Over-stressed men may want to schedule a visit to the hospital, with a few hair strands in tow. A study conducted by the Meir Medical Center suggests that cortisol found in the hair follicle may be an indication of cardiovascular risk. The study discovered that men who were admitted to the hospital for heart problems had higher levels of hair cortisol than other male patients.
The study examined 112 male patients above 18 years of age who were admitted to the Intensive Cardiac Care Unit. 56 patients were admitted for acute myocardial infarction (AMI), a condition that decreases the flow of blood to the heart and causes heart cells to die. The other patients were admitted to the hospital for non heart-related issues. At the beginning of the study, 3cm hair samples were taken directly from the scalp to evaluate cortisol levels. The patients were also tested for conditions that would have affected the results, such as diabetes, hypertension, high BMI (body mass index) and high-cholesterol.
The patients who were admitted for acute myocardial infarction had significantly higher levels of hair cortisol than the other patients. According to the authors, “cortisol is considered to be a ‘stress hormone’ and as such, its secretion is increased during times of stress.” Within the AMI patients, higher levels of cortisol corresponded with higher chances of experiencing heart problems. Although there were differences in BMI, cholesterol levels, and harmful health-related practices such as smoking, further testing showed hair cortisol was the only factor that correlated with AMI.
Another interesting finding is that cortisol levels could potentially help predict the onset of stress-related heart problems months in advance. On average, human hair grows 1cm per month and cortisol is stored in the hair follicle as it grows. After analyzing the concentration of cortisol along the length of the hair strands, there were no differences between the first and third months of hair growth, suggesting that cortisol is an indication of prolonged stress, which can subsequently lead to heart attacks and failure.
The main limitation of this study – along with the small sample size – is the exclusion of female patients. However, comparing results among patients without accounting for gender could have skewed the results. Another recent study demonstrated that men and women handle stress differently due to differences in hormones and brain function. In fact, the effect of stress on women changes according to the stages of the reproductive cycle. Researchers acknowledge that women should be included in future studies to better understand the connection between stress, cortisol, and heart problems.
Although you cannot completely prevent the occurrence of stress, there are things you can do to control it, such as eating a balanced diet, maintaining a regular sleep pattern, exercising, and meditating.