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Vascular health and Mental wellbeing

Posted on March 18th, 2024 by Andries Lodder

By: Gcina Gumede

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in many parts of the world affecting both the old and the young. Mental illness is also a major contributor to the burden of disease around the world. Research has made links on how vascular health could possibly affect mental wellbeing and visa verse.

Vascular health

Vascular health refers to the well-being of your blood vessels, including arteries, veins, and capillaries. Your blood vessels need to have the ability to constrict and dilate according to the changes in your body so that your blood pressure stays within the normal range of 120/80 mmHg.

Patients that suffer from mental diseases have shown a higher prevalence of developing cardiovascular diseases. And also the other way round, people suffering from cardiovascular diseases are more likely to develop a mental health illness. These two conditions are linked by pathophysiological factors that may possible induce one another.

The Link between Vascular system and mental health

Mental health disorders are associated with the dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system(ANS). The ANS is a division of the peripheral nervous system that controls involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, and other automatic processes. It works to maintain internal homeostasis and regulate bodily functions without conscious effort.

A dysregulation in the ANS (especially where the Sympathetic nervous system is favoured) may lead to hypertension. This leaves the blood vessels exposed to increased pressure over time. The increased force of blood against the walls of the arteries can cause various structural and functional changes, leading to complications.

The brain relies on a well-functioning vascular system to receive a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients essential for optimal cognitive function. Disruption in blood flow happens via several mechanisms:

  • Stroke and Cognitive Impairment: Strokes, which result from disruptions in blood flow to the brain, can lead to various cognitive impairments depending on the affected brain regions. 
  • Microvascular Changes:. Chronic vascular issues may lead to microvascular changes, contributing to cognitive decline and an increased risk of conditions like vascular dementia.
  • Hypertension and Mental Health: Hypertension (high blood pressure) has been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. The exact mechanisms are not fully understood, but it is believed that hypertension may contribute to structural changes in the brain and impact neurotransmitter systems.
  • Inflammation and Oxidative Stress: Vascular dysfunction can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress, processes that are implicated in various mental health conditions..
  • Endothelial Dysfunction: Endothelial cells line blood vessels and play a crucial role in regulating vascular health. Dysfunction of these cells, often seen in conditions like atherosclerosis, can negatively impact blood vessel function, contributing to impaired cerebral blood flow and increased risk of cognitive decline.

Exercise and vascular health

Regular exercise provides numerous benefits for vascular health. It promotes the dilation and flexibility of blood vessels, enhancing blood flow and reducing the risk of atherosclerosis. Exercise helps lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, and maintain a healthy body weight, all of which contribute to optimal vascular function. 

Physical activity also stimulates the production of nitric oxide, a molecule that relaxes blood vessels, supports endothelial function, and reduces inflammation. Additionally, exercise enhances overall cardiovascular fitness, leading to improved heart function and efficiency. These combined effects contribute to a healthier vascular system, reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and promoting overall well-being.

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