Doctors have long puzzled over the gendered nature of cardiovascular disease. Although women can and do suffer from heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases, they do so at a lower rate and often at a later age than men. Many scientists have hypothesized that estrogen plays a protective role in delicate heart tissues. New research supports this, finding that estrogen protects the heart from the damaging effects of circadian disruption.
Estrogen, Menopause and the Demographics of Heart Disease
Men and women both can develop heart disease. However, women have a much lower risk before menopause. Menopause is what many colloquially call “the change of life,” a period in middle age when a woman’s reproductive cycles and fertility come to an end. There are a variety of other changes that occur during menopause including the sharp decline of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone that are produced in the ovaries. This causes not just the end of menstruation cycles, but also symptoms such as hot flashes, loss of libido and a variety of other effects.
Fertility and sex drive are not the only areas to change dramatically during menopause. During menopause, rates of different diseases begin to change, including rates of heart disease. Around a decade after menopause, when estrogen levels have declined to almost zero, the normally low heart disease rates in women begin to rise sharply. According to new research, the reason for this increase may involve the female hormone estrogen.
How Estrogen Protects the Heart
Estrogen is beneficial to cardiovascular tissues in a variety of ways. It helps to maintain the endothelium, or inner lining, of blood vessels, which can contribute to both stroke and heart attack. This female hormone also helps to keep blood vessels more pliant and flexible, allowing them to accommodate changes in blood flow without damage.
Estrogen also appears to keep the immune system in check. According to a recent study, estrogen keeps white blood cells from expressing immune factors that cause coagulation. This keeps an immune over-reaction from damaging blood vessels or causing a blockage that leads to heart attack. Although this may seem like an insignificant role, recent studies have found that white blood cell “stickiness” and associated immune reactions are an important factor in cardiovascular disease risk.
However, this is not the only way that estrogen may protect the heart. A recent study suggests that this female hormone may protect the heart from the negative effects of circadian disruption. In a recent study, rats were bred to have disruptions in key time-keeping cells, effectively robbing them of the ability to regulate internal clocks. Male rats saw an increase in heart disease. In female rats, the connection was a bit less clear. Female rats saw less increase in heart disease unless their ovaries had been removed. Those who had no ovaries, and thus no estrogen, had the same increase in heart disease seen in the male rats.
Circadian Rhythm and Heart Disease
Estrogen appears to be important in protecting the delicate tissues of our hearts and blood vessels. However, this study also indicates that keeping a well-regulated circadian rhythm is important to heart health. It adds to a growing body of research suggesting that our sleep-wake cycles are crucial to preventing disease. Prior studies have found that a properly functioning circadian rhythm is essential in helping our tissues to recover from daily insults and to perform important restorative processes that keep cells functional over a long life. In fact, people with disrupted circadian rhythms, such as shift workers, have a significantly higher risk of developing heart disease as well as a variety of life-threatening health problems.
Lowering Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Could women prevent cardiovascular disease by taking a hormone supplement? At this point, doctors feel this is a poor plan. Although estrogen replacement can promote heart health, it also can increase the risk of certain types of cancer. However, there are several ways that you can decrease your chances of developing heart disease. These include:
- Get regular exercise, including lots of vigorous exercise that raises your heart rate.
- Avoid tobacco and other drugs that are bad for the heart.
- Keep your LDL cholesterol low and your HDL cholesterol high.
- Eat a healthy diet high in whole grains and produce with moderate amounts of meat and dairy.
- Keep chronic illnesses such as diabetes well-controlled.
- Take steps to keep a regular circadian rhythm, including putting away screens and light sources at night to allow for adequate melatonin production.
These tips will increase your chances of living a long, heart-healthy life with or without the benefits of estrogen.
No one wants to die from a broken heart, whether literally or figuratively. Although there is no safe way to increase the amount of estrogen in our bodies, there are other ways to improve our chances of having a healthy heart for a lifetime. Keeping a balanced circadian rhythm will help you not just to live longer, but to feel happier and healthier throughout your life.