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Written by Dr Arien van der Merwe MBChB FRIPH FRCAM MISMA

This article is aimed at providing some of the facts to assist you in making informed choices regarding lifestyle changes should you decide to do so. Focusing on heart disease provides a model for addressing the lifestyle link in all the major killer diseases, such as cancer (prostate, breast, colon and lung being the most common), arthritis, HIV/Aids, diabetes and other degenerative diseases. The heart-lifestyle link is best understood and well researched, at this point in time, and the heart is after all, the place where the body, the mind, emotions and soul converge.

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 disease as men.

The MRC (Medical Research Council) report released in May 2006, indicated that by the year 2010, the chronic diseases will kill 666 South Africans every day. Between 1995 and 2005, 6 million South Africans had high blood pressure, 5 million high blood cholesterol, 1.5 million diabetes and more than 7 million smokers, of which the largest percentage were younger than 20 years old. In the year 2000, the chronic diseases of lifestyle killed 565 people every day in this country. These statistics are horrific! It’s time to wake up and do something. Heart disease with high blood pressure and cholesterol are also silent killers, where the first symptom is often a heart attack.

A positive family history and symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, unproductive chronic cough, blue or painful extremities, extreme sensitivity to cold, leg ulcers, swelling of the ankles, pain over the chest, left arm or up the neck at rest or during exertion, have to be thoroughly evaluated with a complete physical examination, basic blood tests and an exertion or stress electrocardiogram. A thorough heart evaluation should form part of everybody’s yearly preventative medical examination, whether or not you have symptoms or a positive history. The natural and wellness treatment options are aimed at improving energy metabolism inside the heart’s cells, as well as blood supply to the heart, while simultaneously facilitating the release and surrender of blocked emotional and mental energy.

As one patient who participated in the world renowned Heart Disease Reversal Programme lead by physician, Dr Dean Ornish, said: ‘Even if the tests showed my arteries hadn’t opened up (which they did!), I would still follow this program, because I’ve opened up!’

Hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels) disease risk factors

Major wellknown risk factors for cardiovascular disease:

  • Smoking
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • 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
  • Hostility

Heart facts

  • Research shows that the heart does have an effect on our health and happiness:
    • If, for instance, you focus on or visualise feelings of love, peace and gratitude, your breathing and heart rate slow down, and become synchronised and harmonious.
    • Meditation has a similar effect.
  • Feelings of love also have a positive influence on the immune system, hormones and cognitive brain function.

Heart research

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 (information published in 2006/2007):

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.

According to Candace Pert in her new book ‘Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d’, neural nests that form pathways after repeated firing in specific patterns (compare this to wild animals treading the same pathway to the water every single day), form memory not only in the brain, but also in the heart, spinal cord, immune system – actually all systems linked by autonomic ganglia and part of the psychosomatic network. This network comprises the firing between neurons in the nervous system (only 2% of the information system), the link of ligands (peptides, hormones, neurotransmitters) to their receptors (98% of the information system), and the matrix, or intricate spider web of collagen fibres that link throughout the bodymind, and extending into every single cell. According to James Oschman in his book ‘Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis’, the living matrix can be compared to a liquid crystal and it is a physical entity explaining how energy healing works, and also instantaneous, or miraculous healing. Through instant transmission along the matrix, new molecules of emotion can bind to receptors, with an immediate healing effect. On the surface, this is the benefit of repeating positive affirmations and on a deeper, spiritual level, the epiphany or transcendent moment the mystics talk about, of finally being able to let go and release old, buried emotions of past core emotional trauma, from the cells of your body, especially the heart, and creating new pathways of health and wellbeing, new ‘elsewheres of thought’ as Ramhta (JC Knight) said in the movie ‘What the Bleep do we Know?!..’.

Heartfelt feelings

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 and thymus (responsible for immunity) 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 says that the most important contributing factor to heart health, is the 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.

Other feelings associated with the heart:

  • Issues with unconditional love
  • Heart not in it anymore: work & relationships
  • Perfectionist, driven, workaholic – type A behaviour
  • Harshly judgmental of self and others
  • Difficulty expressing emotions or feelings
  • Denying feelings
  • Difficult relationships – cannot cope with needs of others
  • Self control issues – the inner drive to always be in control of situations
  • Fear of failure – empathy with yourself and others

All these are stressors or triggers for the stress reaction where the heart and cardiovascular system are constantly put in red alert to react in the classical stress response: fight or flight!

