By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
For decades, cardiovascular disease (CVD) – commonly referred to as heart disease – has been the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. In 2007 alone, it claimed over 600,000 lives, the majority of which were people over the age of 64. Cancer continues to follow in close second, followed at a distance by strokes, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and accidents. One of the reasons heart disease is such a deadly enemy is that many people lack of awareness of its more subtle signs and symptoms. The good news is, you can help prevent heart disease, and even reverse it, before it’s too late…
What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is usually characterized by coronary artery disease, a condition of blood vessel damage due to a combination of plaque build-up, silent inflammation and endothelial deterioration. When the integrity of blood vessels becomes compromised, a few health problems can occur. As arteries start to harden, the heart has to work much harder to continually pump blood through the body, and blood pressure may rise. Chronic high blood pressure, or hypertension, is a major heart disease risk factor. The heart may also be unable to keep up with the body’s demands for fresh blood and begin to fail due to vital exhaustion.
Additionally, as the immune system constantly repairs damage in blood vessels, the walls of those blood vessels become inflamed. As inflammation increases, so does the likelihood that plaques in arterial walls will become unstable and rupture. When unstable plaques break open, blood clots can enter the bloodstream, get lodged in blood vessels and block blood flow. Three potentially devastating events can happen at this point due to lack of oxygen: a person may have an acute heart attack, may die from arrhythmia (the heart stops or races wildly because of electrical instability due to sudden loss of oxygen), or may have a stroke.
Heart attacks or heart failure may also happen due to congenital defects, but these are rare in the greater whole of CVD incidence. In most cases, heart disease is progressive with sudden cardiac events resulting after years of blood vessel damage.
While we can’t control certain factors like family history of CVD and congenital defects, we are able to prevent heart disease and even reverse it through the cultivation of heart-healthy lifestyle habits – factors we can control.
Are you at risk of heart disease? Take this simple questionnaire I’ve developed to find out.
A Few Words on Cholesterol and Preventing Heart Disease
For years, cholesterol has been blamed for heart disease, with the real culprit, inflammation, continuing to lurk misunderstood in the shadows. Truth is, we need cholesterol for many bodily functions like cellular repair, synthesis of cell membranes and hormones, and digestion.
Generally speaking,cholesterol is carried through our bloodstreams by lipoproteins; LDL (low density lipoprotein) is commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol, while HDL (high density lipoprotein) is usually called “good’ cholesterol.LDL carries cholesterol to cells in need while HDL sweeps up excess cholesterol in the bloodstream and returns it to the liver. Hence, it’s generally considered good to have lower LDL levels and higher HDL levels, as excess LDL can end up depositing itself in blood vessel walls and contributing to plaque formation (depending on the subtype pattern: large pattern A is less invasive than small pattern B).
As mentioned earlier, when plaques become unstable, they can rupture and cause heart attacks and strokes. Too much LDL cholesterol combined with oxidative stress and arterial inflammation, then, is the problem. What’s the solution? Reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, and increase HDL production in the body. You also want to avoid trans-fats, which increase LDL cholesterol and reduce HDL.
It must be noted that characterizing HDL and LDL as “good” and “bad” cholesterol is a major oversimplification – it may be okay for TV, but the actual science is much more complicated. There are multiple subtypes of HDL and LDL cholesterol, and some are “good” while others are “bad.” For example, while small-particle LDL is very toxic, white, fluffy, large-particle LDL isn’t.
How to Prevent Heart Disease
1. Follow a healthy diet, detox, and exercise regularly
Sticking to an anti-inflammatory diet and maintaining a healthy weight are crucial for preventing heart disease and other inflammation-related diseases. A cardiovascular mainstay, regular moderate exercise helps us detoxify, as well as manage our weight and stress. Exercise also helps us increase our HDL cholesterol levels, as does losing weight, quitting smoking, and consuming more soluble fiber, as well as monounsaturated and omega-3 fats.
