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The heart, the central ticker of the human, is the most essential organ that allows life to inhabit the human body. For this reason, it’s the organ that gets the most press and attention with regard to research and treatment. And still, the incidence of heart disease has only increased in the past four decades since the Framingham studies that blamed cholesterol as the real problem and cause of heart disease. We have seen the rise because we have focused our attention on the wrong enemy. This series of blog entries will address these controversies and offer real, natural alternatives for treating heart disease.

For a long time, the physical function of the heart was thought to be limited to pumping blood through our blood vessels. This function ensures that every cell of the body receives oxygen and nutrition as well as provides the opportunity to get rid of waste and toxins from the cellular environment.

In recent years, we also have learned much about the role of the heart in nervous system activity. Additionally, the heart is considered to have emotional and spiritual functions. These cannot be understood through physiology; rather, a study of our language helps us to get a sense of these functions.

The root of the word “courage” is derived from the latin word for the heart, which is “cor.” Thus, the etymology of “courage” is to have “strength of heart” or “abundance of heart.” In our culture, we see the use of the phrases like, “he’s got heart” or “it takes heart to get it done.” These phrases both are describing the courageous quality of achieving something extraordinary. Often, the heart is recognized as central to our emotional experiences of love, generosity, compassion, and sympathy.

We may have known the blessing of “living in someone’s heart,” the generosity of someone’s “kind heart,” the healing power of a “compassionate heart,” or the ease of living with an “open heart” (whenever that is possible). All of these experiences speak to the emotional and spiritual experiences of humans throughout history. This is the mythical way our ancestors viewed the heart and its power in our lives. These emotional and spiritual experiences affect our health just as profoundly as the physical ailments that afflict the heart.

The Function of the Heart

Heart Health and Wellness at Natural Rhythms Integrative MedicineAyurveda describes the physical, energetic, and spiritual functions of the heart. At a physical level, we find a perspective that is very congruent with the modern understanding of the cardiovascular system. Our heart and blood vessels are the conduction system for blood, plasma, nutrition, and oxygen to all parts of the body. Blood also carries messenger molecules, like hormones, immune-activating or inflammatory cytokine signals, and more. Getting nourishment to every part of the body as well as organizing and synchronizing the body’s functions is an essential activity of the heart and the circulatory system.

The heart chakra sits at the center of the seven chakras, which are the energetic and spiritual centers of our bodies. The heart chakra, called the Anahat chakra in Sanskrit, is described as the seat of the Self or the seat of the Soul. It holds the emotional functions of love, confidence, and trust as well as a deep connection and compassion for other people, animals, and the environment. When the heart chakra is out of balance, individuals experience vulnerability, loss of confidence, anxiety, emotional distress, and dependency. The Anahat chakra offers the cure for these ailments in the form of self-love and unconditional love as its highest function.

In Ayurveda, we also learn that heart is an integral part of the mind function and mental activity—especially the inward and outward effect of emotions. Studies of the HeartMath Institute have demonstrated “that communication between the heart and brain actually is a dynamic, ongoing, two-way dialogue, with each organ continuously influencing the other’s function. Research has shown that the heart communicates to the brain in four major ways: neurologically (through the transmission of nerve impulses), biochemically (via hormones and neurotransmitters), biophysically (through pressure waves), and energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions).”1MaCraty, Rollin. “Science of the Heart,” Vol. 2, p. 3. HeartMath Institute, 2015. Boulder Creek, CA.

What is most fascinating to me is that heart has its own nervous system that functions “independently of the cranial brain to learn, remember, make decisions, and even feel and sense.”2MaCraty, Rollin. “Science of the Heart,” Vol. 2, p. 5. HeartMath Institute, 2015. Boulder Creek, CA. The heart produces stimulating neurotransmitters like acetylecholine and dopamine, adrenaline hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, and also the hormone oxytocin that support the function of emotional connection and bonding. Oxytocin influences brain activity “involved in cognition, tolerance, trust and friendship and the establishment of enduring pair-bonds.”3MaCraty, Rollin. “Science of the Heart,” Vol. 2, p. 7. HeartMath Institute, 2015. Boulder Creek, CA.

HeartMath studies have pointed out that emotional experiences have a direct effect on heart rate variability. Incoherence of the heart rhythms is caused by negative emotions, like fear and anger, as well as emotional or physical stress and trauma. On the other hand, positive emotions—love, connection, compassion, emotional maturity, and resilience—increase the coherence of the heart rhythms. With the resulting hormonal and neurological effects, the heart can negatively or positively affect overall health.4MaCraty, Rollin. “Science of the Heart,” Vol. 2, Chapter 4. HeartMath Institute, 2015. Boulder Creek, CA.

For example, exposure to a stressful situation can bring up memories of the past or subconscious fear that convert into physiological reactions of the mind and adrenal system. This reaction is mediated by the variation of heart rhythms and hormones produced by the heart. Along with this central and profound automatic activity of the heart, the body also has evolved powerful ways to achieving control and coherence of the cardiovascular and nervous system. Central to this self-control is the activity of the breath and feedback it provides to the heart and the nervous system. (I will be delving into these topics more closely in upcoming blog entries.)

The Problem of Heart Disease

Heart Health and Wellness at Natural Rhythms Integrative MedicineAre you still wondering why we are talking about all this? Here’s the reason, the term “heart disease” represents several health conditions that affect the blood vessels and heart. The most common type is coronary heart disease,5Go AS, et al. “Prevalence of cardiovascular disease in adults ≥20 years of age by age and sex (NHANES: 2007–2010).” American Heart Association, Circulation. 2013 followed by stroke, heart failure, high blood pressure, and disease of the arteries (blood vessels). Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for an average of 600,000 deaths per year in this country—that’s 1 of 4 deaths every year.6CDC.gov. Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Kochanek KD. “Deaths: Final data for 2010.” Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2013;61(4). Every year, 700,000 people suffer heart attacks, of which 515,000 are having a heart attack for the first time.7Go AS, et al. “Heart disease and stroke statistics—2014 update: a report from the American Heart Association.” Circulation. 2014;128. Billions of dollars’ worth of statin drugs are prescribed to lower our cholesterol, but still without impact.

