In the case of most illnesses, we have the opportunity to respond conventionally and/or holistically, so as to resolve the root problem and return to balance. In the case of heart disease, however, the first sign of a problem may be a fatal heart attack, as is the case about a third of the time. For this reason, heart disease – which is the leading cause of death among women and men alike – can feel both mystifying and terrifying. Additionally, in many women and in some men, there are no advance warnings of heart disease, which remains silent until a heart attack actually happens. For this reason, it is critically important to take all the necessary precautions to prevent heart disease. And for this reason, it is wise to consider steps beyond the conventional, which, as most people now realize, is limited. Slow Medicine offers the most comprehensive approach to heart health, as outlined below.
What are the symptoms of heart disease?
While the buildup of heart disease may be silent until it strikes a deadly blow, there are a number of signs to look out for. Classically, for men and some women, these symptoms include shortness of breath and pain in the chest, arms, and/or jaw during physical exertion. Among women, symptoms may be more generalized in other parts of the body, such as feeling unusually faint, nauseous, and sweaty. Experiencing palpitations, feeling lethargic and weak, and experiencing pain anywhere between the jaw and knee during physical exertion is a clear sign of an issue that deserves serious and immediate consideration by a medical professional.
If you have any of these symptoms, it is imperative that you go to an emergency room immediately; time is of the essence. The best thing that you can do for yourself is to receive and respond to this wakeup call. Ideally you will have the time to make some important lifestyle changes, to prevent further complications.
Keep in mind that gastrointestinal symptoms can mimic heart disease, but these symptoms are not something you want to play around with. Make sure that you are properly evaluated. You may experience chest pain as a result of reflux, gastritis, ulcers, or other forms of stomach irritation. That’s because the esophagus, stomach, and heart overlap in the body. Sometimes even gallbladder difficulties may trigger similar symptoms to heart disease. Regardless, it is essential to rule out heart disease if you experience any of these symptoms. Err on the side of caution, and get medical attention immediately.
What’s going on in the body?
There are numerous forms of heart disease. Atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of cholesterol inside of the blood vessels in your body, is often considered the most important. This is because it accounts for the overwhelming majority of fatal heart attacks and it affects the quality of life of most of those who actually survive. Atherosclerosis is caused by the combination of many factors, but is now understood to result from the complex interaction of circulating particles, including fat molecules and calcium, in conjunction with inflammatory molecules. What is most essential for our understanding is that the “hardening” of artery walls from cholesterol build-up is not simply a result of fat, as originally thought, but is the manifestation of stress on the system, coupled with the production of activated and inflammatory molecules. That makes chronic stress, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, a key contributing factor to this form of heart disease.
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response – our built-in mechanism for safely escaping a life-threatening emergency. Our bodies have not quite caught up to the modern era, so our brains are unable to distinguish between the stress of a lion chasing us and the stress of a nasty argument with a loved one, a demoralizing work experience with a boss, or a televised news report about violence in another city.
When we are in a stressed state, no matter what the cause, we get an adrenaline rush. Our heart rate increases, enabling our body to pump more blood to the big muscles needed to run, climb, leap, and hoist our way to physical safety. In turn, our blood flow immediately diverts from our “non-essential” organs – the liver, kidney, brain, and digestive tract – to our big muscle groups. Our blood also clots more easily, so that we don’t bleed to death, in case we’re injured during our Great Escape.
For short durations, this stress response is both healthy and potentially life saving. When it is locked in the “on” position, as a result of the frenzy and rush-rush-rush of modern life, however, we end up in a state called “sympathetic overdrive.” Constantly diverting blood flow from our intestinal tract to our major muscle groups, we may have trouble digesting our food, thereby failing to convert it into nutrients. We may also become further depleted of nutrients like magnesium, which our body utilizes to run the intracellular machinery that prepares us for combat or escape. Meanwhile, our arteries get worn down, from the heart constantly beating harder and faster than it needs to in a normal, relaxed state.
Over time, the circulation of stress molecules and chronic bombardment of the arteries may result in damage that only adds to pre-existing risk from family history of early onset of heart disease.
What’s the conventional approach to treating heart disease?
