From barely eating or sleeping to palpitations: the consequences of a broken heart are often not to be underestimated. A new study in the European Heart Journal focused on the phenomenon and found that the emotional stress that goes with it, has a big impact on your brain, and therefore also on your body.
Takotsubo syndrome (TTS), better known as the ‘broken heart’ syndrome, is a sudden temporary weakening of the heart muscle. Symptoms, including chest pain, shortness of breath and sometimes a heart attack, usually appear shortly after serious emotional stress such as after a relationship break, the death of a loved one or other forms of extreme sadness, anger or fear.
The researchers, including neuroscientists and cardiologists, compared the MRI scans of 15 TTS patients with 39 healthy patients. They specifically studied the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the gyrus cinguli: three brain areas that regulate emotional processing, motivation, and memory and are often in contact with each other. The amygdala and the gyrus cinguli also regulate some unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate and breathing. The three areas together also control our response to stress.
The study showed that there is a disturbance between these three brain areas in patients with Takotsubo syndrome. The patients with a broken heart thus show a fault in the areas that control both emotional processing and automatic physical processes.
“These results show that the brain is involved in the underlying mechanism of the “broken heart” syndrome,” says Christian Templin, professor of cardiology at the University Hospital of Zurich and principal investigator of the study. “Emotional and physical stress is strongly associated with TTS and overstimulation of the central nervous system can lead to a sudden weakening of the heart muscle.”
In other words, because the parts of the brain that are involved in your emotions are also the parts of your brain that deal with unconscious bodily functions such as the beating of your heart, it is possible that the effects of an extremely emotional event will go through your brain to your body. Although TTS has long been associated with emotional stress, the researchers can now only confirm the connection between mind and body.
Inflammation and intestinal problems
For the time being, it is still unclear whether the TTS patients already had a disruption in the communication between the three brain areas or that caused by the syndrome. What we do know is that there is a link between the emotional and physical pain of the heart. And although heartbreak does not necessarily lead to the ‘broken heart’ syndrome, after a break in the relationship, according to Professor Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, people can experience more inflammation, intestinal problems, a weaker immune system, and more stress.
Our emotions play a much greater role in our physical health than we first thought. That is why it is important to pay attention to both your mental and physical health after an emotional trauma in order to get as good as possible.