Stress Effects Cardiovascular System

When your body responds to stress, your heart pounds and your blood pressure rises. While these effects may allow you to survive a threat in the short term, long-term stress can cause high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.

The Cardiovascular System and Stress

During the stress response, many changes involve the cardiovascular system in order to bring oxygenated blood to your muscles in a hurry. When you’re stressed, your body produces hormones–like cortisol and glucagon–which release sugar into the blood stream to fuel muscles.

Over time, chronic stress can strain the cardiovascular system, causing heart and blood vessels to wear out faster. High blood sugar levels also increase the risk of glycation, which causes glucose molecules to bind with protein molecules. Advanced glycation may damage the linings of blood vessels, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In response, the body sends cholesterol to these damaged vessels, leading to thickening of the vessels. This increases the risk of platelets clumping, further narrowing the area. As the clumps get stuck, the vessel walls harden, prompting atherosclerosis.

In the legs, thickened vessels may cause claudication. In the heart, they may lead to heart disease and in the brain they may cause stroke.

Effects of Stress: Risk of Stroke

A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (2001) revealed a link between stress and risk of stroke in middle-aged men.

In this study, researchers monitored 2,303 Finnish men for 11 years. Researchers took baseline blood pressure readings and checked blood pressure again, just before giving each man an exercise tolerance test used to diagnose heart disease.

Since heart disease is prevalent in Finland, this tolerance test was considered stress inducing, as it would tell the men if their health was compromised.

Men who had high blood pressure in response to anticipating the test had a 72 percent greater risk of ischemic stroke than men whose blood pressure didn’t react as strongly.

Men with the least education (elementary school and less) had a greater risk of stroke than those with the benefit of more schooling. The men with the highest risk of stroke were those who had a combination of little education and sudden high blood pressure before the test.

Effects of Stress on Triglycerides

An Ohio State University study published in Psychophysiology (2002) found that even during brief periods of psychological stress, dangerous triglycerides take a long time to clear from the bloodstream. In the study, researchers gave 70 volunteers an IV solution of triglycerides, equivalent to about 100 calories.

In one session, the volunteers rested for 40 minutes, and in the other they were given stressful tests for 40 minutes. In all volunteers, triglyceride levels declined faster during the session of rest than the stressful session, suggesting that people metabolize fat more efficiently when they aren’t stressed. As you can see, stress management is vital to a healthy cardiovascular system, as well as an overall healthy body, mind and spirit.


Gurd, V. (2008). Stress and cardiovascular disease. Retrieved September 26, 2010, from

Ohio State University (2002). Stress causes heart-damaging fats to stay in blood longer. Retrieved September 30, 2010, from­/releases/2002/02/020213075604.htm

American Heart Association (2001). Stress-induced blood pressure spike linked to increased stroke risk. Retrieved September 30, 2010, from­/releases/2001/06/010605073231.htm