Medical contributor Dr. Mallika Marshall explained it on The Saturday Early Show, in the final part of the weeklong Early Show series, "Early Keeps the Beat,
Marshall says there's "clearly a mind-body connection. The brain collects signals from all over the body and translates them into instructions, telling various organs how to function, including our hearts. For example, if we're cold, if we're hot, if we're dehydrated, if we're frightened -- the brain sends signals to the heart telling it to speed up, slow down, pump harder, etc. And our moods can have a significant effect on our hearts, as well. For example, research out of Harvard has found that recurrent heart attacks may be more closely linked to depression than to other risk factors such as cholesterol, smoking, blood pressure or diabetes."
The moods in question, Marshall points out, are the ones that make us feel rotten, both emotionally and physically. For example, sudden bursts of anger or intense stress cause the brain to increase the production of cortisol and other "fight-or-flight" hormones. Cortisol can affect the lining of blood vessels over time, and make heart attack and stroke more likely. Long-term depression can also affect the heart in several ways. It can trigger the release of substances that can cause inflammation in blood vessels, which may be linked to heart disease. And the actual deficiency of serotonin (the "feel-good" hormone in our brains) that can trigger depression may also make our blood clot more easily, also promoting heart disease.
In addition, Marshall observes, moods can "absolutely" contribute to heart disease via an indirect route, by triggering behavior that can hurt our hearts. Take poor eating habits, for example. A study done last year at Cornell found that people were more likely to eat unhealthy comfort foods in larger quantities when they were sad than when they were happy. And over time, that can lead to obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, all of which can damage the heart. And we know that people are more likely to smoke if they're stressed or upset. And we know that smoking is a big risk factor for heart disease. And then there's exercise: People who are depressed are less likely to work out, and being sedentary also leads to heart disease. So, there are direct and indirect links between our moods and heart disease.
So, what can a person do to break this cycle?
If you're chronically angry or stressed, Marshall advises, do what you can to cool down and prepare yourself to handle the challenges of bumper-to-bumper traffic, your kids running around like crazy, your boss giving you a heard time, your spouse annoying you to no end. Relaxation techniques can help: breathing exercises, medication, massage, a day at the spa! Also -- psychotherapy and other forms of anger-management training. And of course, exercise has not only been shown to improve mood, but to have a direct positive impact on the heart, as well. And then, for people with chronic clinical depression, anti-depressants called SSRIs might help both the heart and your mood by boosting serotonin levels.