With all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s hard to imagine life without stress—but you’re in luck, these tips will help you remain stress-free despite your holiday to-dos!
Research shows that the stress-inflammation cycle is as detrimental to your heart as a plate full of the cheesiest fettuccine Alfredo. “Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, cause the arteries to constrict, which results in a rise in blood pressure and decrease in blood flow,” Moyad explains. Less blood flow means less oxygen circulating through the body to combat free radicals—unstable cells that can damage healthy tissues. “We know now that bad LDL cholesterol only becomes threatening when levels get so high that it binds with free radicals,” Moyad says. When this happens, LDL changes structure and gets absorbed by the arterial walls’ lining, resulting in plaque buildup, or atherosclerosis. Such tissue damage causes the immune system to go into overdrive, triggering inflammation. Reduce your risk with these effective mind-body therapies.
>>1. Walk to be fit
Regular physical exertion that forces the heart to work harder strengthens the muscle and helps it function more efficiently even after the exertion is over, Goodman says. A 2002 Harvard study of nearly 74,000 healthy postmenopausal women found walking provided the same substantial reduction in cardiovascular disease risk as more vigorous exercise. Goodman recommends walking for 30 to 60 minutes a day, moving fast enough to break a light sweat. “You want to keep your heart rate between 70 percent and 85 percent of your maximum capacity, which you can calculate by subtracting your age from 220,” he says. Wear a heart-rate monitor if you’re not sure you’re working at the proper intensity.
>>2. Link mind, body, and breath
“Yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong combine physical exercise with a meditative focus on the breath, which promotes relaxation,” Bradley says. “We know that exercise and stress reduction are both crucial components of protecting heart health, so any time you can combine the two, you do yourself a double service.” Research agrees: Landmark studies by Dean Ornish, MD, a San Francisco–based cardiologist, found that adding a stress-management component—in particular, yoga or meditation—to increased exercise and a low-saturated-fat diet resulted in significant weight loss and reductions in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
>>3. Banish the blues
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depressed people are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease. The relationship between mental health and heart health is twofold, Moyad says. Part of it is behavioral—depression makes you less inspired to take care of yourself. But some of the relationship is physiological. Depression raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and leads to inflammation.
Treating your depression may mean talking to your doctor about antidepressants, or it could mean making a few key lifestyle changes that help you feel more empowered and energized. “I counsel my patients to look at all aspects of their everyday lives—their commutes, their jobs, their leisure activities—and see what things they do every day that might be negatively impacting their mental heath,” Moyad says. If, for example, your long commute is draining your mental resources and leaving you feeling emotionally frazzled, make a small change: Take public transportation so you have more time to read. “Anything that causes you mental and emotional stress is more of a drain on your health than you realize,” Moyad says.
>>4. Believe in the power of touch
Massage has been hailed for its ability to reduce tension, and these effects translate into measurable benefits for the heart. A single deep-tissue massage produced noteworthy reductions in blood pressure and heart rate in participants in a recent study. “Reiki [a form of touch therapy] is great for stimulating relaxation, which shifts the body out of stress response and balances the nervous system, reducing strain on the heart,” Cameron says. At least one study found that preterm infants who received a therapy similar to Reiki had heart rates that were better able to adapt to and recover from stress than infants who didn’t receive the therapy.
>>5. Prioritize relaxation
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the heart is the emperor of the body—it feeds all systems and rules the mind. The connection between the mind and the heart is more than just metaphysical: In a 2008 study conducted by researchers at the Medical College of Georgia, adolescents who practiced simple breath-awareness meditation for 20 minutes a day—10 minutes in school and 10 minutes at home—for three months experienced significant reductions in blood pressure and resting heart rate. Laurie Steelsmith, ND, a specialist in TCM recommends meditating 20 minutes a day at least four times a week to reap the full benefits of the practice. Or give your heart a mini-vacation by settling in with your favorite soothing CD. Research shows the heart synchronizes its beating to increases and decreases in music tempo. “We often use classical music to help our patients’ heart rate slow to 60 to 70 beats per minute,” says Michelle Cameron, director of healing solutions at the Cleveland Clinic.
By Kate Hanley