February 3, 2022

How Does Stress Impact Our Heart Health?

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Jana Siminski, executive director of the West Michigan American Heart Association. Together, they discuss how stress can impact our heart health.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

    • What happens in the body when we’re stressed.
    • How to know if stress is impacting your heart health.
    • What we can do to reduce our stress.
    • When we should seek out help if we’re having trouble managing our stress.

For more info on how to manage stress, visit the resources below:

How Does Stress Affect the Body?

3 Tips to Manage Stress

What is Stress Management?

Stress and Strain, Body and Mind Infographic

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, episode 99. Coming up, we discuss stress and the impact it can have on your heart health.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. This is a podcast that’s dedicated to navigating how we can all improve our health and wellbeing through small, healthy habits. We can start right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica, and every other week, we’ll sit down with an expert to discuss topics covering nutrition, fitness, a whole lot more. And today it’s all about your heart and heart health. On this episode, diving deeper into the notion of stress and how that can impact our heart health. With us today is the Executive Director of the West Michigan American Heart Association, Jana Siminski. Jana, good to have you with us.

Jana Siminski:
Hi, Chuck. Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, we’re happy you’re here. Happy 2022. I know that you’re passionate about the American Heart Association. You’ve also previously been involved with the Go Red for Women campaign, Heart Ball initiatives. And so here you are someone who’s a runner, you’re a mom of two, wife to Mike. I mean, you’re running all the time. So by default, I think your heart health is probably doing pretty well. Am I right?

Jana Siminski:
I certainly hope so. Yes.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Well, this idea that we’re going to focus on is a very interesting one to me because there’s this idea of the world that we’re living in and coming out of, we hope, which is filled with stress and anxiety for some. So there’s that, but stress is a common part of life. And at one point or another, maybe we’ve all felt the stress, either emotional stress, physical stress, and our bodies can react in different ways. There can be fight or flight. I know somebody, maybe their blood pressure goes up or the pulse races or something when they’re stressed. But what happens if we experience elevated stress levels on a consistent basis? How does that affect heart health?

Jana Siminski:
Well, it is important to note that stress is a fact of life and we all have stress and chronic stress is not good for us. So it’s important to acknowledge stress and to be able to put stress reduction techniques into your daily life.

Chuck Gaidica:
So when we’re doing that and we’re trying to find ways to do that, it’s kind of interesting to me. I used to run. I’ve got a trick left knee now, so I don’t run as much as I walk or bike or something. But it’s interesting when we talk about this idea on purpose, you, as a runner are going to try to elevate your heart rate for better health. And yet for some, doing similar things, whether you’re trying on purpose or otherwise, elevating systems in your body caused by stress can be bad. So we’ve got to try to discern what that means in our daily life as we’re trying to de-stress. Right?

Jana Siminski:
Absolutely. I think it’s the chronic stress when it becomes overwhelming and that’s when you need to acknowledge it and do things that make you happy so that you’re not thinking about it and it takes you away. So absolutely.

Chuck Gaidica:
So with chronic stress, what is it that can happen to us that’s harmful? What happens to our overall health if it’s impacted by chronic stress?

Jana Siminski:
Well, when we have chronic stress levels, it can lead to high blood pressure, which can increase our risk for heart attack and stroke. So that’s why it’s important to acknowledge stress and to be able to do things that can help alleviate it.

Chuck Gaidica:
And when you talk about high blood pressure, this fascinates me specifically because my late dad suffered from hypertension. So he was aware he had a problem, and yet, sometimes he didn’t manage it. We talk about underlying conditions a lot. A lot of people may not know that that’s an issue for them, right?

Jana Siminski:
Well, that’s true. A lot of times you don’t know that you have an issue until you are at the height of that issue when you are in the ER type of situation. So it is important to just try to do a self-check and check in on yourself regularly.

Chuck Gaidica:
I know you pointed out to me off mic, you’re not a doctor. I’m not either, I only play one on the podcast. But this idea, you’re an expert. You’re with the American Heart Association. So the notion of what actually is happening to our body, let’s start with stress that’s impacting blood pressure. What is it that’s physically happening in our body that eventually manifests itself as something I can put a cuff on and measure?

