“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh –
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a serious widespread problem throughout many parts of the world. In the United States, according to the American Heart Association, 58.8 million Americans had one or more types of heart disease in 1998. Since the turn of the 20th century, CVD has been the number one cause of death every year except 1918. The yearly cost associated with these cases is estimated to be in excess of 250 billion dollars, and billions of dollars more have been spent upon research.
Yet few know that workable solutions and preventive measures for many heart and circulation problems are available by intelligent use of a bit of herbal and functional medicine knowledge. Our purpose here will be to understand how to maintain a strong heart, healthy blood and good circulation, and how to avoid inflammation. We have already discussed the importance of nutrition and how to keep the digestive tract healthy in the chapters on nutrition and the GI tract. Our circulatory system depends upon a good supply of high quality raw materials. Once food leaves the gastrointestinal tract, it goes to the liver for processing and filtering, and then enters the general circulation under the command of the heart muscle. Before we can talk about the blood, we need to understand a little about the liver and the heart.
Understanding the Heart
Let’s take a simplified look at the human cardiovascular system. Imagine a thick tube, about the size of a garden hose and about two feet long. Once you have a good mental picture, tie the tube into a knot about the size of your fist. Now picture a hand squeezing the knot, causing water to squirt out of the ends of the tube. When the heart beats, it pumps the blood out into the circulatory system. Imagine also that someone has placed some screens inside the hose to trap and filter particles.
It should now be easy for you to visualize the major components to this system, all of which are important for our ensuing discussion: Your hand represents the electrical impulses that tell the heart to beat. The garden hose represents the tough fibrous muscular outer structures of both the heart and the blood vessels. The screens represents the liver and spleen, filtering out poisons. The inside lining of the hose represents the interior lining of both your heart and its blood vessels. This lining exists in both heart chambers as well as in the vessels that enter and exit the heart. Because these delicate membranes lining the entire cardiovascular system are in direct contact with the blood components, and are very susceptible to oxidative damage (deterioration and clogging), we will be spending extra time discussing how to prevent and neutralize this destructive inflammation.
We absorb the Earth’s gases as we breathe. The nose, mouth, trachea and diaphragm take air into our lungs, bringing life-giving oxygen and gases into our blood when we inhale, and excreting waste gases as we exhale. Moreover, musculoskeletal and myofascial integrity are necessary to prevent blockage of blood and energy flow, and to ease the workload of the heart (Oschman and Oschman, 1998). To stay healthy, the heart of course needs plenty of oxygen, nutrients, exercise, relaxation, pure water and love, the latter perhaps suffering as the most under-appreciated of these necessities.
To understand these issues at a deeper level, it is important to note that the pumping action of the heart is insufficient in itself to propel the blood. It requires the aid of the diaphragm, so good respiration is essential to good blood circulation. Because our degree of muscular tension determines oxygen demand, the more tension we have, the harder our heart and our muscles have to work. For example, a muscle that has to pull against its chronically tense partner will become overworked, requiring a constant supply of energy (ATP). This will burn up nutrients and increase oxidative stress. By utilizing relaxation tools like T’ai Chi, Yoga and Qi gong, we take a big load off the heart. By the same token, periodic regular exercise strengthens our heart. These larger lifestyle issues are important for prevention, always the primary goal of holistic medicine. Attention to these issues puts us in harmony with the natural cycles of Yin and Yang. We will explore both of these in more depth in the sections on musculoskeletal disorders, and when we take a look at the respiratory system. If we fail to heed the aforementioned lessons, our hearts will gradually weaken and fail.
Following is a list of the most common heart problems:
• Arteriosclerosis – This term refers to the walls of the arteries becoming thickened, with a resultant loss of elasticity, commonly called “hardening of the arteries.”
• Artherosclerosis – This is a form of arteriosclerosis in which the cause is the build-up of fatty plaques on the interior lining of the arteries.
• Ischemia – This is a lack of oxygen to a tissue usually due to inadequate blood supply.
• Myocardial infarction – An infarct is an area of tissue that dies (necrosis) following cessation of blood supply. A myocardial infarction occurs when an infarct forms in your heart muscle. This is commonly called a heart attack, and is usually caused by a thrombus (blood clot in the arteries).
• Arrhythmia – This is an irregularity or loss of rhythm in the heart beat. There are several types such as tachycardia, which means faster than normal beating of the heart. These are usually caused by disturbances in the electrical impulses from a special area of the heart called the sinoatrial node.
• Stroke – This is a sudden loss of consciousness, followed by paralysis. It is sometimes caused by a hemorrhage in the brain, often due to high blood pressure. The most common cause is a thrombus in a vessel supplying the brain.
• Pericarditis, myocarditis and endocarditis are disorders caused by inflammation and swelling in the sheath surrounding the heart, the heart muscle, and the heart muscle lining, respectively.
• Heart failure – This is essentially the end stage of failure to nourish, cleanse and strengthen. Congestive heart failure (CHF) occurs when there is a profound reduction in the ability of the heart to contract and deliver nutrients and oxygen to the tissues. Cardiac output then becomes inadequate to meet the metabolic needs of our many organ systems. Symptoms include shortness of breath upon exertion, fatigue and weakness, and fluid accumulation in the lungs, liver, abdomen and ankles. This condition is clearly associated with various electrolyte imbalances and nutritional deficiencies, especially magnesium and potassium (Altura and Altura, 1986).