How does stress can cause a heart attack or stroke?

Chronic stress clogs arteries by taking a detour through the immune system: that’s the conclusion researchers at Harvard Medical School reached in a recent study.

Stress and sleep | Circulation

Sonia Chartier

02 January 2017

About Stress

The statistical correlation has been known for a long time. Stress triggers a multitude of diseases, including arteriosclerosis. But until that study was done, the mechanism behind the phenomenon wasn’t entirely understood…


As part of the study, doctors at Harvard detected a high number of immune cells in stressed hospital staff, which led them to uncover the yet-unknown link in the cause-and-effect chain between the psyche and organ damage: among other things, stress releases noradrenaline into the bone marrow.

This process causes stem cells in the blood to produce white blood cells, which in turn secrete inflammatory substances. And it’s these substances that cause toxic plaque to build up in blood vessels, which in the worst case scenario can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Positive stress and negative stress

Located on the surface of stem cells in the bone marrow, a receptor called Beta 3 clearly plays a key role in this vicious circle. In situations of positive stress (eustress), this receptor sets off a yellow alert: if it’s activated, white blood cells spread, prepare the body to confront threats and, if need be, react to injury and infections.

When chronic, negative stress is at play (distress), beta 3’s alarm bells also go off, but the immune cells roam around the body, without focusing a specific crisis location in the body, which harms the blood vessels.

Five ways to manage stress to give your heart a helping hand

  1. Be positive! According to the study, people with heart disease who are positive and optimistic are less likely to die than those who are negative. Laughing may indeed be the best medicine for your heart. Research has shown that laughing lowers stress hormone levels, reduces inflammation of the arteries and increases “good” cholesterol.
  2. Meditate. Studies have shown that practicing introspection and deep breathing can help reduce the incidence of risk factors for heart disease, such as hypertension. Meditation is something everyone can do. All you need is a few minutes to sit in a quiet location, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Yoga and prayer can also relax both body and mind.
  3. Exercise. Every time you get physically active, whether you take a walk, play tennis or anything else, your body releases hormones called endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. Exercise not only eliminates stress, but it also protects you against heart disease by lowering blood pressure and strengthening the cardiac muscle, and by helping you reach or maintain a healthy weight.
  4. Disconnect. It’s impossible to shake stress off if you let it follow you wherever you go. Try to avoid emails and the news, whether on TV or online. Take time every day—10 or 15 minutes will do—to cut yourself off from the outside world.
  5. Find your best stress-reliever. Take a bath, listen to music or read a book. Whatever you do is good as long as it works.