This does NOT imply that you CAUSE your disease on purpose! The process occurs on a deeply unconscious level in cell memories. You can however, become consciously aware of these issues and through process work, help your inner self to heal, leading to personal power and inner peace.

Healing ideas for your heart

  • Opening your heart to healing your physical body to release cell memories, optimise physical health and use the body to connect you to your mind, emotions and soul essence
    • Identify body signals of severe stress: feel the pain, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, depression
    • Breathing exercises to open the chest area, expand the lungs, increase oxygenation of cells: belly or diaphragmatic breathing, bellows breathing, alternate nostril breathing
    • Progressive deep muscle relaxation
    • Specific yoga exercises: head, neck and shoulder stretches and rotations; cobra pose; half locust pose; head-to-knee pose; forward bending pose; shoulder stand, even if you simply lift your feet onto the seat of a chair; chest extension or fish pose; spinal twist; sun salutation; dead man’s pose to end
    • Work with arms – reaching out, drawing in with dance movements such as Nia technique, and slow, mindful movement like Tai ‘chi.
    • Following a heart health eating plan
    • Using heart health food supplements and herbal remedies
  • Opening your heart to healing your emotions or feelings towards yourself and others
    • Work on releasing past emotional injuries and hurts
    • Forgiveness of self and others
    • Work on relationships, release of sorrow, guilt, acceptance of self and others
    • Anger management: learn how to acknowledge the intense energy of anger and allow it proper expression
  • Opening your heart to healing your thoughts
    • Use heart centered positive affirmations and directed visualisations to sense feelings of love, joy, peace and happiness within the heart. Also using the image of the sun, placing it in the heart and then allowing the moon to place itself over the heart. This allows for a balance of male and female energies within the heart.
    • Go on a journey of self discovery: deeply ingrained unconscious patterns of behaviour that do not serve you any longer, through journaling, psychotherapy, free hand writing
  • Opening your heart to connect to your soul
    • Meditate regularly: mindfulness, witnessing, visualization meditations work well for the heart
    • Releasing the shadow deep inside the unconscious mind through transpersonal and soul based psychotherapy
    • Quiet time, soul reflection and contemplation

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 (50-100mg each) 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


  • Have your homocystein (a sulphur containing amino acid) risk measured together with your regular lipid profile tests
  • High levels mean high risk: accumulated homocystein damage the inner lining of the arteries, and encourages the formation of atherosclerosis
  • A study done at Ohio State University in the USA, showed a link between high homocystein levels and an attitude of hostility and anger – finally science has caught up with the mind-soul-body link! The stress associated with hostility and anger may elevate homocystein levels, accelerating damage to the inside of the arterial walls (atherosclerosis)
  • The treatment is cheap, simple and extremely effective:
    • 400 IU’s vitamin E
    • 50mg vitamin B6
    • 50 microgram B12
    • 400 microgram folic acid
  • These nutrients ensure the conversion of homocystein into beneficial antioxidants. People with a genetic tendency for high homocystein levels, often have a deficiency of these nutrients.

Nutritional deficiencies associated with prescription cardiovascular drugs

Medication Potential Nutrient Deficiency

Possible problems or symptoms associated with the deficiency

1. Medicine prescribed for the treatment of high blood pressure
i. Hydralazine

Vasodilators (cause widening of the arteries) that contain hydralazine hydrochloride e.g. Apresoline, Hyperphen, Rolazine

Vitamin B6

Co-enzyme Q10 (Co-Q10)

Insomnia, fatigue, ECG (electrocardiogram that measures the electrical activity of the heart) abnormalities, lowered immunity with an increased tendency towards infections, nervous system disorders

Lowered energy levels, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, angina (pain over heart area during exertion), prolapse of the mitral valve in the heart, stroke, heart arhythmia (irregular heart beat), cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), inflammation of the oral mucosa, lowered immunity

ii. Loop diuretics (increase production of urine in the loop area of the kidney) e.g. Lasix, Unat, Puresis (all containing furosemide) Calcium




Vitamin B1 en B6

Vitamin C



Muscle cramps, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, tooth decay, insomnia

