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Q: I have a strong family history of heart disease, and many of my relatives died fairly young. I’m 45. What can I do to decrease my risk?
A. The heart is a complex muscle that pumps 60 or so beats per minute for 1,440 minutes per day, 365 days per year. That math gives us an astounding look at the number of oxygen-delivering contractions our hearts will perform over a lifetime. Unfortunately, cardiovascular “disease” is still the leading cause of premature death in the U.S., just above cancers and respiratory illnesses.
One of the most common determinants of early death from heart disease is uncontrolled high blood pressure, which can result from clogged arteries, or, less likely, an adrenaline-secreting tumor.
Is Your High Blood Pressure a Sign of Stress or Heart Disease?
Blood pressure often reads high at the doctor’s office, so get a cuff for home use to get an idea of your baseline. Sit quietly for 3–5 minutes thinking pleasant thoughts before measuring. And consider measuring 3 times, with a few minutes of rest between each attempt. Then write down the lowest set of numbers.
- Upper number: Systolic, the upper blood pressure number, bounces around because it measures the vasoconstricting (blood vessel narrowing) effect of adrenaline, aka, the “fight or flight” stress hormone. Unfortunately, the body reads stress as stress, whether it’s a life-threatening predator or a bill in the mail. Your body responds to both stimuli in much the same way, which creates a big jolt of heart-jittering anxiety. If your upper number is variable and always higher than 120 (age up to 55–60) or 140 (age 60 or more), then you likely have adrenaline-induced blood pressure spikes, and the best remedy is stress management. Try meditation, forest bathing, hot-tubbing, chilling with friends, or spending time alone. These soothing activities need to be scheduled so you take this commitment seriously—and with joy!
- Lower number: The bottom number in a blood pressure reading, diastolic, indicates the relative ease with which your heart muscles contract to push freshly oxygenated blood from the largest heart chamber (the left ventricle) into the aorta, which delivers oxygen-rich blood to the entire body. Oxygen drives our ability to produce glucose for fuel, to burn fat for energy, and to complete the thousands of metabolic tasks our bodies perform constantly. If your diastolic number is usually above 80 (age 55–60) or 90 (age 60 or more) then you likely need some type of cardiac muscle toning, and that means exercise—likely with a focus on weight loss. Every extra 10 pounds of weight can raise your diastolic (pump measure) by as much as 2.2 points. So, if you’re 50 pounds overweight, your diastolic could be tipping from 80 (acceptable) to 91 (borderline dangerous) just from excess weight alone. Weight loss also lowers insulin (which raises triglycerides, a type of fat that infiltrates internal organs and sticks on the waist), lowers leptin (your “hunger” hormone), and lowers noradrenaline, almost identical to adrenaline, but it’s produced in the nervous system, not the adrenals.
The Best Way to Treat Arrhythmias & Congestive Heart Failure
Sometimes the heart is overstressed by electrical problems, as opposed to plumbing problems (as in the case of high blood pressure). Electrical problems cause irregular heart rhythms that can be benign (PVCs) or life-threatening (ventricular fibrillation, or V-Fib).
- A-Fib vs. V-Fib: A common arrhythmia, especially in older folks, is atrial fibrillation (A-Fib) which isn’t as dangerous as V-Fib, but can progress to V-Fib. Mostly A-Fib puts folks at risk for blood clots (because the blood is eddying around irregularly, not flowing smoothly), and clots can get lodged in the heart muscle (heart attack) or in the brain (stroke).
- Arrhythmia Treatments: In general, the best way to treat arrhythmias is with ablation (either burning or freezing) of the source of the irregular rhythm (usually in one of the pulmonary veins). I have found that cactus tincture can be very effective for mild arrhythmias. (Please work with a licensed healthcare professional.) If you do have an arrhythmia, it’s also a good idea to quit coffee—a major cardiac stimulant—and to follow a regular schedule. Get up and go to sleep at same time each day. Eat regular meals without snacking. Take time daily to exercise. This gets your body back into a rhythm.
- Congestive heart failure: If you get out of breath easily when trying to exercise, and your blood pressure and weight are up, you may have what used to be called “congestive heart failure.” This means the heart is just not strong enough to vigorously pump oxygen around the body. In this case, your heart needs toning, which can be tricky when you are too tired to exercise. Start with simple walking and work up from there.
Why Exercise Is so Important
All muscles serve the heart, especially the big leg and butt muscles. Anytime your skeletal muscles are active, this helps move blood through the vascular system and eases the burden on the heart.
- Walking poles: As an active senior, I have learned to really appreciate walking and hiking with poles. The poles give me double the contact with the earth and help my balance—and the work of my arms translates to the chest, heart, and core muscles, increasing whole-body tone.
Nutrients That Enhance
Oxygen Delivery CoQ10: This supplement is an almost magical oxygen booster.
If you have a sluggish heart, are out of shape, and/or are taking a CoQ-10-robbing statin, then supplementing with CoQ10 is crucial—200 mg daily for someone who weighs 175 pounds is about right. Take more if you can afford it. With more highly absorbable forms (e.g., Ubiquinol), a lower dose will work as well.
- PQQ: Another popular oxygenator is PQQ, which improves the ability of energy-producing units within every cell to pump out more energy. These tiny engines inside all cells are called mitochondria.
- Vitamin C: One of my favorite mitochondrial helpers is vitamin C. It can have a laxative effect, so go slow and cut back if your stool gets loose. I prefer to take vitamin C at bedtime so the micro-tissue repair that happens overnight gets a fresh boost of vitamin C to work with. I use a non-corn-sourced, buffered ascorbic acid powder.
- Water: Don’t forget to stay hydrated. Blood is 97 percent water, and if your water volume is low, it makes the heart’s job much harder. Drinking a few extra glasses of water each day is the easiest (and most refreshing) thing you can do to give your heart a hand.
Herbs to Heal Your Heart
Leonurus cardiaca is a lovely, tasty plant medicine in the mint family that can help stabilize light arrhythmias. It’s particularly useful for cardiac problems coupled with sadness or grief. The common name for this pretty flower is motherwort, and it’s known to “gladden the heart.” It is a favorite of mine to add to other heart tonics such as the better-known hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha). For a tired, congested heart, I generally prescribe 2 grams daily of the solid extract of hawthorn berries, which is widely available (my favorite brands are Wise Woman Herbals, Gaia Herbs, and Herb Pharm).
Another much-researched Ayurvedic heart tonic is arjuna (Terminalia arjuna), taken from the bark of a tropical almond tree. A dose of 500–1,000 mg twice daily has been shown to revive heart failure subjects to 75 percent productivity within 4 months.
The most famous Ayurvedic herbal cardiac medicine is Rauwolfia serpentina, from which the pharmaceutical drug reserpine is derived. Reserpine blocks the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline, thus lowering blood pressure. However, Rauwolfia can have some serious side effects. Although this is generally unusual with herbal medicine, Rauwolfia should not be taken without supervision from a licensed naturopathic doctor or well-trained herbalist.
Find a licensed naturopathic doctor for a virtual (telemedicine)or in-person
consultation at naturemed.org/find-an-nd.