azadeh Beheshtian

Azadeh Beheshtian is board certified in cardiovascular disease and internal medicine by the American Board of Internal Medicine. She specializes in interventional cardiology and peripheral artery disease, with a focus on women’s heart health.