A Cardiologist Explains Impact of Stress on Your Health, and What to Do About It

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October 27, 2020


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The year 2020 has taken its toll on the stress levels of most people, but some are more vulnerable than others. If you’ve been fortunate to avoid COVID-19, you’ve undoubtedly dealt with the worries and anxiety that accompanies a pandemic.

And now we have a national election in a few days that only adds fuel to the so-called stress hormone (cortisol), which can cause an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure.

This week, Baptist Health is featuring “Elections & Your Health,” a special Instagram LIVE series, each day at 2 p.m. EST. Baptist Health experts discuss different health topics, such as managing high blood pressure, anxiety, overeating and over drinking. Amy Exum, LMHC, a psychotherapist with Baptist Health’s Community Health & Wellness team, is the host.

On Monday, Ms. Exum spoke with Eli Friedman, M.D., medical director of sports cardiology at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.

“Yes, these are unprecedented times as we keep saying, but we’re losing track of a lot of the things that can help build our health moving forward,” explains Dr. Friedman.

What Dr. Friedman refers to is losing track of vitally important, health-related tasks, such as taking prescribed medications, exercising, touching base with your primary care physician, and tending to annual cancer screenings.

Here’s more from Dr. Friedman’s Instagram LIVE segment with Ms. Exum.

Ms. Exum: Isn’t it true that stress has immediate effects on a person’s health, and particularly if someone has an underlying health condition — and they may not even know it, such as high blood pressure?

Dr. Friedman:
“So, stress is very difficult to quantify … but we know that stress has significant physiologic impacts on the body. It changes how our bodies function. So, when we are stressed, we gain weight. When we’re stressed, we don’t exercise as well. We don’t sleep as well. We don’t eat as well. Our blood pressure does go up. Our blood sugar goes up. When exposed to stress for long periods, it is not healthy for us overall. High blood pressure is called the ‘silent killer’ for a reason — because most often people walk around with blood pressures of 160 systolic or 170 (120 or lower is normal) and won’t feel that. Some people will have headaches, but a lot of people won’t … It’s really important to recognize when we’re feeling stressed. It’s really important to try to deal with that by speaking with people … a mental health professional.”

Ms. Exum: Could you tell us about the importance of doing things like taking your prescribed medications and seeing your primary care physician, or any specialist that you may have — especially if you do have some underlying health conditions?

Dr. Friedman:
“Being a sports cardiologist, we often talk in sports terms. So, the fundamentals are really important. And the fundamentals are, exactly as you mentioned, taking care of one’s health. That does include taking the medications, exercising, touching base with your primary care physician, doing the annual cancer screenings that need to be done — for the age-appropriate screenings — and knowing your numbers, which we always talk about from the cardiovascular perspective. What’s your blood pressure; what’s your blood glucose; what are your cholesterol numbers. These are really important things that form the foundation and the basis for wellness and health moving forward. So, yes, it’s stressful. Yes, these are unprecedented times as we keep saying, but we’re losing track of a lot of the things that can help build our health moving forward.”

Ms. Exum: Can you talk a little bit about atrial fibrillation (AFib), or abnormal heart rhythm. I was reading that almost three million Americans actually have this … and that many people don’t know they have?

Dr. Friedman:
“You’re right, the majority of people are not going to know they have it. But, unfortunately, one of the things that comes along with atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the risk of strokes, little blood clots can form inside of the heart and they can break off and go to the brain or other parts of the body. It can really cause terrible effects. So, atrial fibrillation is absolutely something that is in our population; it’s all around the world and we’re only seeing more of it as we age. Certainly here at Baptist Health, in our own cardiology group, we have electrophysiologists who are coming up with all the latest and greatest techniques to deal with AFib to ablate it — to get rid of it (catheter ablation is a common treatment for AFib). In fact, I just spoke with somebody … about atrial fibrillation and the great success she’s had since her ablation. So, we’re only going to see more of atrial fibrillation, both with athletes and non-athletes.”

Ms. Exum: I’ve seen an explosion of health devices, whether it’s smart watches measuring your heart rate or measuring your sleep. Some of these devices, they say, can monitor your heart rate and tell you if something abnormal is happening. What do you think about those devices and how much information should we grab from them?

Dr. Friedman:
“If you’re trying to improve your fitness or your athletic performance, they can be helpful. But again, there’s a lot of the data out there. There’s a lot of noise and a lot of them (devices) haven’t been validated just yet. So again, know why you’re purchasing it and what you’re purchasing it for. Then … take it with you next to (the doctor) to treat whatever it is you’re looking for. (These devices offer) a clue that can then lead us toward a certain path. Again, if you’re looking at it just from a fitness standpoint, maybe it will help you sort of improve your step count — etc. But if you’re using it for medical purposes, it’s really important then to take that information and use it for follow-up (with your doctor). In our clinic, we’re looking at people’s phones and watches and their data all of the time, which then helps us to inform the next decision. So, yes, they definitely should be followed up upon, and the discussion should be had about those variables that are of concern.”

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