Jana Siminski:
Well, the longterm activation of our body stress response system, along with prolonged exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones is what puts us at risk for troubles, such as digestive problems, anxiety, headaches, depressions, sleep problems, concentration issues, high blood pressure and heart disease and stroke. So it’s just really important to make sure that we acknowledge that. And everybody has stress and everybody handles it differently. So what might be really stressful for somebody might not be stressful for somebody else. So it’s just really important to acknowledge it and then try to do things that help alleviate that stress.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. And are there varying levels of stress then? In other words, if I get scared or if I’m afraid of storms, I mean, that’s something that can affect people in different ways, right?

Jana Siminski:
It does certainly affect people in different ways and everybody handles those issues individually. So the levels of stress is more indicative of how well that person can cope with stress and how well that person can reduce the stress on a regular basis.

Chuck Gaidica:
Again, there are these nuances, but forgive me for not understanding all the way through this. So if you’ve got chronic stress, let’s say it’s coming from work, you get stressed every single day. Are there some people that will be able to handle that better than others? And then some where it just kind of builds up over time? And it really is based on your context, each person is that much different.

Jana Siminski:
I do think studies have found that everybody handles it differently and what might put somebody over the limit may not put somebody else. So it’s just really important to find things that you can do to alleviate that stress. And that’s different for everybody and you have to find something that you enjoy and something that you will continue to do. Moving more. Exercise is a great antidote to stress. Deep breathing helps for some people. It helps you relax your mind and body. Meditation or prayer can be really helpful. And many people find relief in mindfulness or releasing their concerns in prayer. Also, mind and body practices like tai chi or yoga. And we can’t underplay the importance of getting rest, getting that seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Also getting outside. A walk in nature can really do a lot to help. And it’s also been shown that pets can have a positive impact on your health. So people who can do those things and can decompress and get away from their worries for a while, that’s going to help them overall.

Chuck Gaidica:
And almost if not every one of those things you just mentioned as an anecdote, they’re holistic. It’s not like we’re talking about grabbing some prescription or you’ve got to go for special doctor visits. I mean, a lot of those things are just put on some shoes or boots and go, let the dog take you for a walk. You know what I mean? It’s like stuff we either can do, or we are doing now, but we can just increase the level.

Jana Siminski:
Absolutely. And that’s what’s so important. It is about things that we can do that are relatively easy and it’s just about inserting them into our daily practices.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. If we are suffering from some kind of chronic stress, what can actually happen to the heart? How is this affecting the heart directly, your heart health?

Jana Siminski:
Yeah, it certainly does. And again, it’s the chronic stress that can really affect our physical and our mental health. And the conditions are associated with potentially harmful responses in our body, such as irregular heart rate and rhythm, increased digestive problems, increased blood pressure, inflammation, and reduced blood flow to the heart.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. I noticed with my dad, I mean, literally his blood pressure would race to like 220 over something. I mean, it was really awful when it would happen and he could feel it physically. And yet I would ask him, and this happens I think a lot for people in our society, not just seniors. “Dad, did you drink your water today?” “No, I kind of forgot.” “What did you have for lunch?” “Well, I had one of those big fat burgers with a lot of sodium.” I say, “Dad, it’s just you’re not doing your blood vessels or your heart any help.” And I think that sometimes the prescription is right there in front of us; grab a bottle of water and hydrate. It sounds so simple, but for some of us, it’s hard to get in the habit, a good habit.

Jana Siminski:
It is. And that’s why it is so important to start those good habits early on and just to make it a priority every day. And once you do things regularly, it starts to become habit and becomes much easier.

Chuck Gaidica:
Should we all be getting checked on a regular basis? It seems to me that there’s hardly a doctor visit goes by where they don’t check as a matter of routine my blood pressure. Last month I went to give blood, they checked my blood pressure. So I know that generally a couple three times a year, somehow, even though I’m pretty healthy guy, I’m going to get that checked. But are there blood tests or other tests that can actually help determine if we have levels that we have to worry about within our blood that tell us well, watch out for stress or watch out for high blood pressure? Is there such a thing?

Jana Siminski:
Well, the blood pressure is key and you’re right. You get your blood pressure taken everywhere now, as it is a signal for a lot of different ailments and a good indication that changes need to be made. But I think the most important thing is to note the visit to your healthcare provider and having those conversations. And they can measure lots of things, whether it’s blood pressure, your glucose control, inflammation, cholesterol. And all of those in conjunction with that conversation with your healthcare provider can start that conversation and can make sure to address the issues at hand.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, you’ve mentioned this in different ways and everything you’re talking about is so helpful, but we’re up at episode 99 now. In previous episodes we’ve heard things like sitting is the new smoking. You said you need to get up and move and how impactful that is. Do you agree with that statement that that’s kind of a new, big problem for us? Binge watching or whatever we’re not doing by moving.

