How to stay heart healthy — even when you’re down.
Ever drown your sorrows in a big bowl of ice cream? When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to reach for your favorite comfort food. But thinking about your heart health is important, even when you’re not feeling too chipper.
That’s often easier said than done, said Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. But it’s also important, because heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all Americans.
“When people are stressed, anxious or feeling down, they’re not apt to make the healthy choice because they’re so overwhelmed by their situation,” Dr. Goldberg said. “A person’s mental health, in terms of their general health, is underestimated.”
Depression is reported in an estimated 1 in 10 of Americans ages 18 and older, and the figure can be as high as 33 percent for heart attack patients. But just feeling down can lead to changes that can affect your health, and not just because you may fall into habits that are bad for your heart, Dr. Goldberg said.
“Other physiological things are happening in the body, including increased stress hormones, higher levels of cortisol and higher glucose levels,” she said. “Taking care of your overall outlook and well-being is as important as taking care of your blood pressure and cholesterol.”
It’s not surprising if you find it hard to get plenty of exercise, eat heart-healthy foods, limit alcohol or kick a smoking habit. All those things can seem like “just one more thing to add to their list of things that is already causing stress,” Dr. Goldberg said. “People turn to things that give them comfort and aren’t thinking about whether those things are healthy or not.”
Out With the Bad, In With the Good
If you’re struggling with stress or anxiety, Dr. Goldberg said that taking three key steps can help.
Identify the cause of your stress or anxiety and address it. Seek therapy if necessary.
“If you’re feeling down for a couple days, that’s OK, but if it goes on for weeks, you need to seek help,” Dr. Goldberg said.
Choose healthy habits and don't rush it. If you aren't in the habit of exercising, start gradually rather than putting pressure on yourself to get back to a rigorous routine.
“Something as simple as taking a walk, 30 minutes a day, even if you do only 10 minutes at a time, can help your heart,” Dr. Goldberg said. “Exercise improves your mood while you’re doing it, but long-term studies show that people who exercise report better quality of life overall.”
Exercise is especially important when you’re struggling with work, family and other life stresses, Dr. Goldberg said. In addition to being good for your heart health, “exercise can be a means to making you feel better,” she said.
“Some people respond to stressful situations by eating because they’re so stressed out and that’s something that gives them pleasure and relaxes them,” Dr. Goldberg said.
If reaching for unhealthy foods has become a habit, try using healthier cooking techniques or substituting ingredients to cut down on fat, added sugar, sodium and calories. Try reaching for healthy snacks, or choose undressed salads and other healthy dishes when dining out. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a nutritious and satisfying snack.
“Focus on eating from all four food groups,” Dr. Goldberg said. “Many people say they have to eat on the go, but you can really find healthy items on the salad bar instead of getting a burger, fries and milkshake.”
Incorporate other healthy lifestyle habits one a time instead of trying to “fix” everything at once. That’s especially true if one of the habits you want to break is a smoking habit.
“Quitting smoking is a big deal and difficult to break,” Dr. Goldberg said. Ultimately, you have to take care of yourself to break the cycle of feeling down. That could be doing something structured, like a yoga class or tai chi practice, or something you can do anywhere, such as a few minutes of meditation, listening to music or reading a book.
“Even taking a bath can help,” Dr. Goldberg said. “Just take some time and relax.”