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Bad Signals to Your Heart Can Lead to Sudden Death

How does emotional stress lead to sudden cardiac death? British scientists believe signals from the brain to the heart may be disrupted in some people, making them vulnerable to potentially fatal abnormal heart rhythms during mentally taxing tasks or emotional events such as family gatherings. Although this is certainly the case for people who already have heart disease, researchers contend the brain may be most responsible.

A new study suggests uneven brain activity in a region where nerves link directly to the heart seems to result in an uneven distribution of signals across the heart, which stops the heart from contracting normally.

Roughly a third of the 300,000 sudden cardiac deaths in the United States come from a blood clot in a major artery, which leads to a fatal heart attack. Mental stress contributes an additional 20 percent of these deaths. Nevertheless, scientists have been baffled by the exact mechanisms by which stress can bring on a fatal short-circuiting of the heart.

Patients with a history of heart disease were given mentally stressful tasks while their brain activity was monitored using PET imaging. The readings showed stress-induced changes in electrical currents in the heart were accompanied by uneven activity within the lower brain, in an area known as the brainstem. To maintain a regular heartbeat, the electrical currents that travel across the heart and initiate the heartbeat should be smooth and even. If these electrical waves travel slower or faster in parts of the heart, this can result in a short circuit which leads to arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat.

In some cases, the autonomic nerves fire unevenly during stress, researchers said, which disturbs the smooth electrical pattern across the heart and could ultimately induce an irregular, and eventually fatal, heartbeat.

Where this research concerns me, however, is when scientists speculate a drug that works on the brain could be developed to treat this heart problem. Folks, you don't need to take a drug just to relieve the stress in your lives. The key to staying healthy is not eliminating the stress itself, as we're all exposed to stress daily, but adjusting your body's ability to tolerate it.

I've found energy psychology tools like the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be very useful in battling the daily stressors in your life. A form of psychological acupressure, EFT is based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture to treat physical and emotional ailments for more than 5,000 years, but without the invasiveness of needles.

University College London December 23, 2004

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