The effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on patients’ mental health and well-being has been increasingly recognized. However, PTSD also increases risk of developing cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Understanding how PTSD causes these effects on the cardiovascular system could lead to new and more effective treatments.
Jeanie Park, MD, MS, Staff Nephrologist at the Atlanta VA, is a hypertension specialist and translational researcher. Her laboratory studies the regulation of the sympathetic nervous system in patients at increased cardiovascular disease risk, including those with chronic kidney disease, hypertension, and PTSD. Dr. Park’s research indicates that overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight response”, may contribute to increased cardiovascular risk in PTSD patients. In these studies, Dr. Park’s team directly measured sympathetic nerve activity in muscles of veterans with PTSD. These measurements were made at rest and following mental stress. As an additional measure of sympathetic nervous system activity, the research team also made sophisticated analyses of blood pressure responses to selected drugs.
Results showed that PTSD patients have exaggerated SNS reactivity during mental stress. This increased reactivity has been linked to increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. They further showed that device-guided slow breathing exercises acutely lower blood pressure and SNS reactivity in patients with PTSD. Clinical trials to assess potential long-term benefits of lowering SNS reactivity are ongoing.
These exciting studies provide new insights into how increased SNS activity may increase cardiovascular risk in PTSD patients. These studies also illustrate how improved understanding of complex disorders can uncover new and more effective treatments.
Recent publications related to this research:
Fonkoue IT, Norrholm SD, Marvar PJ, Li Y, Kankam ML, Park J. Elevated Resting Blood Pressure Augments Autonomic Imbalance in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2018 Dec 1;315(6): R1272-R1280
Fonkoue I, Le N, Kankam M, DaCosta D, Jones T, Marvar P, Park J. Sympathoexcitation and Impaired Arterial Baroreflex Sensitivity are Linked to Vascular Inflammation in Individuals with Elevated Resting Blood Pressure. Physiol Rep. 2019 Apr;7(7):e14057. PMCID: PMC6456445