Jana Siminski:
I tell you what, moving is critical for everything. And the American Heart Association really has recommendations on exercise and it helps with just so much. It helps with stress reduction, but it also helps with so many health ailments. Regular physical activity, we recommend 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity or a mix of both weekly. And that can relieve tension, anxiety, depression, and it can give you an immediate exercise high. So I think that is something that…

Jana Siminski:
Our mission at the American Heart Association is building healthier and longer lives. And when you look at it that way, it just seem so simple. But some of the easiest things that we can do to help build healthier and longer lives is to move more and to eat better. Moving more means different things to different people. You mentioned that you’re a runner, I’m a runner. So I get my movement in from running. But if you’re not a runner, do something else that you like. You bike, take a walk, do yoga. There’s just so many things that you can do that moves your body, and you’re going to just reap the rewards from them.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. And you know what, I have found too, we’ve got two dogs and one is 13 and her rear hind legs, one had a ACL go out. And so I know that it seems like it may be intellectually better for me to coddle her, but I think, you know what, I’m going to extend my walk with her. It’s good for her health, it’ll keep her weight down. And before you know it, we’re out for 20 minutes. And literally I joked when I said this a few minutes ago, but she takes me for a walk and I don’t even know that the time went, right? I’m listening to the birds with her, she’s looking over here at a squirrel. Before you know it, I’ve got an extra bit of walking. And it’s really great to have a pet that’ll help you walk in that line.

Jana Siminski:
Well, and you get the double whammy because there’s reports that having a pet can help alleviate stress and then actually going for a walk can alleviate stress. So you’re getting the double whammy there. That’s great.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, maybe it’s triple because I do let her kiss me on the lips. So I think I’m healthy because of that. I’m just saying. There are no studies, but I think I am.

Jana Siminski:
I think you’re onto something. Yep.

Chuck Gaidica:
Maybe so. There’s something else. And I don’t mean to say that I want to cut our podcast short, but literally while we were chatting, my watch told me it’s time to stand. I think that I tried to convince my parents that they could harness a bit of technology. So we got to the point of using like a Google. Hey Google. But I think your watch can tell you when to stand, your watch can tell you it’s time to be mindful. There are so many ways for us to harness technology now that if we do need a digital assistant kick in the pants, it’s not that hard to find it, right?

Jana Siminski:
Oh, absolutely. And I know there’s also fun groups that you can join on those technology, whether it’s a Fitbit or whatever else, and you can have challenges. So you can make sure, and it can be kind of fun to see who’s moving more throughout the day as well. But yes, wonderful ways for us to make sure that we’re moving the amount that we’re supposed to.

Chuck Gaidica:
I’ve never thought of what you’ve just said. I’m not that competitive a person, but if I had a friend I were linked to and they did more than 7,500 steps today, I think that would nudge me to try to catch up to them, frankly.

Jana Siminski:
I’m not on Fitbit that anymore, but when I was, I hate to admit that that have to me and I would not go to bed until I was on the top of that leaderboard every night. And I was like, that was probably adding stress to my daily life because I wanted to be on the top. I’m a little too competitive.

Chuck Gaidica:
So what did you do? Did you walk around the kitchen to peel off more steps? Is that what it was?

Jana Siminski:
I would. I’d walk around the house, I’d walk up and down the stairs. I’d go out to the driveway. Yeah, it was a little crazy.

Chuck Gaidica:
And you’ve just touched on something else because Michigan winters can be brutal and they don’t seem to end some years until June, but we can still get our exercise in the house even during a snowstorm. You mentioned steps. Going up and down the steps either to the basement or upstairs. I mean, we can move. There’s hardly an excuse, right?

Jana Siminski:
There’s not an excuse. And one of the that the pandemic has taught us… It’s taught us so much, but there were so many people when the gyms were closed, people could do all of their exercise in the comfort of their own home. If you can’t get outside because the walkways are too icy or it’s snowing, there are things that you can do in the house. You can do workouts virtually, or you can seriously just do anything in the comfort of your own home. Walking up and down the steps or walking from one side of the house to the other. It can be done, yes.

