Q & A

January 23, 2009
While poor nutrition habits and sedentary lifestyles are among the leading causes of heart disease, a host of other factors can increase one’s risk of developing serious heart problems. Here we answer readers’ questions about heart disease and how to prevent it.   

I’ve often heard that stress can lead to heart disease. How exactly is the heart affected by stress?

While there is still some uncertainty about the precise connection between stress and heart disease risk, stress is known to impact other risk factors that are known causes of heart disease. Stress raises the body’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels - two key factors for heart problems.

Stress also leads to unhealthy levels of certain hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which are produced by the hypothalamus gland located near the brain stem. These two hormones make our heart beat faster and cause the liver to produce more cholesterol. Cholesterol is the main cause of clogged arteries, which can ultimately cause a heart attack or stroke.

Cortisol stimulates the body’s production of sugar to provide a short-term energy source. When that extra energy isn’t used or burned, the sugar causes an accumulation of triglycerides and other fatty acids around the abdomen, raising the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

While each bout of stress may come and go quickly, the damage caused by frequent bouts of stress and chronic stress add up over time, potentially leading to serious heart, kidney and artery damage along with elevated blood pressure and high cholesterol. So, one of the best ways to protect yourself from heart disease is to reduce stress, exercise regularly and eat a healthier diet.
I try to maintain a low - fat diet, but my friend suggested that I should also be eating foods that have “healthy” fat. Would you explain more about healthy fats? Should I eat more of them?

Most foods contain more than one kind of fat - saturated, unsaturated, trans fat, etc. In addition to these, there are also healthy fats that should be included (in moderation) as part of a healthy diet.

There are two types of healthy fats - monounsaturated and polyunsaturated - that can help reduce the level of LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) cholesterol - the so-called “bad cholesterol” which is a major risk factor for clogged arteries and heart disease.

Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, peanuts, nuts and avocados. Polyunsaturated fat can be found in vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn and soy. Oily fish including salmon, mackerel and herring are excellent sources of polyunsaturated fat as they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Is chest pain usually a sign of heart disease?

When people experience chest pain, they often worry about heart disease. However, chest pain may also signal other serious conditions such as Acute Coronary Syndrome or a heart attack. Chest pain can sometimes be a symptom of a less serious problem such as heartburn, asthma, anxiety or stress, among others.

If the pain is severe enough to disrupt your normal daily activities, you should seek medical attention urgently

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