How to Heal Broken Hearts (and Immune Systems)

A guide to reducing stress through lifestyle changes.

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In the weeks since the election results came in, my office has been filled with people suffering the aftereffects of the country's monumental and controversial decision. Someone should be doing a study, I've said aloud, on how stress and despair is leading to illness. To be clear, these people are not complaining of being sad or depressed. Their ailments range from pneumonia and sinusitis to diverticulitis. Their immune systems, along with their hearts, are broken.

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I have always been a firm believer in the mind-body connection. The idea that our thoughts and emotions play a role in our physical health seems logical to me, given how fundamentally connected our bodies are to our brains. At this point, I think most medical doctors believe in this connection. And if any doubt remained, the postelection despair has provided an overwhelming body of evidence that supports it.

I have always been a firm believer in the mind-body connection.

During my training years at Bellevue, I often remarked how miraculous it was that we budding doctors didn't contract any of the serious ailments we spent hours exposed to. We were surrounded by tuberculosis and virulent airborne diseases. Yet, somehow, we came out unscathed. We were doing what we felt we were meant to do, and that gave us a tremendous amount of satisfaction. Our work ethic was serious, if not pathological, and we often worked for hours on end — but I rarely heard complaints. We remained healthy because we were happy. As a result, our immune systems were strong.

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When we are stressed, our nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones. These include cortisol, which increases sugars in the bloodstream, and adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and elevates blood pressure. This is helpful in some situations, as it allows our bodies to engage in a "fight-or-flight" response by elevating our level of focus, concentration, physical ability, and stamina. It's our bodies' way of protecting us when we come face-to-face with a threat.

However, what happens when this response is prolonged? When these hormones are released at times when there is no immediate threat to combat, they linger in the system and can have severely detrimental effects. Over time, they wear away at your immune system, which can lead to problems such as flu, viral syndromes, bacterial infections, and even heart attacks. In addition, stress lowers your pain threshold, causes digestive problems, increases reproductive issues, and has been linked to a decline in cognitive and memory functions.

So what can we do to combat stress?

To start, there's no need to get stressed about being stressed! A few simple lifestyle changes can have a massive impact on your anxiety levels and dramatically boost your quality of life. Firstly, exercise is one of the most underutilized antidepressants and stress relievers there is. Exercise releases endorphins into the system, which act as natural painkillers. You'll find it easier to sleep, too.

A few simple lifestyle changes can have a massive impact on your anxiety levels and dramatically boost your quality of life.

Meditation, acupuncture, and yoga are also incredibly effective for reducing stress levels. As far as meditation goes, there are various types, and just like with anything, different practices resonate with different people, depending on their issues and personalities. For individuals with extremely high levels of stress or anxiety, guided meditation and visualization work best. The sessions can be done in a very supportive way, with the teacher talking throughout the meditation to support the experience.

Your happiness is important. Feel-good moments throughout the day have real effects on your overall immune system, so remember to take care of yourself. Even the little things that make you smile — like playing your favorite song, or reminiscing about a happy memory — can elevate your mood and result in a shift in your hormones. So be sure to take a couple of moments every day to assess your stress levels and do something to reduce them.

Your happiness is important.

Additionally, there are a number of supplements you can take to boost your immune system. These bring health benefits of many types when taken daily, but are especially important during times of stress, as they help combat stress's negative effects. I recommend vitamin D and probiotics to all my patients, as well as fish oil, which is rich in omega-3. You can introduce more fish oil into your diet by either eating two meals a week containing fatty fish like mackerel and salmon, or by taking tablets. These supplements will benefit your overall health and mood, as well as support your immune system.

The election was a shock to the system, and many people are still recovering from that shock. We're all going to need our strength for the years to come, so remember to look after yourself both physically and mentally. Understanding how to take care of yourself is the first step toward engaging positively in the community, better preparing you to provide support to others. Women are by nature givers and caretakers, but if we don't start with ourselves, we are unable to achieve our greater purpose in life. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, "I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival." —Audre Lorde

Sandra Gelbard, MD, is a board-certified internist in New York City. Her practice is focused on disease prevention, cholesterol management, and individualized vitamin supplementation.

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