Written By Melissa Bean Sterzick
Next month is American Heart Month. While many will wear red to acknowledge
the seriousness of heart health, it is important to note mental health
and heart health go hand in hand. By protecting one, you help protect
the other. Dr. Moe Gelbart, PhD., founder and Executive Director of Thelma
McMillen Recovery Center, and Director of Behavioral Health at Torrance
Memorial; and cardiologist Dr. Victoria Shin, FACC, and Chair, Division
of Cardiology and Department of Medicine with Torrance Memorial Physician
Network, shared their expertise in maintaining mental health and heart health.
Q: How can mental health affect heart health?
VS: Increased stress and anxiety can trigger stress hormones called catecholamines.
These are our “flight or fight” response hormones. They are
useful when we are being chased by bears...but on an everyday basis, it
is not healthy to have high levels of these hormones. They increase blood
pressure and heart rate. Increased blood pressure, in turn, increases
our risk of heart disease and stroke.
MG: Depression is a risk factor for heart disease. Exposure to chronic
stress is also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. There’s
the flip side, too, which is having a heart condition will lead to being
depressed and anxious. It has a negative effect on lifestyle which creates
a vicious loop. Heart issues are very much connected to the psyche.
Q. What can individuals do, in terms of mental health, to protect their
VS: Exercise is a good tool for both physical and mental health. Participating
in active hobbies or sports you like, or just taking regular walks, will
keep you physically well-conditioned, as well as mentally better prepared
to handle stress. As the saying goes, we cannot control what happens around
us, but we can try to control how we respond to it. Yoga and meditation
are great tools for mental health, as well.
MG: If you’re having anxiety or depression it should be treated.
Basic healthy lifestyle choices are eating well and sleeping well. Perhaps
the most important is understanding stress and stress management techniques.
Stress has three components: stressors, thoughts about the stressors and
physical response. We can intervene in any of those areas. We can eliminate
or change the stressor. We can change our way of thinking about the stress
to be more realistic. We can take time for relaxation and exercise to
control the physical response. And sometimes we go to the doctor and get
medication. You don’t want to have your mental state impact your
physical state, because it’s revolving. If you get down, you need
to get some help.
Q. What kinds of things prevent individuals from safeguarding the health
of their hearts?
VS: The hustle and bustle of life can often interfere with our best intentions.
But we need to change our mindset and make health a priority. I tell patients
to schedule that hour of exercise into their day. If that means going
to sleep an hour early so they can get up an hour early, or cutting out
an hour of TV, then do that. Consistency is key, so we need to make exercise
a daily habit like brushing our teeth. Our busy lives also often cause
us to resort to unhealthy food choices. It requires planning ahead to
eat healthy foods.
MG: Depression and anxiety themselves prevent people from doing things
that are good for them. They don’t sleep well. They may have a poor
diet They may smoke or drink or abuse drugs to deal with stress. And they
might become sedentary and apathetic. That’s not good for your heart.
These are factors related to depression that also impact people with heart disease.
Q. What are the most important habits and behaviors for preventing heart disease?
VS: Diet and exercise. Minimize salt, sugar, fats and increase plant-based
foods. I encourage patients to make a meal plan for the week...eat out
less, cook more. I see so many patients who come in with high blood pressure,
diabetes, high cholesterol...all the major risk factors for heart disease.
We recommend medications to control these, but they are reluctant to take
medications. They say they want to do things “naturally.”
The most natural thing is diet and exercise.
Q. What self-care practices and coping skills foster overall health and
MG: There are things we know make us feel happier: like having good relationships,
caring for others, positive thinking and staying in the present moment.
Another factor is belief in spirituality - not necessarily religion but
a sense we are part of something greater than ourselves. Research shows
gratitude is a major contributor to a sense of happiness. If you have
a sense of inner happiness, you are going to feel better overall –
mentally and physically.
Victoria Shin, MD, is a cardiologist at Torrance Memorial Physician Network South Bay Heart
in Torrance at 2841 Lomita Blvd., Ste. 235. She can be reached at (310)
Thelma McMillen Recovery Center is located at 3333 Skypark Dr., Ste. 200 in Torrance. Call (310) 784-4879
for information and appointments.