A new study published in the issue of Biological Psychiatry has found that the negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and depression increase the overall risk for heart disease and conditions linked to heart disease such as atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is caused by damage to blood vessels supplying the heart and brain and progresses rapidly depending upon the levels of chemicals in the body called pro-inflammatory cytokines. Negative emotions have been linked to raising the levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body, increasing the risk for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
In this study 157 healthy adult volunteers were asked to regulate their emotional reactions to unpleasant pictures while their brain activity was measured with functional imaging. The researchers also scanned their arteries for signs of atherosclerosis to assess heart disease risk and measured levels of inflammation in the bloodstream, a major physiological risk factor for atherosclerosis and premature death by heart disease.
It was determined that individuals who show greater brain activation when regulating their negative emotions also exhibit elevated blood levels of interleukin-6, one of the body’s pro-inflammatory cytokines, and increased thickness of the carotid artery wall, a marker of atherosclerosis.
“Drawing upon the observation that many of the same brain areas involved in emotion are also involved in sensing and regulating levels of inflammation in the body, we hypothesized that brain activity linked to negative emotions, specifically efforts to regulate negative emotions, would relate to physical signs of risk for heart disease,” said Dr. Peter Gianaros, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and first author on the study.
“These new findings agree with the popular belief that emotions are connected to heart health,” said Gianaros. “We think that the mechanistic basis for this connection may lie in the functioning of brain regions important for regulating both emotion and inflammation.”
“It is remarkable to see the links develop between negative emotional states, brain circuits, inflammation, and markers of poor physical health,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “As we identify the key mechanisms linking brain and body, we may be able to also break the cycle through which stress and depression impair physical health.”
Peter J. Gianaros, Anna L. Marsland, Dora C.-H. Kuan, Brittney L. Schirda, J. Richard Jennings, Lei K. Sheu, Ahmad R. Hariri, James J. Gross, Stephen B. Manuck. An Inflammatory Pathway Links Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease Risk to Neural Activity Evoked by the Cognitive Regulation of Emotion. Biological Psychiatry, 2014; 75 (9): 738 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.10.012