In popular culture, the heart is often considered to be the seat of our emotions. We love and grieve with our hearts. From a biological point of view, we understand the heart as the organ that pumps blood through our bodies. But there is something more than that to the heart. I know I am not the only one who has experienced chest pain due to a stressful situation. I was too young to really worry that it was heart disease, but did still consider that possibility because of my family history. Ultimately, I made some changes in my life and the chest pains went away completely. The reason for this phenomenon is that stress changes the signals that the heart gets from the brain. While theses signals might be useful if we need to run from a bear, they can be detrimental when we are sitting at a desk.
Not only can stress affect our hearts, but depression can too. A large study examining English civil servants showed found participants that showed signs of depression were more likely to have heart attacks. Another study demonstrated that using therapy to depression helped prevent the development of heart disease. In fact, the participants who did not have heart disease at the beginning of the study and received counseling where 47% less likely to have a major cardiovascular event compared to those who didn’t get the same treatment for depression.
This connection between heart disease and depression might explain why some supplements are good for both the brain and the heart. A prime example is fish oil, which is probably one of the most popular cardiovascular health supplements. Countries that consume more fish and have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids have lower rates of coronary artery disease. Another major use of fish oil is to help treat mood issues and depression. Could this last benefit contributing to the cardiovascular advantages of taking fish oil? And to learn more about one possible genetic contribution to both depression and heart disease, check out my recent blog on methylfolate.
An important consideration for depression is that not everyone manifests the same symptoms. Generally the signs to look for are feeling sad, hopeless, anxious and sleeping or eating too much or too little, but some people’s depression manifests as tiredness, irritability or even angry. While there are different causes of depression from situational issues like loss of a loved one to genetic and brain chemistry variations, some of these symptoms seem to be connected to lack of fulfillment in life. It can be hard to find truly fulfilling roles and careers in our modern world and too many people end up working at a job just because that is the one available. I am not saying quit your job, but if you can, weigh these possible long term health concerns when choosing a career. And know that counseling and learning stress coping skills can be genuinely useful.