Congestive heart failure is a condition in which the heart becomes so weak that it cannot continue to efficiently pump life-sustaining blood to the rest of the body; fluid starts to build up in the body as the blood gets backed up, or congested, in the veins. Congestive heart failure is one of the most common reasons that people over the age of 64 go to the hospital; it is essentially due to lack of energy in the heart, and is generally the end result of other underlying cardiovascular problems.
For example, the heart may become energy-starved through years of having to work harder to pump blood through clogged or hardened arteries (as indicated through chronically high blood pressure, or hypertension). By trying to fulfill its blood delivery responsibilities while simultaneously repairing its valves or muscles that have become damaged or diseased through infection or a previous heart attack, the heart also can expend more energy than it produces and slowly run out of juice. Congenital heart defects, diabetes, nutrient deficiencies, alcohol abuse, and stress can also contribute to heart failure.
SYMPTOMS of Congestive Heart Failure:
- Shortness of breath, especially when lying down;
- Tiredness, feeling run down;
- Persistent wheezing or cough (caused by fluid build-up in the lungs, or pulmonary congestion);
- Swollen ankles, feet and legs due to fluid build-up (edema);
- Increased heart rate;
- Nausea or lack of appetite;
- Confusion, inability to think clearly.
If you start experiencing any of these symptoms, write them down to enhance your recall at the doctor’s office; keep a pad in a convenient place. Be sure to report any signs of fluid retention to your physician, such as rings being tighter than normal. One way to check for fluid retention, is to push in the tissue of your feet and ankles with your thumb or index finger at the end of the day and note if you have any little “dents” that don’t bounce back. Have you had any unusual discomfort in your chest or lungs? Be aware if your breathing patterns change or if you become unusually fatigued through exertion.
While both genders experience similar signs and symptoms of heart disease, women tend to have more trouble catching their breath during exercise. If you are over 40 years of age and experiencing shortness of breath, especially if you are a woman with hypertension or mitral valve prolapse, you should request an echocardiogram.
WOMEN and Congestive Heart Failure
Over 5 million people in the U.S. live with heart failure, and approximately half of them are women. As with hypertension, women tend to develop heart failure later in life than men, and therefore live longer than men suffering from it. Heart failure in women is often under-diagnosed and undertreated in women, though, for several reasons. Women tend to downplay their symptoms as “women’s worries,” and doctors may be unfamiliar with symptoms particular to women because women account for only 25 percent of the subjects in heart failure research; likewise medications are often designed to treat heart failure in men. By learning about factors that predispose women to heart failure, symptoms to look out for and treatment options, women can help protect themselves from such conventional medicine shortcomings.
FACTORS that predispose women to heart failure:
- Are you experiencing diastolic heart failure? There are two types of heart failure: systolic and diastolic, each corresponding to the different phases of heartbeat. As the systolic phase characterizes the heart’s forceful contraction which opens valves to propel blood through the body, systolic heart failure describes the heart’s inability to adequately perform this function. Men and women share similar risk factors for systolic heart failure: a history of coronary artery disease with previous heart attack and long-term high blood pressure, all of which cause changes to the heart’s left ventricle which affects systolic function. Systolic dysfunction can be detected through an echocardiogram test, which can show the heart’s relative flexibility as it pumps blood.
Diastolic heart failure, caused by diastolic dysfunction (DD), is less easily detected. Also caused by the stiffening of the left ventricle, DD occurs when the heart lacks the energy to stretch and fill with blood between contractions; it is the primary cause for heart failure in women, accounting for about 50 percent of the cases. It’s possible that more women experience DD than men because they are more prone to mitral valve prolapse, and their blood vessels are smaller; women with hypertension need to be especially wary of DD due to this anatomical difference. As physicians may not detect early stage DD in women, many years can go by while the damage progresses.
- Are you experiencing high blood pressure while pregnant? While (thankfully) it happens rarely, post-partum cardiomyopathy — which can occur during last month of pregnancy or for 5 months post delivery— can cause heart failure in women of child-bearing age; it is due to pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia (hypertensive crisis). More research is needed in this area to determine the actual cause of post partum cardiomyopathy.
