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How gratitude can help your heart

Image of two small heart side by side

Think of the last thing that made you feel grateful. Whether it’s a sunny day, the gathering of family, or the touch of a loved one, each of those small things you are grateful for adds up to improved health. Especially for your heart.

Merriam-Webster defines gratitude as "a feeling of appreciation or thanks," but the word seems to have taken on new meaning in recent years. From doctors to philosophers, many have preached the value of practicing gratitude to promote better physical health and a more meaningful life. But what exactly is gratitude, and how does it affect the heart?

Gratitude as a practice.

We mostly think of being grateful as a feeling, a mental state in which we are thankful for a particular event. These brief moments are nice, and they can help the heart too. But gratitude is becoming a practice for many, a way of living each day with thanks for just that—living.

Finding reasons to be grateful at any given moment is a practice which gives us more time to live in a state of acceptance and peace. This in turn provides more of the health benefits that come with gratitude, such as lower levels of stress.

Stress is a heart-killer.

According to the CDC, high blood pressure was linked to more than half a million deaths in 2019, and it is estimated that less than 25% of adults with high blood pressure in the U.S. have their blood pressure under control. Chronic stress has been linked to higher blood pressure, connecting stress to many forms of heart disease.

Stress also fires up our nervous system, causing it to create an excess of stress hormones. These hormones cause inflammation of the arteries, which is linked to the development of atherosclerosis. Being thankful, even for the little things, helps to lower stress levels, improve blood pressure, and even reduce inflammation. This will all add up to improved heart health.

There is also evidence that people who practice gratitude also exercise more and make healthier choices in their diet. These choices strengthen the heart and supply it with the right fuel to keep ticking. They also improve mood and reduce stress over longer periods of time.

Home for the holidays.

Practicing gratitude can lift your spirits and give you the gift of better heart health, but how can one practice gratitude during a time of year famous for both good and bad feelings? The American Heart Association has put together a neat little writing practice that focuses on gratitude. This is a good start for those of us who might not feel so jolly as the year winds down.

The idea is to focus on small things that you are grateful for. Maybe a twenty-minute walk through the park, happy to be surrounded by fall colors or sunshine. The point is to set aside the time to actively think about what makes each day such a gift for you. Not only will this lift your spirits up, but your heart will thank you too!