Stress and heart health.

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Dr Stephen Sinatra. Psychology Today. January 11, 2009, Integrative Medicine

Dr Stephen Sinatra

Stress and protecting your health.

Better health during tough times.

During the continuing economic turmoil, the plight of an 89-year-old Massachusetts man aired on TV’s Good Morning America put the situation in a very poignant, personal framework.

Paul Camyre was unable to pay his heating and tax bills. “I’ve been around a long time,” he said, “and I never saw anything like this.” The World War II combat veteran was too proud to ask for help. Family members and friends didn’t know of his dire straits. But Lady Luck appeared magically-somehow out of the blue-in the form of producers from the popular TV morning program. They filmed his plight. After the story was shown Mr. Camyre received a flood of money from generous Americans that enabled him to meet his financial challenges.

For most people there is no such luck falling into their laps and for many, savings, investments, and jobs have been wiped out. And for the unfortunate ones, Jimmy Buffett’s 1999 song “There’s Nothing Soft About Hard Times” seems to aptly describe the situation. There are, however, some actions each and everyone of us can and should do to soften the potential damage that hard times can exert on our health.

During the course of my decades in medical practice I have treated numerous patients who developed cardiac arrhythmias, high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks as a result of stressful events in their lives, including finances gone sour. Stress comes a knocking in many shapes and forms and can be as deadly as a bullet unless we learn how to fortify ourselves.

I always tell patients going through hard times to be strong and develop some thick skin because if not they will lose their health in addition to whatever losses they are dealing with-whether it’s a marriage on the rocks, a beloved spouse who has died, or the loss of a job or a financial setback. I tell them to remember that their primary asset in life remains their health, and to treasure and safeguard it.

I would like to share with you some of the recommendations I have given to patients over the years to help them maintain health during periods of stress:

• Rally around your community, the supportive environment of family, friends, and religious and spiritual affiliations. Talk to those who know you and love you. You can better withstand stress than if you are alone.

• Be grateful for all that you have. Express gratitude on a regular basis. While watching an HBO miniseries on John Adams and life in early America, I was struck by the stark contrast of the lives of those people in comparison to ours. They were constantly threatened by death, disease, and the elements. They were tough. But they pulled through. Many of us in this age of convenience and abundance have become jaded and thin-skinned. Stop and take stock. Be grateful.

• Meditate. It’s a great natural relaxing method that puts the brakes on speeding stress hormones. I have been doing Transcendental Meditation for years and it particularly serves me when my mind is running amok. There are many different forms of meditation, and, of course, prayer. Yoga and Tai-Chi are effective as well. Find something that works for you and do it regularly.

• Stress erodes health in many ways, major and minor. Nutritional supplements can help protect you.

–Vitamin C (at least 500-1,000 mg daily), a reliable protector of your adrenal glands that can become depleted from chronic stress;

–B complex nutrients, found in multi vitamin formulas, help protect your nervous system;

–Magnesium (400 mg), a critical mineral in many of the body’s enzymatic reactions. It is depleted by stress;

–Fish oil (at least 1 gm) protects your arteries and helps prevent plaque eruption;

–White chestnut, a superb flower remedy available in health food stores. It helps calm fear and anxiety. Take 5 drops three times a day.

• Exercise. A brisk walk or workout takes your mind off problems.

• Play with a pet or a grandchild.

• Be available to others. We are all in this boat together. We all have our problems. Helping others is good for your emotions and your body. It makes you feel good about yourself. Psychologists call it the “server’s high.”

• Look for opportunities in a crisis time. Don’t succumb to a victim mentality.

• Finally, put things into perspective: “Don’t sweat the small stuff because it is all small stuff.” I share that perfect piece of advice with patients all the time. I got it from Is It Worth Dying For?, a 1984 bestselling book written by Robert Eliot, a cardiologist at the University of Nebraska.

Eliot, while standing at a hospital podium in the mid-1970s and delivering a lecture on how to prevent heart attacks, suffered the very thing he was talking about: a heart attack. He was 44 years old at the time. He survived the event and made a full recovery. As he returned back to health he recognized that stress had brought him down and that he had to make dramatic lifestyle changes or else he was a goner. With a new lease on life, he went on to establish the Department of Preventive and Stress Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and became an outspoken advocate for productivity without self-destruction.

Eliot’s examples serves us all well in these times. No matter what happens we need to ask ourselves: Is it worth dying for?



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