In Part 1 and 2 of this series on the impact of stress on your body, I looked at the impact of stress – both high levels and chronic low levels – on the Digestive and Immune systems, on skin conditions, headaches and migraines. Part 3 of this series will investigate the impact of stress on cardiovascular health and insomnia.
Stress (this can be physical, emotional or environmental stress) has long been thought to contribute to cardiovascular disease, some of the mechanisms by which are not known. But research has time and again shown that there is a strong link between high cortisol levels and cardiovascular disease.
Atherosclerosis, commonly referred to as a build up of plaque in the arteries, is a major contributor to heart attacks. The plaque builds up inside blood vessels, narrowing them and raising blood pressure. This narrowing of the blood vessels also means that less blood is getting to vital organs, including the heart. A complete blockage of coronary blood vessels from atherosclerosis is the cause of a heart attack. Small pieces of the plaque can also break off and travel through the blood stream leading to a stroke.
It has been thought in the past that the build up of plaque was caused by high cholesterol, but research is now showing that it is the oxidation of fats and inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis. High levels of cortisol, as mentioned in Part 2 of this series, can lead to inflammation, which in turn can affect any part of the body, including the blood vessels where it can lead to the formation of plaque.
There have been many studies linking cortisol to atherosclerosis. One such study, published in 2008 and involving 1,866 participants, concluded “Our results support the hypothesis that increased total cortisol exposure is independently associated with atherosclerosis of the carotid arteries.” Another study published in the journal Atherosclerosis concluded “… significant correlations between elevated serial morning plasma cortisols and moderate to severe coronary atherosclerosis.”
Another way that chronic stress and the resulting high cortisol levels can lead to cardiovascular disease is in cortisol’s ability to alter fat distribution, depositing more fat in the abdominal region which has long been linked to an increase in cardiovascular disease.
Cortisol and adrenaline can also lead to cardiovascular disease by raising blood pressure and increasing the heart rate, thus putting extra pressure on the heart.
Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose into the blood stream as part of the “fight or flight” response. This extra glucose gives energy to either fight or run from the threat, but continuous high levels of blood glucose has also been linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease. A 2004 study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, analysed the blood glucose levels of 237,468 participants and concluded that “… fasting blood glucose is an important determinant of CVD burden …”
Insomnia impairs cognitive function, attention span, concentration, alertness and problem solving. It can lead to cardiovascular disease, depression, weight gain and immune dysfunction. There are many causes of insomnia – drinking too much caffeine late in the day, poor sleep habits, medications, certain medical conditions and pain just to name a few. But without a doubt, the most common cause of insomnia is stress and anxiety. Our cortisol levels are meant to be highest in the morning, which gives us the alertness we need to start the day and the lowest in the evening and during the night, when the cortisol is replaced by melatonin which helps us to sleep. If we are continually stressed during the day, the levels of cortisol are still high of an evening and during the night, leading to insomnia. What often happens is that the melatonin, which should be highest during the night, is then high in the morning when you wake up, leading to feeling tired and unrefreshed when you wake up.
If high cortisol and low melatonin levels are causing your insomnia, you need to get your body back into balance. The best way to do this is to “de-stress” through deep breathing techniques, yoga, meditation or exercise. This needs to be done during the day and of an evening. The idea is to make sure that your cortisol levels don’t rise too high in the first place, rather than getting stressed throughout the day and then attempting to “de-stress” yourself of an evening.
There are also specific herbs and nutrients that lower cortisol levels in the body that can be very effective in eliminating insomnia. If you do suffer from insomnia, it is important to seek professional help. Insomnia can impact negatively on the body in many ways, so to retain optimum health, a good night’s sleep is essential.
Part 4 of this series will focus on the impact stress has on weight gain and osteoporosis.
By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane. For an appointment phone 0412 791 705