For those suffering from depression, researchers say everyday stress may be enough to cause blood vessel dysfunction in otherwise healthy adults. A study recently published in Journal of the American Heart Association has shown that patients who had experienced stress in the previous 24 hours had worse endothelial function, a process that helps regulate blood flow, than those with depression alone.
Previous studies have linked chronic stress with the development of cardiovascular disease, but the researchers said the exact process of how stress affects the body and can contribute to cardiovascular disease is not known.
Lacy Alexander, associate professor of kinesiology, said “This study could be a jumping-off point for looking into whether if people are taught more behavioral strategies in dealing with everyday stressors, maybe that could be protective for their cardiovascular health. For example, maybe mindfulness or cognitive behavioral therapy could be beneficial not just for young, healthy adults, but also for those who are at risk for cardiovascular disease.”
For the study, the researchers studied 43 healthy adults who did not have cardiovascular disease, were recreationally active, and who did not use tobacco products. The researchers also evaluated the participants for symptoms of depression.
On the day of the experiment, the participants were asked to record any stress they may have encountered in the previous 24 hours. This may have included any arguments with friends and family, or a stressful event at school or work. To measure the endothelial function, each participant had a tiny fiber inserted under the skin of their arm. The fiber allowed the researchers to apply a small amount of the drug acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system, which then affected the blood vessels in an area about the size of a dime.
The Link between Stress and Depression
Jody Greaney, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, explained that “because depression is also linked with cardiovascular disease,” she and the other researchers wanted to better understand how stress, depression, and blood vessel dysfunction are connected.
She went on to describe what they found in their study, “Adults with depression also experienced more stress and rated it as being more severe than healthy nondepressed adults, which confirms the link between stress and depression.”
“Additionally, adults with depression may have worse vascular function in general, although endothelial function was worse when depression and stress were combined.”
“As a physiologist, I’m used to drilling down into the specific mechanisms of vascular function without ever considering a psychological profile of that person,” Greaney said. “But this study would tell you that’s critically important to consider—the interplay because physiology and psychology.”
This study will not only be helpful for designing future prevention and intervention efforts of blood vessel dysfunction, but may also help to underline the importance of psychological aspects of other conditions. Many times, research does not take relationships of psychological and physical into consideration when looking at cause and effect. This study may help to push research in a new direction.