“Most heart attacks happen in the morning because the nervous system produces heart-taxing hormones to wake you up,” explains Mark Menolascino, MD, director of The Meno Clinic and author of Heart Solution for Women ($8.40, Amazon). Indeed, studies show that even naturally elevated stress hormones increase the heart’s load, making heart attacks four times more likely before noon.
Fortunately, Dr. Menolascino says small changes to your morning routine can lead to huge improvements in heart health. And that’s especially good news right now, as a recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that a strong heart pumps more virus-killing, tissue-healing blood to the lungs — enough to reduce the risk of complications of COVID-19 by as much as 62 percent. “The decisions you’re making now can impact whether you end up with a mild or more severe illness,” adds Menolascino.
Read on for the study-backed strategies.
Rethink Your Alarm
Not fond of that jolt each morning when your alarm goes off? Neither is your heart! “Startling noises increase blood pressure and heart rate,” asserts Nieca Goldberg, MD, author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg’s Complete Guide to Women’s Health ($18, Amazon) and medical director of NYU Langone’s Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health.
Since both are already elevated in the morning, this additional spike makes the heart work even harder. But research at the University of Connecticut shows that opting for a soothing wake-up sound can cut morning blood-pressure surges by up to 20 points, plus reduce the production of stress hormones.
The trick: Look for a classical station on your alarm clock or download a soothing song, such as “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers, to use as an alarm.
Stretch Before Standing
No need to leap out of bed as soon as you wake up — in fact, your heart will thank you if you don’t! Taking 5 minutes each morning before standing up to breathe deeply while gently stretching your arms, legs and back gets the blood circulating — enough to increase blood flow by 36 percent and lower morning stress hormones by 23 percent, researchers say.
“Stretching doesn’t just keep the muscles flexible,” notes Menolascino. “It also helps all of the body’s tissues, tendons and blood vessels stay strong.”
To boost the benefits, try rubbing your scalp for 30 seconds too. University of Miami researchers say that will prompt the release of oxytocin, a brain chemical that lowers stress hormone production by 32 percent and keeps blood pressure low for up to 3 hours.
Add Nuts to Breakfast
Nibbling on 1 oz. of nuts at breakfast could cut your risk of heart disease by as much as 46 percent, suggests research published in the journal Nutrients. “Almonds have healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and vitamin E that relax blood vessels and lower cholesterol,” explains Dr. Goldberg. They’re also rich in copper, which has been shown to help the body keep levels of the morning stress hormone norepinephrine steady. To get the benefits, enjoy a palmful of almonds each morning — sprinkled on a bowl of oatmeal or Greek yogurt, or blended into a smoothie.
Tip: Go for roasted almonds, if possible. These gems contain twice as many cholesterol-lowering compounds called phenolics as un-roasted almonds.
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This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.