Devoted football fans may having ‘rocketing’ levels of stress during matches

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Devoted football fans have dangerous levels of stress during matches which could put them at risk of a heart attack.

Scientists at Oxford University studied Brazilian fans during their historic semi-final loss to Germany at the 2014 World Cup.

They took saliva samples before, during, and after the match and measure the stress hormone cortisol. 

Cortisol ‘rocketed’ during the 7-1 home defeat in the semi-final as fans watched on the edge of their seat, the researchers said. 

Long-term exposure to cortisol can put strain on the heart by raising blood pressure and cholesterol.

Devoted football fans may be at greater risk of heart attacks because of 'rocketing' levels of stress during matches. Pictured, a Manchester City fan during the Premier League match against Wolverhampton Wanderers, December 27 2019

Devoted football fans may be at greater risk of heart attacks because of ‘rocketing’ levels of stress during matches. Pictured, a Manchester City fan during the Premier League match against Wolverhampton Wanderers, December 27 2019

Long-term exposure to cortisol can put strain on the heart by raising blood pressure and cholesterol. Pictured, a dejected fan of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace on November 24, 2018

Long-term exposure to cortisol can put strain on the heart by raising blood pressure and cholesterol. Pictured, a dejected fan of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace on November 24, 2018

Dr Martha Newson, who led the research, said: ‘Fans who are strongly fused with their team – that is, have a strong sense of being ‘one’ with their team – experience the greatest physiological stress response when watching a match. 

‘Fans who are more casual supporters also experience stress but not so extremely.’

The team at the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion, at Oxford University, took spit samples from 40 fans before, during and after three World Cup matches. 

Two were Brazilian victories (Colombia, 2–1; Chile, 1–1 with penalties), and the other was the semi‐final loss to Germany (1–7). 

Researchers measured cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands, and is often termed a stress hormone because it increases when a threat is perceived. 

Levels of cortisol vary between people due to factors including age, gender and ethnicity. 

The study, published in journal Stress and Health, found cortisol levels were higher during the match than before and after. 

Dr Martha Newson said: ‘Cortisol rocketed during live games for the fans who were highly fused to the team. It was particularly high when their team lost.

‘People who are highly bonded to their football teams have unique psycho-physiological profiles.’

Prolonged high levels of cortisol, typically caused by chronic stress, can cause weight gain, fatigue and headaches. 

But more seriously, studies suggest that the high levels of cortisol over time can increase blood cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure. 

Scientists at Oxford University studied Brazilian fans during their historic semi-final loss to Germany at the 2014 World Cup (pictured)

Scientists at Oxford University studied Brazilian fans during their historic semi-final loss to Germany at the 2014 World Cup (pictured)

The study, published in journal Stress and Health, found cortisol levels were higher during the World Cup matches than before and after

The study, published in journal Stress and Health, found cortisol levels were higher during the World Cup matches than before and after

WHAT IS THE ‘STRESS HORMONE’ CORTISOL? 

Cortisol helps the body respond to stress as well as regulating a wide range of vital processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. 

It’s made in the adrenal glands, located atop the kidneys, and then released into the blood, which transports it all round the body. 

Almost every cell in the body contains receptors for cortisol and so cortisol can have lots of different actions.

These effects include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels, acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure and helping development of the foetus.

When you encounter a perceived threat your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain’s base, prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. 

Cortisol curbs functions that would get in the way of the fight-or-flight response. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes. 

When the threat is gone, cortisol and adrenaline levels should return to normal. 

Research has found a link between raised or impaired regulation of cortisol levels and a number of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression. However, the significance of this is not yet clearly understood.

These are common risk factors for heart disease, alongside smoking, drinking alcohol, bad diet, lack of exercise, genetics and age.

Stress can also cause changes that promote the buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis.

As plaque builds up, the wall of the blood vessel thickens. A piece of plaque can break off and be carried by the bloodstream until it gets stuck, blocking blood flow to the brain or heart and causing a heart attack or stroke.  

Football fans were the most stressed during the semi-final, in which a shocking four goals were scored by Germany within six minutes. 

‘It was a harrowing match – so many people stormed out sobbing,’ Dr Newson told BBC News.

However, by the end of the match, cortisol levels had returned to normal. This may be because they used coping strategies such as hugging. 

The findings show there was no difference in stress levels between men and women during the game, despite men being seen as more dedicated to football.  

In the study, published in journal Stress and Health, she said: ‘Clubs may be able to offer heart screenings or other health measures to highly committed fans.’ 

Dr Newson suggested stadiums should start offering health screenings for fans who are regulars.

She said: ‘Clubs may be able to offer heart screenings or other health measures to highly committed fans who are at the greatest risk of experiencing increased stress during the game.’

Research by the Montreal Heart Institute, published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, has also shown sport fans have an increased risk of heart attack the day after their team wins a game.

And German researchers found cardiac emergencies tripled for men and doubled for women on days the German team played in the 2006 World Cup soccer championships. The findings were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.



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