Chuck Gaidica:
So let’s say you’re doing everything by the book. And that happens for people who are trying to change their lifestyle toward a new diet for the new year. It could be you want to work out more, but let’s say you’re do doing everything you think you can and you are still sensing a problem. Could be high blood pressure, whatever it is. When do you seek help from a professional?

Jana Siminski:
If you are feeling stressed and you acknowledge it and you are trying to reduce the stress with some of those activities that we had talked about and you feel like it’s not making a difference, it is really important to note that you need to talk to your medical healthcare professional, and they will be able to talk you through it, to identify what needs to be done, additional steps that can and be done before it becomes out of control.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Well, as we start to wrap up, I wanted to go back and double back, because you went through a lot of great tips about what we can do for stress reduction techniques. Can you give them to us again? And if you want to stop at any one of them and flesh out a point, go ahead and do that because I think they’re also individually important, not just collectively.

Jana Siminski:
I do think they’re important and I will run through. I would say actually one of the most important things is just acknowledging that we all have stress and I’m a big fan of positive thinking. So a little positive self-talk goes a long way too to try to remedy the situation. But the first step is awareness and to really identify your stressors and ask yourself, “Is this a factor out of my control?” And sometimes just answering that question, when you realize there’s nothing you have control of, you can release that worry. But the steps to manage stress, there are so many. I like to say move more. Again, I’m a runner, so I think exercise is a great stress reducer. It works really well. Deep breathing really can help relax your mind and body. I know in the yoga classes I take, it really removes you from the world for a while when the instructor is talking about your breath and you’re just relying on your breath and you really don’t have a care in the world for an hour. I think that that is just something that is really important.

Jana Siminski:
Meditation and prayer, mind, body practices like tai chi or yoga. Again, the rest. I can’t stress that enough. I think so many of us don’t get the right amount of sleep every night because we are so busy, but it’s important to strive for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Getting outside is something also… I like to run on the treadmill because it is so incredibly easy. I don’t have to worry about what clothes I have to put on, what the weather’s like. I just jump on the treadmill. I can watch the news or whatever I want to watch. But I do know when I make the effort to run outside, it is so invigorating and it boosts my mood. So I know that getting outside can really help. And then of course the bit about pets. Pets can have a positive impact on your life.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. And there’s that new, an acronym that I’ve heard bandied around a little bit; NEAT, non-essential activity exercise, where basically just walking up and downstairs. I mean, you’re doing things in your daily life, going for dog walks. There are things you’re doing that aren’t considered essential like running or you’re on purpose hitting the treadmill, but all those steps add up and all that can really add up to what you’re talking about in some ways.

Jana Siminski:
I think so. And that’s what’s important, is we want to do something that we can sustain. So if you’re not going to enjoy running, then that’s not going to work for you. You’re not going to be able to maintain it, but is the constantly moving and just being cognizant of that and not just being so sedentary. So there’s a lot of ways that we can get our steps in and we can move.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, I’m seeing equal signs above my head. I’m kind of feeling like a cartoon guy right now with the little bubbles above my head, but heart health, equal sign, brain health; heart health, equal sign, gut health. I mean, it’s just connected to so many systems in our body, it just makes sense that we take care of our heart.

Jana Siminski:
Absolutely. I always come back to on this topic, stress and strain equals body and brain. So they’re all together and it’s just like, we just need to take care of ourselves.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, Jana Siminski, we really appreciate you being with us and we wish you well. And be careful when you’re jogging, watch out for the ice.

Jana Siminski:
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Chuck Gaidica:
Jana Siminsk is the Executive Director of the American Heart Association in West Michigan. We’re glad she was with us. We’re glad you’re here. And if you’re looking for additional resources to help reduce your stress, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan virtual wellbeing team has an upcoming webinar where they’ll be talking about meditation techniques for better heart health. Go figure, huh? You can find out more information at mibluesperspectives.com/virtual-webinars. The virtual wellbeing team also hosts weekly webinars that focus on a variety of wellbeing topics that can be used to create a culture of wellbeing in the workplace as well. If you’re an employer, you can find heart health content during February at mibluesperspectives.com/virtual-webinars under the employer section.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, thanks again for being here, listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It is brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like our show, you want to know more, check us out at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast, or you can leave us a review or rating on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. All the previous episodes and all the new episodes are on your smartphone or tablet available to you. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app and you can listen while you’re moving, which will make you healthy. I’m Chuck Gaidica.