Fat Won't Kill You But Stress Might - The Risk Factor No One's Talking About

It’s fair to say that the tragic news of 47-year-old ex-ironman champion, Dean Mercer, passing away from a heart attack not long ago has sent some ripples through my 40+ year old community.  If it happened to someone as fit as he then what hope have the rest of us got?  Traditionally, it has always been emphasised that older males with high cholesterol, high blood pressure and a high waist to hip ratio were at risk of cardiovascular disease, but Dean had none of these.  He didn’t fit the typical profile – or did he?

Sometimes, I think we can get a little complacent about heart disease, but it’s still a very real problem in Australia. There is one cardiovascular disease death every 12 minutes and it is still the leading cause of death in our country (this statistic from the Heart Foundation).  Most of the advertising around heart disease tends to focus on the risk factors mentioned above; high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high waist to hip ratio, but what if there are other lifestyle factors that directly contributed to increased risk of heart disease?

To be clear, I’m not discounting these three as risk factors… I just think there are others whose importance is overlooked. I would like to point out that total cholesterol doesn’t tell the whole story; only the full panel of LDL, HDL, triglycerides, LDL/HDL ratio and triglycerides/HDL ratio gives a realistic assessment.  Interestingly, Harvard Health report only 50% of people who have heart attacks have high LDL levels – that’s the “bad” cholesterol (US statistics).   It does tend to suggest that there are other factors in addition to some cholesterol markers that need to be investigated.  Let’s look at one in particular that is becoming a greater issue in our world.

Our sometimes-narcissistic-friend, Stress

Chronic long term stress takes its toll on our body.  It raises cortisol levels which, over time, increases an inflammatory cascade in the body. It increases incidence of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome which changes fat and glucose metabolism in the body.  This is a handshake away from type 2 diabetes, which is a risk factor for heart disease in its own right.  Cortisol damages the inside of our blood vessels through the oxidation of fats due to defective fat metabolism. The body desperately tries to repair the damaged vessels and this can often result in the beginnings of plaque.

In our busy world stress is often not recognised, easily dismissed, and sometimes it’s even celebrated (how many times do we hear and say “I’m just so busy, things are so stressful”). It seems if we are not busy then we are not doing enough.

Stress comes in many packages – not just the one we recognise as tight deadlines, arguments or worry about money.  Stress is defined as a physical, mental or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.  Stress can be external or internal. 

·       Poor sleep is particularly stressful on our body, in fact studies show sleep deprived or insomniacs have much higher risk factors for heart disease (not that that statistic is going to help you sleep better… but just sayin’)

·       Having depression or anxiety raises heart disease risk factor by four

·       Some foods can place the body’s digestive system under stress - think high sugar, highly processed food, high caffeine intakes (also foods we naturally want to reach for during a stress response!)

·       Reading from screens increases internal stress, and some artificial light can do the same

·       Managing information (emails, social media, news reports) increases our internal stress response system

·       Chronic pain increases internal stress

·       Caring for an ill family member or family member with a disability has shown to significantly increase stress levels.  In fact, there is a pretty well-known study in the autism community that shows stress markers of some parents of children with autism equal that of combat veterans.

At this point, let’s return to our discussion regarding ironman Dean Mercer.  Dean was known for pushing his body to the absolute limits when he was competing and training.  Studies have shown that extreme exercise, such as what endurance athletes like Dean was doing, may in fact damage heart function of some individuals through a number of biochemical and physiological pathways – or, put simply, through repeated and unrelenting stress on the heart. There is that word again – stress.

No, this isn’t supposed to scare you off exercising! Exercise has profound positive effects to all heart disease risk factors and the working of the heart itself, it’s just that if you plan to do it at an endurance performance level then you should have your heart function monitored regularly.


Five things you can do right now to reduce your risk factors.

1.     Accept that constant stress is not good for you and schedule downtime. I know how quickly this can be dismissed, especially with full calendars, busy kids, piles of washing, full-time jobs.  The reality of this is that if you don’t schedule downtime for yourself, just as you would getting your car serviced or going grocery shopping, you will inevitably have to make time to be unwell from the imbalance of stress in your life.  Downtime is a prescription. We were built to be able to handle acute stress and then recover – we were not meant to endure constant stress. Meditation, walk outside (without phone calls), dance like there is no one watching (this is actually amazing to reduce cortisol, aka the stress hormone, acutely), do yoga, observe nature, swap shallow chest breathing for deep diaphragmatic breathing, get a massage.  You don’t need an two hours – start with 10 minutes.

2.     Get quality sleep. Sleep is where we repair our bodies and its importance cannot be underestimated. I find it hard to believe that this is not emphasised more in our world as countless studies show the link between poor sleep quality and poor health. Get off screens well before bed and have a night routine to prepare your body. If you need help, come visit us at the clinic - natural medicine can provide fantastic assistance for sleep issues.

3.     Eat more veggies daily.  Sounds boring? #sorrynotsorry because it’s true. Reducing the stress of processed food on your body will help reduce physical stress, not to mention that the phytochemicals in plant based foods can help your body to repair and restore on a cell level.  Just one extra serve of vegetables has been shown to reduce heart disease risk by 4%.  Imagine what two or three serves more could do!  If you’re struggling with happy ways to increase your vegetable intake, check out our recipe section or make an appointment with us in the clinic.

4.     Move.  I’m not talking running marathons here. We have discussed that may not be healthy for everyone.  I’m talking don’t sit on the couch or desk for extended periods.  Get up, get moving, get that blood flowing around your body and oxygenate those cells in your body.  Try to do some exercise in some capacity daily which can start as a 10-minute walk and grow from there.  We have some great ideas here at the clinic for how to take things slow.

5.     Break up with your screen/s daily.  It’s okay, I’m not talking about a forever breakup, just a mini break-up.  It’s a “it’s not you, it’s me” sort of break-up, so you can focus on developing your best self.  Find some part of your day where you don’t allow information overload to get to you. No phone, no TV, no magazines, no paper, no social media.  Couple it with your downtime mentioned in point one and you might be surprised how calm you can become!

If you need help with managing stress, movement, nutrition and health, come visit us at Verve.  We specialise in individualised programs to help you be as healthy as you can be.  We also offer free blood pressure checks to help raise awareness of heart disease – give us a call if you’d like to take advantage!


Wendy BurkeNaturopath, Nutritionist, Personal Trainer

Emily Banksstress