- Have you suffered an acute emotional trauma? Heart failure that is abruptly caused by sudden emotional distress is referred to “broken heart syndrome (BHS)” or “stress cardiomyopathy,” which affects women far more often than men. While heartbreak experienced upon the sudden death of a loved one is one aspect of BHS, the syndrome also characterizes life-threatening feelings experienced during other life events which bring about adrenal surges, such as the pain of domestic abuse or violence, the fear of armed robbery, or even the shock of a surprise birthday party. While these sudden feelings can engender symptoms that are similar to having a heart attack – intense chest discomfort, shortness of breath, and an impending sense of doom – most tests performed at the doctor’s office will show normal results. The only physiological indication of BHS heart failure is a peculiar and unique pattern shown in an echocardiogram where the apex, or bottom part of the heart that sits on the diaphragm, balloons outward in an unusual way.
- Do you expect to feel the “pains of aging?” More often than men, women will downplay their symptoms of physical discomfort, often dismissing them as the normal wear and tear of caring for children, aging parents and spouses. Many women become “vitally exhausted” as they ignore their personal needs while constantly performing caretaker as well as workforce responsibilities. By expecting to be healthy, vibrant and full of energy because you listen to and care for yourself, you don’t have pretend everything is wonderful or simply succumb to health decline because “that’s what getting older means.” Telling your doctor about your evolving physical limitations is important to maintaining a good quality of life. Often, what’s a minimal symptom for you can be a big clue when your doctor is putting those diagnostic puzzle pieces together; there’s most likely something that can be done to significantly improve your symptoms – and even your survival.
Heart Failure TREATMENT: Giving Energy Back to the Heart
The good news is that alternative therapies can help patients recover from the disabling symptoms of heart disease and regain quality of life. Energetically supporting the heart can be a matter of making healthy lifestyle choices such as eating a highly nutritious, anti-inflammatory diet, supplementing with nutrients which help facilitate metabolism and protect against damage, reducing stress through relaxation techniques and grounding, and even addressing emotional issues. Supplementing with coenzyme Q10, L-carnitine, magnesium and D-ribose (“the awesome foursome“) is especially important to help the heart build ATP, or energy, molecules, so that it can heal while continuing to support the body’s needs for oxygenated blood.
Traditional congestive heart failure treatment centers on medications like digoxin (digitalis), diuretics, ACE inhibitors, beta blockers and nitroglycerine. While these pharmaceuticals drugs do help relax artery walls, keep blood pressure down, control heart rate, improve blood flow and reduce the amount of energy consumed in the heart, their long-term use also creates compromising side effects. More natural alternatives can help heart failure patients avoid the nutrient depletion, weakness, fatigue, lung congestion, vision disturbances, arrhythmias, gastrointestinal distress, headaches, and depression associated with long-term use of such heart failure medications.
- Hawthorne berry is employed in Europe as a digoxin (digitalis) substitute; in the U.S., digoxin is used to control heart rate and increase the strength of the heart’s contractions. Because it improves pumping ability, digitalis can help clear up excess fluid in the lungs. As digoxin and hawthorne have a similar effect on the heart, their simultaneous use is not advisable. Hawthorne is also an ACE inhibitor alternative.
- Minerals: magnesium, potassium, and calcium. If you don’t have kidney problems, you can reduce your reliance on calcium channel blockers by taking these minerals. Also, as there is no sufficient alternative to standard diuretics for people with congestive heart failure, it’s extremely important to supplement with magnesium and potassium if you are taking diuretics, as well as eat foods rich in these minerals such as raisins, prunes, apricots, bananas, potatoes, oranges, spinach, avocados, turkey, fish, chicken, and peas.
- Ginger tea and uva ursi extract may help those with mild fluid retention.
- Other ACE inhibitor alternatives include coenzyme Q10, fish oil, garlic, and L-argenine.
Beta blockers are among the safest of all drugs prescribed to lower blood pressure, prevent heart damage and relieve angina, and are one of the only cardiac drugs that shouldn’t be replaced with a more natural alternative.
NOTE: do not reduce or stop taking your medications without your doctor’s consent and guidance.
For more information about congestive heart failure, check out my books:
- Sinatra ST. “Natural Treatments for Congestive Heart Failure.” Drsinatra.com, Accessed Mar. 23, 2011.
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