How Stress Affects Heart Health

How Stress Affects Heart Health

The purpose of the stress response is to adapt to short-term, acute stress. It is a compensatory mechanism of the body in an effort to return to safety and health. It is beneficial for epinephrine and norepinephrine to be released in short-term, acute stress, causing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate to increase, all in an effort to escape from the immediate threat.

The problem lies with chronic, ongoing stress, which can have long-term physical consequences. It can be particularly disruptive to heart health.

In today’s world, ongoing, chronic stress has become the norm. In chronic stress, glucocorticoids such as cortisol play a larger role. Excess cortisol leads to high blood pressure, high blood sugar, insulin resistance, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and even decreased immunity.[1]
It also contributes to obesity, particularly the abdominal obesity that is associated with cardiovascular risk.[2,3] Studies even show that mental stress may make the difference between stable coronary artery disease and major cardiovascular events.[4]

Given the impact of stress and its hormones on risk factors for cardiovascular disease, it is no wonder that cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada.[5] We are not alone. In the United States, cardiovascular disease has surpassed cancer to become the leading cause of death.[6]

So, what can we do to manage our stress? Stress reduction is no longer a luxury. It is becoming clear that our lives depend on it.

One study specifically examined the impact of relaxation and resiliency training on healthcare utilization. At 1 year, healthcare utilization had declined to 43% of its previous total for those in the training group.[7]We tend to think of stress as a primarily psychological issue; it is important to remember that it is also a physiological one. Stress is a mind-body phenomenon, and learning to cultivate the relaxation response can help to create measurable physiological change. In another clinical trial, patients with hypertension were trained in the relaxation response. After the training, they experienced not only decreased blood pressure but beneficial changes in genetic expression.[8]

Dietary supplements can also help facilitate a healthier stress response. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and L-theanine help to promote temporary relaxation [9,10] and may also help to support healthy sleep. Ashwagandha root, from the Withania somnifera plant, has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, and may help to cultivate resistance to stress [11]

By managing our stress level, we can cultivate health. Our hearts will thank us for it.



[1] Whitworth JA, Williamson PM, Mangos G, et al. Cardiovascular consequences of cortisol excess. Vasc Health Risk Manag. 2005;1(4):291-299.

[2] Fang H, Berg E, Cheng X, et al. How to best assess abdominal obesity. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2018;21(5):360-365.

[3] Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011;15(1):18-22.

[4] Lima BB, Hammadah M, Kim JH, et al. Association of Transient Endothelial Dysfunction Induced by Mental Stress With Major Adverse Cardiovascular Events in Men and Women With Coronary Artery Disease. JAMA Cardiol. 2019;4(10):988-996.

[5] Statistics Canada. Table 13-10-0394-01 Leading causes of death, total population, by age group


[6] FastStats. Published 2020. Accessed December 13, 2020.

[7] Stahl JE, Dossett ML, LaJoie AS, et al. Relaxation Response and Resiliency Training and Its Effect on Healthcare Resource Utilization [published correction appears in PLoS One. 2017 Feb 21;12 (2):e0172874]. PLoS One. 2015;10(10):e0140212. Published 2015 Oct 13.

[8] Bhasin MK, Denninger JW, Huffman JC, et al. Specific Transcriptome Changes Associated with Blood Pressure Reduction in Hypertensive Patients After Relaxation Response Training. J Altern Complement Med. 2018;24(5):486-504.

[9] Abdou AM, Higashiguchi S, Horie K, et al. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. Biofactors 2006; 26(3):201-8.

[10] Hidese S, Ogawa S, Ota M, et al. Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2362. Published 2019 Oct 3.

[11] Langade D, Kanchi S, Salve J, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Insomnia and Anxiety: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Study. Cureus. 2019;11(9):e5797. Published 2019 Sep 28.