Stress, diet and your heart

This past year has been incredibly stressful for our community. We all know it’s a lot easier to say “reduce your stress” than it is to actually do it. Sometimes, life comes at you like a freight train. For many of us, our response can be some unhealthy behaviors – eating too much, smoking, drinking, or being sedentary while watching too much TV or scrolling social media. This can lead to weight gain, increased pain, difficulty sleeping, and an overall feeling of being tired or blue and just flat-out cranky. What you might not realize is these behaviors are also having an effect on your heart.

Fight or Flight

When you’re under stress, your body reacts by releasing adrenaline. This hormone causes your blood pressure to rise and your heart rate to speed up. That reaction is called fight or flight – it might be why our ancestors survived in the wild, but it’s not so good for modern people in everyday life. If you stay in that mode for too long, it can lead to chronic stress – and chronic stress increases your risk of anxiety, depression, heart attack and stroke.

“Early intervention is the key to stress management,” says Shawn Brown, M.D., with Medical Center Psychiatry. “Asking for help, to prevent an accumulation of stress, is essential to keep it from being overwhelming. When in doubt, seek assistance from your healthcare providers and community.”

Eat good, feel better

You probably already know diet has a lot to do with keeping your heart healthy. Did you know it can also help you manage stress? Those high-fat, high-sugar foods might make you feel better in the moment by temporarily releasing dopamine in the brain; but the long-term effects can hurt, both physically and mentally.

A balanced diet, such as you’d find at myplate.gov, is based on eating less sugar and fat and more veggies, fruit and lean proteins. The switch from sugar and white flour – simple carbohydrates – to foods with complex carbohydrates such as beans, whole grains and vegetables, can help your physical and mental health by regulating your blood sugar, decreasing inflammation, reducing the risk of depression and heart disease, and increasing your energy.

If you need help sorting it all out talk to your primary care provider about Medical Nutrition Therapy. “Small, consistent changes in diet can add up to big improvements in overall health,” says Sarah Widener, RDN, LD, CDE, Director of Community Wellness with Med Center Health. You can learn more about Medical Nutrition Therapy at medcenterhealth.org/mnt.

Make friends with your primary care provider

A primary care provider can be your best friend and is the place to start if you want to feel better. He or she can guide you to a healthier lifestyle and help you manage chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure. Your primary care provider might start with a wellness exam that includes health screenings appropriate for you. This can give you an important baseline for starting your journey to better health and prevent heart disease, cancer and many other illnesses.

“As a primary care physician,” says Emily Cecil, M.D., with Med Center Health Primary Care, “I am on your team, and we will work together to get you to your best health. Physical movement is a key factor in a healthy lifestyle and helps prevent against cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even anxiety/depression. Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day is a great way to start.”

You have the power

Obesity has increased in the U.S. from around 30% in 2000 to over 42% today – If you add in everyone who is overweight, that number becomes two out of every three Americans. In addition, around 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders and almost 20 million have experienced at least one episode of major depression in the past year. We can stop these trends with just a few simple changes.

  • Significantly limit fast food and processed foods.
  • Reduce your screen time and increase social activities.
  • Drink more water and less soda or other sugary beverages.
  • Get up and move whenever you can, even if just for a few minutes.
  • Don’t smoke or vape.
  • Talk to a mental health professional if you’re feeling depressed or anxious.

You can find more help on how to get started on a healthy lifestyle at medcenterhealth.org/wellness.

An older man smiles at his doctor.