A Healthy Heart

With Valentines approaching, we are inundated with messages of romance and heart symbols. So what is the significance of the human heart with emotions and love in particular? On the other hand, from a physical perspective, heart disease is one of the leading causes of chronic illness in the modern world. So what can we do to make our heart healthy and prevent disease and also foster heart intelligence and emotional wellbeing?

I have recently read the most inspiring book about the human heart, called “Human Heart, Cosmic Heart” by American doctor Thomas Cowan. I have always been fascinated with the heart and its role in our health and emotional wellbeing. So much of our common vernacular speaks about the heart as being very connected to our emotions, soul and spirit. Far from being a mere pump that pumps blood around the body, the heart has been regarded for many thousands of years as an organ that has a deeper connection to the subtle aspects of our being and one that is deeply connected to our capacity to express and feel love. The Indian concept of the heart chakra or energy centre is just one example of many traditions that rank highly the quality and importance of our energetic heart space.

When we think about health aspects of the physical heart, the main issues that arise are high blood pressure (hypertension), heart attacks, angina and problems with the rhythmicity of the heart – such as arrhythmias (extra or erratic beats) or rapid beats (tachycardia). A healthy heart beats in a regular and highly coordinated way due to electrical impulses generated in the heart muscle cells that in turn trigger a sequence of organized heart muscle contractions. Most problems to do with irregular beats are caused by abnormalities in the generation or conduction of these electrical impulses.

The nervous system is intricately linked to the heart and it is virtually impossible to discuss the heart without bringing in the nervous system as they work so closely together. When we experience stress, the heart will beat faster and blood pressure will increase to support the increased physical demands on the body. The Heartmath institute in America house a specialized team of scientists dedicated to examining the complex role of the heart and its connection to the brain and nervous system. Through research over the past couple of decades, we now know that the heart responds before the brain has even had time to process a stimulus.  The heart has also been shown to have an intuitive and predictive capacity. It has an electromagnetic field that can essentially read or pick up invisible data such as emotions. It is largely responsible for our ability to sense emotions in others and drives many of our unconscious feelings and instinctive behaviours.

cellsI also recently came across some very interesting research that shows that the heart is able to effectively package up blood and deliver it to specific organs around the body. Each part of the heart tissue correlates to a specific area of the body. By creating different sized or shaped vortices in the red blood cells, the heart is able to send them to specific areas of the body where they are most needed. For example, blood going to the brain has the freshest and newest blood cells. We used to think that blood flowing through our veins was all the same, but we now know that it is in fact different and specialized for different parts of the body. What an amazing capacity our strongest and hardest working muscle, the heart, has!

So what does out heart need in order to stay healthy? Pretty simple in many ways – eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise and manage your stress and lifestyle! Oh and don’t forget, although most people should know already, that avoiding smoking is one of the single most important things to do for a healthy heart.

fatThe role of diet in heart disease has been well known for many years. Originally fat was considered the culprit in heart disease, but research has now proven that sugar and refined carbohydrates are the real culprits. Fat and cholesterol have been unfairly demonized for too long. Cholesterol is in fact an important nutrient – being part of every cell in the body and an important precursor for a range of hormones and vitamin D.  Approximately 80% of cholesterol in your body is actually made by your liver (that is how important it is!) with dietary intakes only accounting for around 20% of your supply. The cholesterol issue is more complex than just looking at your levels or examining the good (HDL) versus bad (LDL) levels. In fact oxidised (rancid) cholesterol is the real problem as it promotes inflammation and free radical damage. There are tests we can now do that measure the amount of oxidized cholesterol you have – which is a better marker for heart disease risk.

But sugar is perhaps the more sinister demon that sneaks into our diet in obvious and less obvious ways. Sugar increases inflammation and can damage the blood vessels promoting hardening of the arteries. Hardening of the arteries can reduce flexibility of the blood vessels and increase blood pressure. Controlling blood pressure is one of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system and prevent heart attacks. To learn more specifically about blood pressure you can read my article here.

So we have busted the myth on fat, but what other nutritional guidelines should we follow? There is no one best diet for the heart – there are many cultures around the world with low heart disease rates but widely different diets. The Mediterranean diet for instance, has been well studied for decreasing many chronic diseases including heart disease. This diet is rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, fish, eggs, smaller amounts of meat and poultry and plenty of healthy fats in the way of olive oil and nuts. But realistically any diet that has a strong focus on nutrient dense whole foods, one that is high in vegetable intake and very low in processed foods such as sugars, white flour products, artificial additives and hydrogenated oils, is going to be good for the heart.

manExercise is another important key to heart and vascular health. Helping to keep us fit, energetic and to maintain normal body weight, exercise also keeps our blood pressure stable and improves circulation. Choose something that combines strength training with aerobic fitness. But more importantly, choose something you love! If running isn’t your thing, then try simple walking. Brisk walking was shown to be just as beneficial as running in a long term study on heart disease risk.

Lastly stress management could in fact be the most important part of having a healthy heart and avoiding heart attacks! Did you know, that more heart attacks occur on a Monday morning than any other time? This “Monday cardiac phenomenon” is believed to be related to work stress. Stress hormones are not meant to be persistently elevated in the body and have been found to cause widespread damage and can even change the way the blood clots. To read more about stress and its role on the heart, check out my other article on stress, the nervous system and the heart.

So all in all, our wonderful hearts need to be loved and appreciated for all they do. Beating over and over without any conscious input from us, they keep our whole body healthy and nourished with life giving blood, they manage our higher capacities for intuitive wisdom and they house our spiritual centre. Maybe give your heart a valentine’s day gift from yourself this year, in love and gratitude for all its tireless efforts!