It is true that statin drugs can lower cholesterol levels, but there is little proof that they are effective in preventing heart disease. Here are three of the major studies and the results:

Study Name Type/Patients Result
PROSPER study8Shepherd J, et al. PROSPER study group. Pravastatin in elderly individuals at risk of vascular disease (PROSPER): a randomized controlled trial. Lancet. 2002;360, 1623–1630. Randomized Control Trials (RCT) w 5,804 patients Statin did not reduce total heart attacks and total strokes in primary prevention group.
ALLHAT-LLT study9The ALLHAT Officers and Coordinators for the ALLHAT Collaborative Research Group. Major Outcomes in moderately hypercholesterolemic, hypertensive patients randomized to pravastatin vs usual care: The Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial (ALLHAT-LLT). JAMA. 2002;288, 2998–3007. RCT with 10,355 patients Statin did not reduce total heart attacks and strokes; also, it did not reduce rate of deaths in patients.
ASCOT-LLA study10Sever PS, et al. ASCOT investigators. Prevention of coronary and stroke events with atorvastatin in hypertensive patients who have average or lower-than-average cholesterol concentrations, in the Anglo-Scandinavian Cardiac Outcomes Trial—Lipid Lowering Arm (ASCOT-LLA): a multi-centre randomized controlled trial. Lancet. 2003;361, 1149–1158. RCT with 10,305 patients Statin did not reduce total heart attacks and strokes compared to placebo.

 

A review of all the major studies accounted for more than 65,000 patients using statin drugs for primary prevention.11Ray KK, et al. “Statins and All-Cause Mortality in High-Risk Primary Prevention: A Meta-analysis of 11 Randomized Controlled Trials Involving 65229 Participants.” Arch Intern Med. 2010; 170(12),  1024–1031 The combined data of 11 randomized control trials showed that statins did not reduce the rate of deaths compared placebo. Additionally, there was no relationship between reduction of LDL-cholesterol (so called “bad” cholesterol) and the rate of death among patients. To conclude, the reduction of LDL cholesterol does not protect individuals from heart attacks; in other words, fats are not the enemy.

“A Blessing for Celebrations” by John O'DonohueThis is just one example of how we have dug in a bigger hole in our approach to treatment. There are many natural ways to restore health. This is a solutions-based discussion. Although we sometimes go down the rabbit hole of problems and their descriptions, the ultimate goal is to offer creative solutions.

In upcoming blog entries, we will discuss the physical, emotional, and spiritual modes of healing the heart. Today, I will leave you with this meditation that you can continue for 3–5 minutes … or as long as you wish.

Take a moment to be still … sit or stand or lay down … straighten your spine and take a deep breath into the abdomen … inhaling, your mind becomes present … exhaling, releasing the tension … and again, in-spirit-ion … and ex-spirit-ion, letting go … bring your attention to the heart as you breathe … you can put your hand on your heart to get even closer … breathing deep into the abdomen with attention to the heart … feel it soften with each breath. 


Please feel free to reach out to me through email. Your feedback and questions are greatly appreciated.

Until next time… Be well.

 

References   [ + ]

1. MaCraty, Rollin. “Science of the Heart,” Vol. 2, p. 3. HeartMath Institute, 2015. Boulder Creek, CA.
2. MaCraty, Rollin. “Science of the Heart,” Vol. 2, p. 5. HeartMath Institute, 2015. Boulder Creek, CA.
3. MaCraty, Rollin. “Science of the Heart,” Vol. 2, p. 7. HeartMath Institute, 2015. Boulder Creek, CA.
4. MaCraty, Rollin. “Science of the Heart,” Vol. 2, Chapter 4. HeartMath Institute, 2015. Boulder Creek, CA.
5. Go AS, et al. “Prevalence of cardiovascular disease in adults ≥20 years of age by age and sex (NHANES: 2007–2010).” American Heart Association, Circulation. 2013
6. CDC.gov. Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Kochanek KD. “Deaths: Final data for 2010.” Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2013;61(4).
7. Go AS, et al. “Heart disease and stroke statistics—2014 update: a report from the American Heart Association.” Circulation. 2014;128.
8. Shepherd J, et al. PROSPER study group. Pravastatin in elderly individuals at risk of vascular disease (PROSPER): a randomized controlled trial. Lancet. 2002;360, 1623–1630.
9. The ALLHAT Officers and Coordinators for the ALLHAT Collaborative Research Group. Major Outcomes in moderately hypercholesterolemic, hypertensive patients randomized to pravastatin vs usual care: The Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial (ALLHAT-LLT). JAMA. 2002;288, 2998–3007.
10. Sever PS, et al. ASCOT investigators. Prevention of coronary and stroke events with atorvastatin in hypertensive patients who have average or lower-than-average cholesterol concentrations, in the Anglo-Scandinavian Cardiac Outcomes Trial—Lipid Lowering Arm (ASCOT-LLA): a multi-centre randomized controlled trial. Lancet. 2003;361, 1149–1158.
11. Ray KK, et al. “Statins and All-Cause Mortality in High-Risk Primary Prevention: A Meta-analysis of 11 Randomized Controlled Trials Involving 65229 Participants.” Arch Intern Med. 2010; 170(12),  1024–1031