Conventional medicine divides heart disease into two categories: those who are having a heart attack and those who are prone to having a heart attack. For those who are having a heart attack, the response is to immediately hook the patient up to an IV with a thrombolytic agent – a substance that will dissolve the blood clot; to inject an anti-coagulant, which will keep new clots from forming; and to give the patient aspirin, which reduces the stickiness of the circulating platelets mentioned before. The idea is to return the blood flow to the injured area of the heart muscle, as quickly as possible.
For those who are prone to having a heart attack, the response is to optimize blood flow capacity, before permanent damage occurs, and to cut down on anything that might be contributing to heart disease risk, like smoking or diabetes. The more invasive approach is to insert a balloon into the clogged blood vessel, to expand it back open. One step beyond is to perform coronary bypass surgery, where veins from the leg or chest are removed and used to detour around the clogged arteries in the heart. In both cases, the idea is to restore blood flow in time, so as to prevent the death of additional heart cells.
What’s the Slow Medicine approach to treating heart disease?
Whereas chronic stress activates the sympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response, Slow Medicine activates the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest/digest mode, in turn stimulating the body’s internal healing mechanisms – sending a bio-chemical cascade of wellness throughout our system. In this way, Slow Medicine can be the antidote to chronic stress, and therefore, to some forms of heart disease. Not only does Slow Medicine cultivate a low-stress life on every level of our being, but it also provides the tools to manage stress in healthy and harmonious ways, when life throws us those inevitable curve balls.
Slow Medicine helps us accomplish this optimal state, through first taking a comprehensive inventory of, and then optimizing each aspect of, our life in general and health in particular – including our physical body; mental-emotional state; relationship to loved ones, nature, the Divine, and community; and life’s purpose. In each of these dimensions, Slow Medicine teaches us how to make healthy and harmonious choices that bring our entire system into balance, thereby returning us to a state of health.
Our relationships, for example, have a powerful bearing on our wellness. The more we spend time in a volatile, demeaning, or otherwise violent relationship, the more we are pushed into the fight/flight mode, with stress molecules tearing down our system. To the contrary, the more we spend time in a harmonious, fun, and supportive relationship, the more we settle into the rest/digest mode, with restorative molecules nourishing our system. Similarly, the more we respond to life’s challenges by smoking cigarettes, binging on cookies, and drinking alcohol, the more we amplify the impact of stress, effectively wreaking havoc on our system; whereas the more we respond by dancing, praying, or meditating, the more we repurpose the energy of stress – effectively going to our “happy place” and fortifying our system, in turn remediating the negative impact of circumstances outside our control.
So many of us are living as shadows of our true selves – stuck in miserable relationships and mind-numbing jobs, doing what we are told or expected to do, no matter what the emotional or spiritual cost. That discord in and of itself puts tremendous stress on our system. To the contrary, when we live in alignment with our essence, and when we otherwise cultivate a life filled with meaning and purpose – in ways both big and small – we enter a state of balance, harmony, and wholeness, in turn optimizing our health on every level of our being. For this reason, at its core, Slow Medicine teaches how to live from our hearts, which, at the end of the day, is the greatest medicine of all.
What can I do to prevent heart disease?
Here are three steps you can take to prevent heart disease:
Nurture Your Heart
Take time to identify what makes your heart sing, and give yourself permission to engage in these activities, even if in tiny little ways. If you love art, for example, allow yourself to go to an art exhibit; to take a ceramics class; or to purchase a beautiful painting. If you love music, make it a priority to go to the symphony; to learn how to play drums; or to buy a recording from your favorite artist. Feed your hungry heart.
Nurture Your Body and Mind
Eat whole, nutrient-dense foods that stimulate all your senses – with colors, textures, tastes, and aromas that delight you. Approach meal preparation as an opportunity to meditate, as well as to unleash your inner artist. Explore and experiment, whether you follow recipes or create your own. Before sitting down to eat your meal, turn on soothing music, clear the table of clutter, and light a candle or arrange flowers as the centerpiece. Enjoy your meal. Lastly, consider inviting loved ones over to share with you the joy of eating.
Nurture Your Relationships
Cultivate loving relationships – whether with people or pets. Surround yourself with those who are positive and loving, and make a point of spending quality time with them. If you find that most or all the people in your life are toxic, seek out new connections, by volunteering for causes you care about; attending local religious services; joining an online support group; or taking a class at a local community college. As you develop connections, be sure to follow up and further cultivate those relationships.
This content originally appeared on SlowMedicineDoctor.com.