Heart-Brain Axis: Stress Takes A Huge Toll On Our Brains

Stress kills. 

It doesn’t just make us feel like we’re going to die 

…it actually puts our hearts in mortal danger. 

The heart is not just a pump that circulates blood through our bodies. 

The nervous system (especially the part of the brain called the hypothalamus) 

Works in tandem with the heart and has important effects on its activity. 

It’s the relationship between your brain and heart 

  • That’s the key to understanding why stress can affect your health.

The brain and the heart have a two-way relationship. 

This means if one system is injured or imbalanced, it will impact the other.

Over the past 2 decades, many studies have been done to gain more insight into this complex relationship.

Heart health can be seriously impaired when the central nervous system is unbalanced.

Research shows that emotions can physically impact cardiovascular health.

In this article, we’ll look at the heart-brain axis—how the two organs are connected, and how one affects the other. As well aw 8 ways to calm the mind & body.

What Stress Can Do To Your Body

Scientists have found that mental stress is exaggerated in people with abnormal heart rhythms. Did you know that stress can lead to sudden death? Yale researchers found that the sympathetic nervous system alters heart rhythm in both animals and humans. They also found that mental stress is exaggerated in people with abnormal heart rhythms. 

The autonomic nervous system (regulates heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal) and the endocrine system (that releases hormones) are managed by the central nervous system. The central nervous system can be broken down into two parts as follows:

  • The parasympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight)
  • The sympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest)

If out of balance the nervous system can seriously injure the heart when it overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system.

The Heart-Brain Connection & Sudden Death

Back in 1942, Professor of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, Walter B. Cannon published a paper called “‘Voodoo’ Death”. In which the author discussed sudden death from fright. Cannon believed that death from extreme emotions was likely due to “hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system”. Cannons’ work linking intense emotions (like fear) with illness has formed the basis for much of our modern understanding of the physiological response systems. 

The Nature Of The HPA Axis

The HPA axis is the name we give to a set of interactions between the hypothalamus (H) and the pituitary glands (P) in the brain and the adrenals (A), which are located on top of each kidney.

The HPA axis is our stress response system designed for survival purposes. Unfortunately, chronic stress is normal in modern times and people often fall ill due to excessive stress. Also known as an “autonomic storm.”

8 Things That Can Cause An Autonomic Storm

During overwhelming or life-threatening events that trigger the stress response, the nervous system gets overly stimulated, creating an autonomic storm. During an autonomic storm, the nervous system can even create physical cardiac lesions. The situations in which sudden death may occur can be classified into eight categories.

  1. Loss of status/ self-esteem
  2. Personal danger/ (perceived) threat of injury
  3. Recurring thoughts of the event, after the danger has gone
  4. Reunion, triumph, or happy ending.
  5. The impact of a close person’s death
  6. Acute grief
  7. The threat of loss of a close person
  8. During mourning (or on an anniversary of a sad event)

The Regulation Of The Heart-brain Axis

An area in the brain known as the insular cortex, is thought to be responsible for the regulation of the heart-brain axis. Stimulating higher cortical centres (that regulate language, vision, recognizing objects in space, and awareness) in animal studies have been shown to affect the heart.

The amygdala is a brain region that receives information from the prefrontal cortex and is relayed to the hypothalamus. In ideal conditions, it should modulate the effects of intense emotions on the heart. Continued stress can lead to the inability of this system to function properly. 

8 Ways to Calm the Mind & Body

A healthy balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity is essential for overall health. All too often we find ourselves overwhelmed with stress. Here are eight ways you can calm your mind and body:

  1. Start your day with yoga and/or meditation
  2. Practice deep breathing throughout the day
  3. Spend more time outdoors in nature
  4. Get regular exercise (even just 15 minutes a day can help)
  5. Eat slowly and mindfully (don’t multitask while eating)
  6. Get enough sleep each night (at least 6 hours)
  7. Get a relaxing massage
  8. Make sure that you consume enough magnesium via your diet

In Conclusion

Stress can do more than simply overwhelm our minds. In fact, it can have dire ramifications on the entire body, affecting everything from our brain tissue to our heart tissue. That’s why we need to understand exactly what stress is and how it impacts us. Only then can we work towards eliminating its effects and improving our health for the future. Why not try some of the methods above to calm your mind and body to reduce the impact of stress today.

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