Muscle cramps, muscle weakness, heart palpitations, lowered exercise tolerance, insomnia, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, heart arhythmia

Weight loss, oedema, changes in heart rhythm, enlarged heart,

Bleeding of the oral mucosa, discolouration and bruising of the skin, poor healing of fractures and wounds, joint pain, loose teeth and tooth decay

Muscle weakness, nervous irritability, mental disorientation

Poor healing of wounds, dermatitis, inability to taste food, night blindness (due to poor vitamin A and zinc interaction), loss of hair, lowered immunity

iii. Thiazide diuretics e.g. Urirex K, Dichlotride, Moduretic (all that contain hydrochlorthiazide) Magnesium, potassium, zinc, co-enzyme Q10 See above
iv. Potassium sparing diuretics e.g. Aldactone (all that contain spironolactone) Calcium

Folic acid


See above

Anaemia, depression, spina bifida (tissue doesn’t close properly over spinal column) in babies of mothers with folic acid deficiency

See above

2. Medicine prescribed for cardiovascular problems
i. Glycosides e.g. Lanoxin, that contain digoxin, for heart failure Calcium, magnesium


See above

Osteoporosis, muscle weakness, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), dyspnoea (shortness of breath)

ii. Beta-blockers e.g. Lopressor, Inderal, Tenormin, Sectral, Dilatrend for high blood pressure Co-enzyme Q10 See above
iii. Anti-arrythmic drugs e.g. Cordarone, Norpace to treat irregular heart beat Folic acid, Co-Q10, Magnesium See above
iv. Calcium channel blockers e.g. Norvasc, Adalat, Isoptin, Dynacirc, Plendil Folic acid, Co-Q10, Magnesium See above
3. Cholesterol lowering drugs
Statins or HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors e.g. Lipitor, Prava, Zocor Co Enzyme Q10 One of the most important nutrients in the body, especially abundant in heart muscle

Protects against the side effects of prescription cholesterol drugs.

Increases cellular energy inside the mitochondria, the power generators within cells (the heart is the most energy demanding muscle in the body).

Magnesium Oxide Maintains normal blood pressure.
Vitamin B1, B5, B6 Supports cardiovascular health and heart function.

Assists in the metabolism of protein, fats and carbohydrates.

By supplementing with the correct micronutrients in the form of food supplements, while taking these prescription drugs, you will prevent the deficiencies that might actually prevent the drugs from working efficiently. This is an example of mainstream and complementary medicine working together.

The heart’s language and Mediterranean countries

The countries around the Mediterranean Sea 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.

Heart centered meditation

Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair, in a quiet place, with soft pink candle light, rose quartz crystal and soothing music if you prefer. Hold your back straight, chin parallel to the floor, hands relaxed in your lap, eyes closed. Breathe deeply and slowly and feel yourself relaxing with each exhalation. Do this until you’re completely relaxed. In your mind’s eye, imagine a bright, healing light shining into your heart. The light becomes softer, changing to hues of pink or green, associated with feelings of love, peace, reassurance, forgiveness and acceptance. The light dissolves all tension from your heart and chest. Feel all heaviness, sadness, regret, pain and seriousness lift and release, leaving you light hearted and joyful. Feel your heart developing its own radiance as though an inner flame is being rekindled. Allow this light from inside your heart to spread to every part of you, into the far reaches of every cell, molecule, thought and emotion. Imagine yourself filled with this light’s purity and wonder; your body, mind, emotions and soul healed by the radiance inside your own heart. Sense this light spreading into your feet and eyes to illuminate your path with love. Repeat the positive affirmations: my heart is light and free; I am always being guided in love; my life is filled with love, laughter and infinite wisdom; my heart opens with love, peace and forgiveness. Bathe in love’s feelings and light for as long as you can. Then slowly become aware of your body, move your limbs, notice your breathing, experience the calm and peace inside. Gently come back to normal awareness.

Heart centered wellness is an example of energy medicine and science combining in a healing dance where fact, mystery, imagination and soul exploration create an aspect of wholeness

Reference & further reading


Written by Dr Arien van der Merwe MBChB FRIPH FRCAM MISMA; medical doctor and author who specialises in the integrative approach to the management of the chronic lifestyle diseases (or health challenges), stress management and workplace wellness interventions.

More information: 012 460 0191 /

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