Men’s Health: The Heart of the Matter
June is Men’s Health Month. The focus of the health column will therefore be on heart health. Up to fairly recently, heart disease was regarded as a male health challenge. This is no longer so. As more and more research also focus on women and their hearts, it has become alarmingly clear that women over 45 years of age, especially in the peri- and post menopausal period, have the same, if not higher, risk for heart diseases as men.
Hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels) disease risk factors
Major wellknown risk factors for cardiovascular disease:
- Elevated cholesterol levels
- High blood pressure
- Physical inactivity
- High stress / distress
- Positive family history
Other very important, lesser known risk factors:
- Low antioxidant status
- Low levels of essential fatty acids
- Low levels of magnesium and potassium
- Increased platelet aggregation (stickiness)
- Increased fibrinogen formation
- Elevated levels of homocystein
- Stress associated with the type A personality, worry, anxiety
The most important nutrients and herbal remedies for heart health
- An antioxidant combination with enough vitamins A, E, C and minerals zinc, selenium, chromium
- High dosages (50mg) of the B-complex vitamins ,B1, 3, 5, 6, choline, inositol; 50 microgram of B12 & biotin; 400 microgram of folic acid
- Magnesium and calcium in therapeutic quantities
- Co-enzyme Q10 in therapeutic quantities
- Hawthorn (Crateagus oxyacantha) berry in therapeutic quantities
- Essential fatty acids, especially omega 3 found in cold water fish
- Ginkgo biloba in therapeutic quantities
- Garlic – eat crushed garlic in your food – at least 3 cloves a day, with parsley for the smell, or take garlic capsules
- Phyto (plant) estrogens, e.g. soybeans, chick peas, lentils, linseed
Heart facts: energy medicine and science combined in a healing dance where fact, mystery and imagination create wholeness
Results of a study published in the British Medical Journal show that work stress is associated with double the risk of dying from heart disease. In promoting cardiovascular health, the traditional advice has always been for people to stop smoking, cut down drinking, eat less fat, and get moving through physical activity. These findings suggest that attention should also be paid to the prevention, mastering or management of work stress, according to the researchers.
Adapted from the British Medical Journal:
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in modern society. Employees with high job strain, acombination of high demands at work and low job control, have high stress levels and more than twice the risk of death form heart disease compared with employees who have low job strain. The stress levels and risk for employees with effort-reward imbalance (low salary, lack of social approval, and few career opportunities relative to efforts required at work) were 2.5 times higher. High job strain also showed an increased total cholesterol at the 5year follow up, while effort-reward imbalance showed an increase in body weight.
More and more research studies show the link between the heart, the emotions, stress and the fact that the heart also functions as brain:
‘The abyss between the emotions and physiology narrowed in 2005 as researchers discovered that emotional stress can indeed, produce symptoms of a heart attack. Although the research team concluded that the mechanism remains unknown regarding reversible left ventricular dysfunction precipitated by emotional stress, it was suggested that stress hormones might temporarily overwhelm heart cells. Nicknamed the ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’, the cause might best be described as ‘adrenalin poisoning’.
– Wittstein, L. Neurohumoral Features of Myocardial Stunning Due to Sudden Emotional Stress. New England Journal of Medicine. 352(6): 539-548, 2005
Heart as brain ( research published in 2006):
The heart has receptor sites for, and manufacture, peptides that are identical to the neurotransmitter message carrier molecules inside the brain. It is now crystal clear that the heart is a very important endocrine gland, making and releasing the major hormone, ANF (atrial natriuretic factor). ANF has a profound effect on the brain’s limbic structure and function. The limbic system is the seat of the emotions and stress survival reaction, and is also called the emotional brain. The limbic system includes the hippocampus where the memory, learning and control centres for the entire hormonal system resides. 60-65% of heart cells are neurons (nervous system cells), and not muscle cells as previously believed. These neurons are identical to brain neurons. 50% of the heart neuron cells translate information from the whole body to keep it functioning as a harmonious whole. The other 50% have a direct, unmediated neural connection with the emotional brain inside the head, with a 24/7 heart-brain-heart dialogue we are completely unconscious of. The heart is a powerful electromagnetic generator that creates an electromagnetic field that encompasses body and extends 3-5 meters away from it. One can actually take an ECG (electro cardiogram) reading 1 meter away from the body, with no wires attached! This electromagnetic field has a profound effect on the brain, furnishing radio wave pattern from which the brain draws material to create an internal experience of the world. Ultimately everything in our lives depends on our emotional (i.e. feeling) response to events.
Stress accelerates your heart rate through secretion of the adrenal stress hormones adrenalin, noradrenalin and the long term stress hormone cortisol. Stress is initially experienced as emotions or feelings within the limbic system of the brain. ANF influences not only the heart muscle contraction, pressure in blood vessels and kidneys, but also the mood-influencing adrenal glands, as well as the brain. In the brain, parasympathetic or sympathetic impulses coming from the heart help trigger the onset of either calming or excitatory thoughts and emotions. Research also shows that by focusing on, or visualising feelings of love, peace and gratitude, breathing and heart rate slow down, and become synchronised and harmonious. Regular meditation practice has a similar effect. In emotionally healthy people, there appears to be a strong tendency for the heart and brain to have a smoothly functioning dialogue, and to remain synchronised, or entrained. Entrainment reflects a positive frame of mind, but also helps create it, in part by enhancing the balance of the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic / relaxing, and sympathetic / excitatory system). The body, clearly, can help heal the mind. But what gets this healing process started? The mind itself! Your mind, when focused on appreciation, love and peace, has a limitless power to trigger physical and emotional healing.
The heart’s language and Mediterranean countries
We often say: my heart’s not in it anymore; my heart is sore; my heart is breaking. This is much more literal than we thought! In all cultures and religions, the experience of peace, love, healing and harmony are seated in the heart chakra (energy wheel) or heart and thymus region in the chest. Feelings of love also have a positive influence on the immune system, hormones and cognitive brain function.
In his book, ‘Love & Survival’, Dr Dean Ornish, an American cardiologist and developer of the world renowned Heart Disease Reversal Programme, says that the most important contributing factor to heart health, is love and intimacy found in close relationships. Research has shown that people in Japan and France (both countries with low heart disease risk) have very close family and friendship links, signifying the perception they have of having a support system in times of trouble. Lack of love and intimacy has been shown to be the most consistent predictor of heart disease! This is a more consistent factor than genetics and risk factors such as obesity, too little exercise, high LDL-cholesterol, poor nutrition and smoking.
Even some of the risk factors can be attributable to lack of social interaction and feeling isolated and alone! People smoke, drink, or overeat as an ineffective, harmful way of stilling the mind from the stressful monkey chatter, to try and prevent the emotions from surfacing. The countries around the Mediterranean Sea also have a daily siesta time after their phyto (=plant) nutrient, fish and olive oil rich lunch as part of their cultural habit – this lowers stress levels by allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to re-balance the sympathetic or stress nervous system response. Soy based food forms the staple in Japan.
Written by Dr Arien van der Merwe MBChB FRIPH FRCAM MISMA; medical doctor and author who specialises in natural medicine, stress management, health and wellness promotion.