Heart Health Month is a reminder that taking care of your heart and mental health go hand-in-hand

Did you know that poor mental well-being is a critical problem that, if neglected, can lead to serious health complications, such as heart disease? 

Well...awesome...does this mean, not only do I have to worry about my anxiety and depression, but now I have to worry about it giving me a heart attack one day? And, unfortunately, I can't sugar coat this one. Yes, depression can increase the risk of a heart attack and development of coronary artery disease. 

That's because, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), "When you experience depression, anxiety or stress, your heart rate and blood pressure rise, there’s reduced blood flow to the heart and your body produces higher levels of cortisol — a stress hormone. Over time, these effects can lead to heart disease."

And, of course, there's also the behaviors we're more likely to indulge in when we're depressed. For some, that may be smoking and/or drinking. For me, when I'm depressed, the probability definitely goes up that you'll find me eating Hot-N-Ready pizza and Doritos for dinner and not moving from the couch for hours. 

So, what can you do to take care of both your heart and mental health? It's not like you can just say to yourself, "Hey, self! Stop being so depressed! You'll give yourself a heart attack!" Mental health treatment doesn't work that way and usually, saying "Stop being depressed!" has about the same affect as someone telling you to "Relax!" or "Calm down!" when you're feeling anxious.

As I tell you in almost every blog post, first things first: Seek professional help. Talk to your primary care physician, who can treat mental health issues or refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist for additional help, or visit Psychology Today and click "Find a therapist" to find someone located within your zip code. 

Another piece of advice from the ever-wise Elle Woods (from "Legally Blonde," of course) —"Exercise gives your endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't shoot their husbands." So, exercising can help you proverbially kill two birds with one stone — benefiting your mental and physical health at the same time. 

The AHA advises you to start small if you're not in the habit of exercising or eating healthy. Maybe that's taking a 30-minute walk every day, which is proven to increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, reduce excess body fat, and boost muscle power and endurance. When cooking, it could mean substituting ingredients, such as a wrap instead of bread, grilled chicken instead of fried chicken, hummus or avocado instead of mayo, and kale chips or zucchini fries instead of French fries. 

Spending time outside everyday, even if it means bundling up this winter and just taking a 10-minute stroll around the neighborhood, is also important. 

"(Going outside) allows you to take a breath, relax, and reset with a better frame of mind. ... It doesn’t matter if you’re at a park, in the words, or in your back yard, being in nature can have a calming effect and improve your mental and physical health, especially when its combined with exercise," Dr. Christine Ashour of Family Medicine and Primary Care - White Plains Hospital Physician Associates, told Health Matters

Some of the benefits of spending time outdoors include: Lower levels of cortisol, a boost in Vitamin D intake, increased levels of concentration and creativity, improved mental clarity, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and increased energy. 

All in all, as the AHA states, "Ultimately, you have to take care of yourself to break the cycle of feeling down. That could be doing something structured, such as a yoga class or tai chi practice, or something you can do anywhere, such as meditating, listening to music or reading a book."

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