October 15, 2020 — 10 am EST
Though news coverage of how to adjust to quarantine is becoming less frequent, it’s still important to stay active and happy, which isn’t easy. If you’re working from home alone, are retired and staying indoors for safety, or aren’t able to see friends and loved ones as much as you’d like, keeping your stress low and your happiness up is key to staying healthy. New reports tie increasing cases of “broken heart syndrome” to the COVID-19 pandemic. What is broken heart syndrome? Also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome is a condition in which part of the heart becomes enlarged and therefore unable to pump blood effectively. Broken heart syndrome is not actually a symptom of COVID-19, but it may be occurring more frequently because of the increased stresses of living during a pandemic.
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This syndrome can come on suddenly, even if you have no previous history of heart health issues and even if you’re young. So it’s important to know the signs of broken heart syndrome and how to manage your stress levels. DoctorOz.com spoke with Dr. Eugene Lipov, Chief Medical Officer of the Stella Center in Chicago and board-certified anesthesiologist specializing in pain management to find actionable ways you can protect your heart, and how to recognize signs of illness.
Broken Heart Syndrome & COVID-19
Although broken heart syndrome is not a new disorder, researchers are beginning to look at how the COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate this condition. A recent article published by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network, notes that “there’s a significantly increased incidence of 7.8% of stress cardiomyopathy during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared with pre-pandemic incidences that ranged from 1.5% to 1.8%.”
According to Dr. Lipov, this is “not [caused] directly from the virus, but rather by the rippling effects of the pandemic.” In other words, broken heart syndrome is not actually a symptom of COVID-19. Rather, broken heart syndrome could be a result of how COVID-19 has impacted our daily lives. For example, oxytocin, also known as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone is a key chemical that helps relieve stress in the brain. The body produces oxytocin when it hugs or touches a loved one ( this hormone plays an important role in triggering milk production in new mothers and to help initiate contractions before birth). “As we’re being isolated because of the pandemic, people’s oxytocin levels are dropping,” says Dr. Lipov. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re paying attention to your stress levels. If oxytocin is down, stress could potentially increase.
Signs of Broken Heart Syndrome
Dr. Lipov highlights signs that you could be experiencing exacerbated stress and, separately, experiencing broken heart syndrome.
Symptoms of exacerbated stress:
- Poor sleep: Sleep issues are one of the biggest indicators of stress. If you’re waking up in the middle of the night, or unable to fall asleep within 10 minutes, you could be more stressed out during the day than you think. Dr. Lipov recommends an over-the-counter melatonin supplement to help you get back into a sleep pattern. More tips on how to fall asleep better (even during a stressful pandemic) can be found here.
- Less energy throughout the day: if you feel like you’re getting a full 7-8 hours of sleep but feel exhausted during the day, you could be waking up in the middle of the night without realizing it.
- You’re irritable, or short with people you interact with: if this is a new character trait for you, stress could be the cause. Try meditation or yoga when you take a break from your workday. Even if you think you’re not stressed, meditating or practicing yoga throughout the day can have huge impacts on your heart health and ability to fall asleep at night.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome
- Sudden difficulty breathing
- Tightening chest
- Urge to clench chest, sharp pain in chest out of nowhere
If you experience any of these symptoms occur, visit the hospital immediately
Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. If you’re feeling stressed mentally, it could have very real effects on your heart health and your immune system. If you’re intimidated by meditation, start by practicing gratitude and ease your way into it. The goal is to take time to take care of yourself every day to reflect, calm down, and reconnect with yourself.