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How Grief Can Break Your Heart and Affect Your Health

7 minute read


Losing a loved one can be devastating for you both emotionally and physically. Most people do not realize the impact that grief can have on your physical body, but the effects are very real.

Grief interferes with your sleep, as it tends to do with every aspect of your life. Over time sleep disturbances and deprivation increase inflammation in your body. Chronic inflammation damages your cells and tissues and is a contributing factor to heart disease.

Another Way That Loss Breaks Your Heart

Loss of a family member or friend can be emotionally devastating. As normal as it is to grieve, it can interfere with your daily activities.

In many individuals, grief causes disruption to sleep patterns. Getting sufficient sleep each night is essential to your overall physical and mental well-being, so lengthy disruptions can be dangerous.

Studies recently found that grief-induced sleep disturbances trigger inflammation. When uncontrolled, inflammation can damage your tissues and organs. Specifically, there is concern regarding increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines during grief-induced insomnia that are known to contribute to the development of heart disease.

Given that the loss of a loved one is already an emotional and stressful time, the lack of sleep only further compounds this stress. Inflammation can spread through your body, uncontrolled, damaging delicate tissues and organs like the heart.

Studies reported that widowers were significantly more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, and the lack of sleep is the culprit.

When you understand that inflammation is the underlying cause for many serious diseases, this makes sense. Insufficient sleep results in a stressed mind and body, which leads to excess inflammatory markers being produced.

In addition to this, individuals with diseases that promote inflammation like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or autoimmune disorders, are more likely to experience insomnia.

There seems to be a cyclical relationship between inflammation and sleep. With regards to grief, it is unclear whether the grief causes stress and inflammation, which then disrupts sleep, or if the lack of sleep triggers inflammation.

What is known is that insomnia and inflammation are directly related, meaning the only way to prevent heart disease is to control the inflammation.

Inflammation: The Menace Behind Disease

Inflammation is a common factor in the majority of cases of heart disease. The risk for heart diseases jumps significantly after experiencing loss and grief.

Inflammation contributes to the build up of fatty plaques in blood vessels. As a result, blood pressure increases, placing added strain on the heart. The additional stress causes further inflammation and your risk for heart disease increases.

Individuals with diabetes are also more at risk for heart disease. Elevated blood sugar levels increase inflammation and potential damage to the heart. Studies have found that inflammation is the link between metabolic syndrome and atherosclerosis, which leads to the hardening of blood vessels. When compounded with grief and sleep disruptions, more inflammatory chemicals are released, and the situation becomes more serious.

The trouble with inflammation is that in small doses, it is necessary for fighting illness. Your immune system relies on the inflammatory response to reach, target, and destroy foreign pathogens.

Because this defense mechanism is inherently always ready to go, its activation can be triggered easily and can become overwhelming. Chronic inflammation is not beneficial and the only way to protect your heart and your health, is to reduce its presence.

Anti-Inflammatory Living

Whether you are grieving a loss or are just trying to promote overall heart health, living an anti-inflammatory lifestyle is the best option. Through diet and lifestyle changes you can reduce inflammation caused by lack of sleep, stress, or any underlying health condition like diabetes.

With change and potential stressors lurking around every corner, the more you can control inflammation, the better your health will be.

Stay Active

Regular physical activity helps to promote cardiovascular health while keeping inflammation under control. Exercise produces feel good hormones and helps to alleviate stress. In addition to this, exercise can help you shed stored fat, which triggers the release of proinflammatory markers. You don’t need to run marathons to benefit from exercise as light cardio activity such as swimming, yoga, or walking, is all you need.

Cut the Bad Habits

Smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol contribute to high blood pressure and increase your risk for cardiovascular disease. Tobacco and alcohol both register as toxins to the body which results in inflammation and potential organ damage. By cutting the bad habits, your heart will be stronger, and inflammation will be kept under control.

Reduce Stress

Grief causes stress along with many other factors in life. Events and circumstances may not be avoidable, but you can learn to cope with stress so that it doesn’t negatively affect you.

| Related: How to Lower Cortisol (Stress) Levels Naturally |

Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga are all great ways to reduce stress and promote better health. Meditation has been shown to reduce stressful thoughts which significantly reduces the presence of inflammatory chemicals in the blood.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Changing what you eat can help to keep inflammation under control. For diabetics, it is important to monitor food and keep blood glucose levels in check because of the increased risk for heart disease.

Because fat cells can trigger inflammation, it is important to follow a balanced diet free of high-fat and processed foods to avoid putting on extra weight. There are also key foods to add to your diet that possess anti-inflammatory properties such as berries, nuts, apples, broccoli, oats, salmon, tomatoes, garlic, and turmeric.

In addition to this you should avoid inflammatory trigger foods such as alcohol, spicy foods, dairy, red meats, processed foods, saturated fats, and excessive amount of sugar or salt.

The Bottom Line

Grief causes stress and sleep disruption, which can trigger a chronic inflammatory response. A broken heart is the number one cause for death in widows and widowers, but it is a heart that has been broken down by inflammation.

Controlling inflammation is an important way to get past grief-induced insomnia and to protect your heart before, during, and after any loss.

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