2. Better Manage Stress
Emotional stress, which can get the better of our health through autonomic nervous system (ANS) imbalance can also contribute to the development of hypertension and other elements of cardiovascular disease. According to a 2010 study, chronic stress is thought to engender both depression and obesity, two conditions which also play a role in the development of heart disease.
We can protect our hearts from the effects of stress by incorporating mind-body techniques like yoga and meditation into our regular routines. Grounding is another great method to help us reduce the negative physiological effects of stress such as hormone imbalance, body pain and sleeplessness. These suggestions are also great tools for smoking cessation, which is absolutely essential to prevent heart disease.
3. Metabolically Support Heart Health
One aspect of heart disease that most people lack awareness about it lack of cardiac energy. A diseased heart is one that is energy starved. The mitochondria within its cells cannot produce enough ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to support heart function. This is often the case with coronary artery disease, where the heart must continually overwork to pump blood through compromised vessels. Supplementing with coenzyme Q10, as well as L-carnitine, D-ribose, and magnesium (collectively, the “awesome foursome”), can help boost ATP production in heart cells and give the heart the energy it needs to heal itself as well as help supply the rest of the body with vital blood. Additionally, supplementing with antioxidants can help prevent heart disease by protecting the heart against the effects of oxidative stress.
These are just the three biggies. Watch my Pillars of Health video to learn more here about lifestyle practices that support heart health.
Love More to Prevent Heart Disease
We can’t put our fingers on it, but we know that love is good for us… whether it be romantic love, or love for family members, friends, or pets, that open-hearted feeling simultaneously fills us with vitality and peace. Heartbreak, on the other hand, as an emotional response to loss of love or intimacy in our lives (as children or adults), can be so painful that we begin to shut ourselves off from vital heartfelt connections and become unable to take in love. We may develop physical defenses like restricted breathing and muscular tension in our chests, which are cardiac stressors, and mental defenses like denial, which helps us “control” our feelings.
Voltaire has been credited with saying, “the heart has its reasons for which reason cannot comprehend,” perhaps illuminating why science-based medicine tends to focus solely on concrete aspects of the heart’s state of health such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Looking deeper, is it our behavioral responses (coping styles) to stress, loneliness, isolation, boredom that set us up for the unhealthy blood pressure levels and body weights, imbalanced nervous systems, and immobility, which can all contribute to the development of heart disease?
In light of this, practicing unconditional love, toward ourselves and others, can help us prevent heart disease. If we have experienced heartbreak, this may be easier said than done. We many need to examine our (often scary) shadow sides to come to terms with unresolved emotional conflicts, psychological injuries and developed physical patterns. Doing so may require an alternative approach such as bioenergetics (a body-oriented analytic therapy focused on the muscular tensions in the body that are the physical counterparts of the emotional conflict in the personality) or even psychotherapy. Emotional release is also possible during yoga, meditation or other practices which encourage deep breathing. Journal writing may also be of use in getting in touch with deeper feelings.
Regardless of method, the goal is to release emotional blockages so that we can fully experience, again, the deeper respirations of life. Learning to develop healthy responses to perceived stressors involves opening ourselves up to uncertainties in life (“going with the flow”) and unconditionally loving ourselves in the process; perhaps it involves forgiving others who have hurt us, or maybe forgiving ourselves. At times, we may end up in tears, but crying is the essence of healing the heart; it also initiates hormones that positively stimulate the immune system.
Heart Attacks and Strokes: Second Chances at Life?
Some people re-frame the survival of a cardiac event such as a heart attack or stroke as a second chance at life. These incredibly adaptive people see the event as a gift which has opened their eyes to the need for change. On the physical level, they may adopt healthier eating patterns, food choices, and exercise habits, and they also may better attend to their emotional needs after some deep psycho-emotional exploration. Some become more spiritual, and bring awareness of greater meaning to their lives. Such survivors are an inspiration to us all.
- Reverse Heart Disease Now
- Heartbreak and Heart Disease
- The Sinatra Solution: Metabolic Cardiology
- “Valentine’s Day.” History.com
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. “Leading Causes of Death.” CDC.gov, 2007.
© 2011, 2016 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.