Saturday, May 3, 2014

Cardiovascular Events - A Perfect Storm

by Dr. Iva Lloyd, BScH, BCPP, ND

Cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack or a stroke can develop slowly over time, but too often they occur because of a "perfect storm".  This "perfect storm" generally involves three things:

  1. An underlying cardiovascular risk
  2. Acute lifestyle indiscretions or excesses
  3. A current stressful event.

Cardiovascular Risk

For too long the emphasis of preventing a heart attack or stroke has been linked to lowering blood pressure or reducing cholesterol.  This medical approach has proven insufficient in lowering the number of cardiovascular events and, even worse, it has resulted in a tremendous number of people taking medications that have severe side-effects and actually increase their risk of other diseases such as diabetes and kidney disease. This isn't to say that high blood pressure or high cholesterol are to be ignored, it is just that by focusing on them alone, especially with medication, is not sufficient to truly decrease your risk of a heart attack or stroke.  If you are taking medication to lower cholesterol or blood pressure, I encourage you to check out the following:

Lifestyle Indiscretions or Excesses

Heart disease, including hypertension and atherosclerosis have long been known as "lifestyle diseases". Identifying and addressing the lifestyle factors that put you at risk is the most proactive step that you can take to reduce your risk of a cardiovascular event. Cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor dietary choices, dehydration, lack of regular exercise and lack of adequate sleep are the most common factors linked to chronic cardiovascular diseases.  The factors that generally put you at acute risk for a heart attack or stroke include:
  • being mentally or physically exhausted 
  • a time of excessive exercise without adequate hydration and/or recovery 
  • binge drinking or high alcohol consumption over a short period of time
  • high amount of caffeine, or just being sensitive to the impact of caffeine
  • a large meal high in fat or salt, fatty meats or processed food (which is generally high in salt)
  • lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet.

Current Stress

The factor that is often overlooked or negated as being that important is an extreme current stressful situation. Individuals at greatest risk are those that tend to hold their emotion in. The emotions of greatest concern are anger, frustration, a sense of inappropriateness or injustice, hostility or a sense of urgency or pressure that is overwhelming. The type of stressful situations that seem to have the greatest impact are situations that take a person off-guard or that are outside of the normal stress that a person is used to dealing with. Other situations are where a person is "on-hold" or is "sitting-on-the-fence". The first connection between stress and cardiovascular events was discovered in situations of hurricanes, natural disasters, terrorism, etc.

The first step for most individuals is to realize how upset or worked up they are at any given time. The next step is learning to express emotions or to dissipate them through exercise or other activities. Once emotions have been dissipated, it is beneficial for individuals to have some form of meditation, mindfulness or relaxation that will assist in calming down and relaxing both their body and their mind. A general rule-of-thumb is that it is important to dissipate emotions before you calm the body down or distract yourself with other activities.

During times of stress it is helpful to watch what you eat and drink more carefully.  Many people "add to the problem" by eating and drinking foods that increase their blood pressure and hence their risk.  When under stress, it is helpful to avoid that extra cup of coffee or alcohol and to choose a healthy meal over one that is high in salt or fat.

If you have hypertension it is valuable to take your blood pressure when you are "worked up" to truly understand how your blood pressure reflects or is impacted by the stress in your life. Also, learning how to dissipate acute stress can be very effective in preventing a serious cardiovascular event.

If you want to learn more about how to handle stress differently so that it doesn't have such a profound effect on your health talk to Dr Iva Lloyd, ND.