We all know that stress is probably not too good for us, but the truth is stress can be a killer. A Harvard Medical School study has found that chronic stress — the kind that goes on for weeks and months — increases our supply of white blood cells called leukocytes, worsening inflammation and causing the buildup of plaque, or atherosclerosis, in the arteries.
The results of the study help explain the link between stress and heart attacks and stroke, which are both caused by atherosclerosis.
The chronic stress studied was that faced by physicians working in an intensive care unit.
Researchers studied the chronic stress faced by physicians working in an intensive care unit. When they compared leukocyte counts in samples taken during the doctors’ work hours to those taken while they were off duty, they found the number of leukocytes had increased after just one week.
This increase in leukocytes appeared to encourage plaque formation in the arteries of the mice. The plaques in these stressed mice resembled those found in humans that are most likely to rupture, causing a heart attack or stroke.
Risk factors such as smoking, poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle can also contribute to this inflammation, researcher Matthias Nahrendorf, an associate professor of radiology at Harvard, told TheDoctor.
Since we can't always eliminate the stress in our lives, it is important to do what you can — quit smoking, eat properly, and stay physically active. These, too, can reduce the proliferation of leukocytes stress triggers.
“We recommend doing things such as yoga to reduce stress,” said Nahrendorf.
The study is published in Nature Medicine.