In a study published Wednesday in The Lancet, researchers at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that stress increases the risk of heart problems by way of an overactive amygdala in the brain.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of nuclei deep in the brain’s temporal lobe, controls autonomic responses associated with fear, arousal and emotional stimulation. A healthy amygdala can help to protect the brain against stress, while an overactive amygdala resulting from chronic stress or other factors can amplify the stress response.
The study found that the amygdala signals bone marrow to produce extra white blood cells, which can cause the arteries to become inflamed. This can then lead to heart attacks, angina and strokes.
“Our results provide a unique insight into how stress may lead to cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, a Harvard cardiologist and lead author of the study. “This raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological well-being.”
For the study, 293 people without heart problems over the age of 30 were measured for brain activity, bone marrow density and artery inflammation. The researchers followed the participants from 2005 to 2008, during which time 22 individuals suffered adverse cardiac events.
Participants with more active amygdalas were more likely to have a cardiac episode over the course of the study, and were more likely to develop heart problems sooner than those with less active amygdalas.
When advising patients on heart attack prevention, cardiologists typically focus on things like diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and physical activity. The results of the study suggest that stress management should be considered as a preventative health measure as well.
So, if you work in a high-pressure environment or find yourself under constant stress, consider taking up yoga, meditation, guided imagery or other stress-reducing activities to keep your amygdala mellow and your heart healthy.