Researchers have found a link between stress and a rare, but temporary heart condition known as broken-heart syndrome, according to a study published Friday in the European Heart Journal.
With takotsubo syndrome (TTS)—also known as broken-heart syndrome—strong emotions trigger the heart muscles to suddenly weaken. The result: heart-attack-like symptoms, including chest pains and breathlessness. In worst case scenarios, broken-heart syndrome can cause fatal heart attacks.
In people with broken-heart syndrome, weakened heart muscles cause the left ventricle to balloon out at the bottom while remaining narrow at the top. TTS was first described in 1990, and previous studies found that intense grief, anger, or fear—or even strong reactions to joyful events—can trigger this rare heart malfunction. Broken-heart syndrome is particularly prevalent among women, researchers say, with only 10 percent of cases occurring in men.
What causes broken-heart syndrome?
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital found that heightened activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotions and stress response, is linked to broken-heart syndrome. The study authors had 104 people undergo PET-CT scans between 2005 and 2019. They found that people who developed TTS over time had higher stress-related amygdala activity during the initial scan. The greater the activity in nerve cells in the almond-shaped cluster of cells, the sooner TTS can develop.
The amygdala is also involved in regulating heart function. Reducing stress seems to lessen the volume of the amygdala—specifically the right amygdala, which is associated with negative emotions and reactions. Researchers think stress management may be key to preventing heart conditions such as broken-heart syndrome.
Yoga can help prevent TTS
The good news is that there’s yoga for that.
Meditation and yoga seem to reduce the size of the amygdala, according to a different study conducted in the Netherlands. The researchers found that, while people who practice yoga reported experiencing stress—in some cases, even more than people who don’t—more than 90 percent of them said that yoga helped them cope with it more effectively.
The yoga practitioners also had smaller right amygdala volume. In stressful situations, a yogi’s brain activity shifts from the amygdala, where feelings are regulated, to the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain. Researchers say that more study is needed to clarify the links between stress-related brain activity and heart health, but research continues to support the positive impact of yoga on health.