By Ross Walker

Although there are many romantic notions about people dying from a broken heart, the evidence is actually quite striking that this is a strong possibility, with specific medical conditions arising in this situation.

Less likely to follow healthy lifestyle principles

Firstly, and most obviously, a person with a broken heart is less likely to follow important lifestyle principles, which are commonly associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.

These include:

1. Quitting all addictions;

2. Getting good-quality sleep;

3. Eating less and eating more naturally;

4. Doing three to five of exercise per week; and

5. Cultivating peace and happiness.

What the studies say

Secondly, there are a number of studies linking the acute release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisone – typically seen during times of stress – and the generation of an acute coronary syndrome, such as heart attack, unstable angina and even sudden cardiac death.

Acute stressful situations, such as a broken heart, may be associated with the rupture of fatty plaques, and thus, a subsequent heart attack.

There are also a number of studies linking chronic anxiety, depression and loneliness with acute coronary syndromes.

There have also been a number of studies showing much higher rates of death in the three years after a person suffered significant bereavement following the passing of their lifelong partner.

Finally, there is the well-known Takotsubo syndrome, which is severe constriction of the coronary circulation during times of stress. This has been specifically called the broken-heart syndrome.

If an angiogram is performed at the time of presentation with chest pain and shortness of breath, there are no blockages but the circulation is in constriction and resolves once the stress has settled.

How can a broken heart affect your mental health?

People suffering from a broken heart do have much higher rates of depression and anxiety. Depression is felt to be due to a reduction in brain serotonin levels, the so-called ‘happy hormone’, which controls our mood.

If a situation such as a broken heart arises, there is a strong possibility that serotonin levels are affected and depression may occur. Closely linked to a feeling of depression is that of anxiety, probably through the same mechanism.

How a broken heart affects your happy hormones

Apart from the direct effect on serotonin, there are other happy hormones that may be affected as well. Oxytocin is the love hormone, vital for bonding between couples and also parents with their children. If these bonds are broken for any reason, this may have a direct effect on oxytocin levels.

Dopamine is the “pleasure chemical” released from the nucleus accumbens in the brain. When you have a broken heart, it is certainly hard to experience pleasure and therefore the normal secretion of dopamine will be affected.

How a broken heart affects your social life

Because of the profound effects of a broken heart on all aspects of life, many people in this situation prefer to avoid social situations. Although superficial interactions are of no value in this situation, staying close to other important, supportive people may ease the suffering somewhat.

Being held and comforted by important members of your family and close friends is an important part of healing the horrible wounds experienced when your heart is breaking.

However, superficial interactions with people who make ridiculous comments like “time heals all wounds, you’ll meet someone else again soon” or the worst comment, “there are plenty of fish in the sea” are completely unhelpful and, in fact, make the situation worse.

Sudden weight changes

The major way a broken heart may affect your weight is through the combination of reduced attention to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and hormonal abnormalities that arise in this situation, which I referred to above.

Sudden changes of weight in any situation always puts a strain on the body’s normal processes. The body is always trying to achieve homeostasis, which is basically metabolic balance. Any strain on the body changes this balance and can precipitate acute health issues.

Tips for coping with a broken heart

1) Strangely, the most important tip I can give in this situation is to feel and accept the pain. You are supposed to feel bad when your heart is broken and often, by not trying to fight this emotion, the dreadful feelings will ease somewhat.

2) Stay close to the people who genuinely care about you, rather than those who dish out ridiculous platitudes (some of which I mentioned above). People who will hold you, care for you and let you cry on their shoulder.

3) Sleep is important and difficult to achieve under these circumstances. It doesn’t hurt you or your body to take, for a short period of time, gentle pharmaceutical sedatives before bed. There are also a variety of more natural anti-anxiety treatments, e.g. Withania and Kava, which also may be of some benefit.

4) If you have any specific medical symptoms such as chest pain, palpitations or shortness of breath, you still should seek medical attention because a broken heart can lead to more serious health issues.

5) Finally, if your symptoms and feelings persist well beyond a few weeks, it is important to have a strong relationship with a trusted medical practitioner who can help you through this period.