How grief and heartbreak can turn into physical illness

FNM 317 grief and heartbreak

We’ve all heard the term “Died of a broken heart,” but most don’t realize it’s actually possible. Intense stress brought about by profound grief can sometimes damage the heart and spike inflammation in the body.

Grief is a powerful emotion, rendering many of us unable to function normally for a time. Mortality rates in those who are widowed is highest in the first six months after the death of a spouse and decreases over time. Heart disease accounts for the majority of these deaths.

We’ve known for a long time that inflammation is damaging to the body. It’s at the root of major health disorders such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, and autoimmunity. Inflammation is also at the root of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

A recent study shows us that a broken heart isn’t just an emotional metaphor, but can be the result of physiological changes that happen when we are under intense emotional stress.

The study delved into how emotional stress increases inflammation. Researchers found that grief can increase systemic inflammation and lower heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of how one’s body responds to stress. Lower HRV and raised inflammation are risk factors for heart-related illness and death.

Subjects who had recently lost a spouse and reported “elevated grief” were found to have inflammation levels 17 percent higher than those who didn’t feel as strongly, and the top third had levels an impressive 54 percent higher than the bottom third. Simply put, grief can kill us through inflammation.

The findings applied to both women and men, and in particular for older adults.

A second study looked into “broken heart syndrome,” a rare but serious condition in which the heart weakens and bulges following extreme stress such as grief. The disorder mainly strikes women over 55, and while sometimes fatal, tends to resolve over time.

The researchers found the syndrome is linked to how the brain controls the nervous system under stress.

Normally, the sympathetic nervous system ramps you up to cope with stress by increasing heart rate and respiration. Once the stress is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body back down to normal levels.

The researchers found that in subjects who had survived broken heart syndrome, signaling was deficient in key parts of the brain associated with emotion and stress, resulting in a lack of calming after the grief.

Simply put, a broken heart may start in the brain.

Support your body through grief

While we all must take time to move through grief, there are ways to make the process easier on your body.

Compounds for pain and stress relief. Grief can result in physical pain. Physical and emotional pain are processed by the same area of the brain. These natural pain-relief compounds may help ease both:

  • Vitamin D
  • Essential fatty acids such as cold-water fish oil
  • White willow bark, a natural anti-inflammatory reportedly similar to aspirin
  • Herbal adrenal adaptogens such as rhodiola and ashwagandha

Reduce inflammation. While ongoing grief can keep inflammation levels high, do your best to calm it with these methods:

  • Avoid high sugars and carbs
  • Avoid processed foods, especially commercial seed oils
  • Keep blood sugar stable by eating frequently enough, and eating enough protein and healthy fats such as cold water fish, nuts, and supplemental omega 3.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and keep fruit (sugars!) to a minimum
  • Take resveratrol and curcumin in combination
  • Support glutathione levels by taking s-acetyl glutathione or its precursors such as n-acetyl cysteine
  • Exercise regularly but no so intensely that you raise inflammation levels
  • Drink plenty of filtered water

Allow your body to rest. Grief is exhausting, so give your body support with the following:

  • Give your body plenty of time to sleep
  • Avoid working too much in an effort to hide from emotions
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol
  • Practice daily stress-reduction habits such as mellow yoga, stretching, or chi gong

We all must grieve, but when grief leads to losing a sense of life’s meaning, it can become dangerous. If you are under intense emotional stress, contact our office to find out if your body’s response is becoming dangerous, and learn how to mitigate the effects.