By Adam Meyer
A growing body of research shows a clear connection between your mind, heart, and total health. Find out how nurturing your mental health may help you live longer and prevent heart-related illnesses.
Feel like you need a mental health day? World events and pandemic life, added to our usual work tasks and to-do lists, have many of us feeling stressed out and weighed down with concern.
Now, you may have a very valid reason to take that day to yourself in an effort to restore your spirit: recent research shows heart health is inextricably linked to your mental health in a relationship the American Heart Association has termed the “mind-heart-body connection.” As Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT—a registered dietitian and yoga teacher—tells The Healthy: “Mental health conditions such as stress, depression, anxiety, and PTSD can lead to greater heart health issues if left unaddressed and untreated.”
Read below to discover how incorporating more heart-healthy behaviors into your routine could possibly reduce your risk of chronic disease and even heart attack… and how giving yourself space to cultivate a brighter mood could actually improve your cardiovascular wellness.
Does mental health cause heart problems?
Stress-related mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and PTSD actually place a significant amount of strain on your heart. Dietitian Enright says that as they impact your mental wellbeing, these disorders can also increase blood pressure, reduce blood flow, cause irregular heartbeats, and increase cortisol levels—leading to chronic inflammation, which can harm the heart. (Learn more about the effect of inflammation on your health.)
Further driving Enright’s point home, 2019 research in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation, suggested that psychological wellbeing (feelings of contentment, happiness, and life satisfaction) has been repeatedly associated with lower rates of both cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. This research also nodded to multiple past studies which found that patients who already had been diagnosed heart disease, but who reported more optimistic traits, saw lower rates of rehospitalization and mortality.
How, exactly, does this connection between mental health and your heart play out? “Takotsubo cardiomyopathy” is one condition that arguably demonstrates the connection. Also referred to as “broken-heart syndrome,” Takotsubo cardiomyopathy was first described in Japan in 1990. Since then, it has become regarded among some parts of the medical community as an acute form of heart failure that’s directly caused by severe emotional distress resulting from the loss of a loved one or the trauma associated with the end of a relationship. Astonishingly, over 90 percent of broken-heart syndrome cases occur in women.
Psychiatrist Leela Magavi, MD, Regional Medical Director for Mindpath Health, says the heart-mind connection is such a legitimate consideration that she “regularly” evaluates individuals with cardiac conditions—broken-heart syndrome being just one of them. “Individuals with depression and anxiety are more likely to develop coronary artery disease and have an increased risk of cardiac mortality,” Dr. Magavi says.
Your mental health may impact more than just your heart—as Dr. Magavi elaborates, “The body and mind are truly intertwined. Many men and women with depression and anxiety experience somatic symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, dizziness, chest discomfort, palpitations, abdominal pain, and nausea.”
(One possible way to carve out space for your mental wellness? Create an inviting meditation space.)
Signs your mental health needs an uplift
Another important point is that your mental health could be damaging your heart because of the ways you try to cope. For example, some people dealing with depression or anxiety engage in negative coping mechanisms, such as binge eating, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, poor sleep quality, substance abuse, and not exercising.
These patterns can exacerbate mental health issues and increase your risk of heart disease. As Dr. Joan Salge Blake, Clinical Nutrition Professor at Boston University and host of the Spot On! Podcast, tells us, when an individual is depressed, they may lose their appetite and therefore not eat, or experience an accelerated appetite and eat uncontrollably due to their emotions. “Both of these situations can cause them to be less likely to eat healthfully,” Dr. Blake explains. “If the situation is chronic, this unhealthy diet could be high in saturated fat, unhealthy fat, and added sugars, or low in adequate nutrients that the body and heart need for good health.”
(Also read 11 Potassium-Rich Foods for a Healthy Heart, From Nutrition Experts.)
How to improve your mood for better heart health
It’s important to recognize that when you feel blue or unwell over a period of time, getting “healthy” means being treated as a whole person. Michael Mahgerefteh, MD, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist, says it well: “It’s important to remind patients they need to treat themselves with self-respect,” he says. “This means engaging in healthy behaviors that promote our own health and wellbeing, like proper sleep, exercise, and diet.” Dr. Mahgerefteh adds these behaviors can help “battle the self-defeating side of ourselves and to show self-love and self-compassion that, over time, helps promote mental wellness.”
These actions may have a significant impact on heart health by reducing inflammation, lowering cholesterol, and decreasing blood pressure:
-Find a therapist you trust
-Eat more heart-healthy whole foods and less processed junk food
-Reduce or eliminate alcohol intake
-Practice mindfulness-based stress reduction
-Do yoga (https://www.thehealthy.com)