The Amazing Heart: How to Protect Your Most Important Muscle

© 2014 Dr. Sharon Norling

Our heart beats over 100,000 times a day and 38,000,000 times a year! Although it only weighs 10 ounces, it pumps blood through 60,000 miles of blood vessels. And, every pound we gain equates to an additional 250 miles of blood vessels that the blood must traverse. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, heart disease will claim nearly 500,000 people this year alone. If more Americans took control of their health, this statistic could be reduced by as much as 87 percent, which means 435,000 people would literally save their own lives each year.

When treating heart disease, cardiologists face a constant dilemma concerning the best diagnostic procedures to refer for their patients, and subsequently which surgical and/or pharmaceutical interventions to select. To further complicate the choice, the evaluations ordered and the treatments selected may actually create unnecessary risks for patients—risks that are out of proportion to the benefits they will experience. Pharmaceutical drugs, bypass surgery, angioplasty, stent emplacements, pacemakers and implantable defibrillators all have their place, and many lives would be lost without these high-tech, but sometimes risky, interventions.

Therefore, it is easy to see what is driving even the most conservative patients to look to alternative forms of therapy. Recent research has suggested that 2 million lives are lost each year as a result of complications from “standard-of-care” interventions, medical errors and complications. Surprisingly, according to the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), the fourth leading cause of death in the United States is prescription drugs that are misused in a hospital setting. Obviously, the medical consumer is searching for less invasive, safer and cost-effective interventions.

Of all of the organs, the heart is the most susceptible to free-radical oxidative stress, environmental toxicities, heavy metal poisoning and premature aging. Fortunately, it’s also highly responsive to the benefits of targeted nutritional supplements such as coenzyme Q10, L-carnitine, D-ribose and magnesium. We have strong scientific evidence from large and repeated clinical trials confirming the effectiveness and safety of these nutrients, as well as their potential medicinal interactions.

Dr. Joel Pins, Director of Hypertension and Cholesterol Research Center at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has shown that EPA/DHA and niacin can reduce cholesterol by 30 percent. Dietary supplements also have great promise for the prevention and treatment of hypertension. And recently, researchers reviewed natural treatments for high blood pressure, defined as any non-prescription agent that lowered systolic blood pressure by 9 points or more and diastolic blood pressure by 5 points or more. Coenzyme Q10, Fish Oil, Garlic, Vitamin C and Arginine all qualified as potential anti-hypertensive agents (Journal of Clinical Hypertension, 2004).

Hypertension affects an estimated 65 million individuals in the U.S. and many more worldwide. Research has shown that following a healthy eating plan can both reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure and lower an already elevated blood pressure. In fact, diet is the most natural therapy for hypertension. According to John Hopkins Medical Institutions, Current Atherosclerosis Reports,2000, “An impressive body of evidence strongly supports the concept that multiple dietary factors influence blood pressure and that modification of diet can have powerful, beneficial effects on this highly prevalent, yet modifiable cardiovascular risk factor.”

For an overall eating plan, consider the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan, based on a clinical study that tested the effects of nutrients in food on blood pressure. Study results indicated that elevated blood pressure is reduced by an eating plan that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and dairy foods that are low in saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol. The DASH eating plan includes whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts and has reduced amounts of fats, red meats, sweets and sugared beverages.

In a study of 150,000 women conducted by researchers from Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, it was also found that women who ingested large amounts of the vitamin folate from food and supplements have a significantly lower risk of developing high blood pressure. Women ages 27 to 44 who consumed at least 1,000 micrograms of folate per day were 46 percent less likely to develop hypertension than women who consumed less than 200 micrograms. Women ages 43 to 70 saw a less pronounced yet significant 18 percent reduced risk of high blood pressure after consuming 1,000 micrograms of folate each day.  The study, published in the JAMA, 2005 concluded that women who obtain folate solely from food had difficulty attaining high enough levels to lower blood pressure. And, in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 2003 it was discovered that foods such as oranges, dark green leafy vegetables, beans, legumes, liver and eggs are highest in dietary folate.

The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 2003 also reported that homocysteine contributes to elevated blood pressure. Elevated homocysteine diminishes the ability of nitric oxide to dilate blood vessels, stimulates the proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells, alters the elastic properties of blood vessel walls and increases oxidative stress. Correcting high homocysteine levels with folate, vitamins B12 and B6 were also documented as possibly useful therapy for addressing hypertension.

High blood pressure or hypertension can lead to serious health problems, including stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. In addition to prescription medicines, diet, exercise, quitting smoking and losing weight can all assist in lowering high blood pressure. Many researchers believe that reducing stress may have the same heart-healthy effect.  For instance, a new study at Duke University Medical Center is looking at whether practicing meditation and relaxation techniques can lower blood pressure by reducing the effects of stress in our daily lives. Studies show that daily meditation can indeed be medication, as it creates long-lasting physiological effects that reduce high blood pressure and even help unclog arteries to reverse heart disease.

Herbert Benson, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School has studied and written about the physiological effects of meditation over the past 30 years. In fact, his results were recently published in the medical journal, Stroke. According to Benson, “There was a striking quietude across the entire brain which was documented through MRI. The areas of the brain that became active from that quietude were those that control metabolism, heart rate, etc.”

The bottom line is that any condition that’s caused or exacerbated by stress can be alleviated, says Benson. He states, “With 60 percent to 90 percent of visits to physicians being in the mind-body stress realm, you can see why this has such legion effects. Anxiety, mild and moderate depression, anger and hostility, hypertension, cardiac irregularities – all forms of pain are made worse by stress. And that’s why the relaxation response is useful.” Dr. Jim Gordon, Founder of the Center for Mind Body Medicine, says that aside from the health benefits, meditation changes the way you look at the world, the way you live your life and “that’s quite important. If you live in the moment and are not preoccupied by the past or worrying about the future, you’ve made a profound change,” he says.

We have all heard the expression, “he/she died of a broken heart.” Dean Ornish, M.D., founder of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California states, “There is a deep spiritual hunger in this country.”  He continues that love and intimacy are roots of what makes us sick and what makes us well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer and what leads to healing. Our heart is not just a muscle, but a multifaceted organ that has been referred to as our brain, our emotions and our soul. As a consequence, we can experience emotional and spiritual, as well as physical heart disease.

While meditation will reduce some risk factors including blood pressure and excessive heart rate, it is also important to monitor cholesterol levels, diet, exercise, and decrease stress. This is why working with certified lifestyle educators who can help support you on your healing path is so crucial. Wholesome diet, healthy lifestyle, love, laughter, relationships and appropriate supplementation is the easiest and most effective way to promote maximum heart health.

Note: This article is not intended to replace the advice or attention of your doctor or other healthcare professional. Do not stop taking medications, begin a diet or exercise program, or start taking a nutritional supplement without first speaking to a qualified healthcare professional.

 Written By: Dr. Sharon Norling, MBA