Healing the Heart

David Simon, MD

Our hearts are powerful yet vulnerable organs. Despite major advances in the understanding and treatment of heart disease, it continues to be a leading cause of suffering in our society. The costs are severe on every level physical, emotional, and economic. In the United States, heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women. Last year the cost of health care services, medications, and lost productivity due to heart disease was more than $316 billion. Globally, an estimated 17 million people die of cardiovascular disease each year.

Linking the emotional and physical heart

Most people are well aware of the major risk factors for coronary heart disease, which include smoking, high blood pressure (hypertension), elevated cholesterol levels, family history, diabetes, and inadequate physical exercise. The strong influence of emotional well-being on heart disease is generally less well known, although most people intuitively understand the intimate link between their emotional and physical heart. Learning to effectively handle emotional stress improves both mental and physical well-being.

Living beings are programmed to protect themselves when threatened. The most primitive reaction we express when we feel endangered is called the fight-or-flight response. When this response is activated, our nervous and hormonal systems compel us to aggressively respond to a potential threat. Our when you’re running away from a fierce beast, but they are not useful when you find yourself stuck in rush-hour traffic, learn that your child is failing algebra, or discover that your car was side swiped in a parking lot.

The tendency to react aggressively when things do not go the way we want, puts our hearts at risk. In one of his early books, Travels, the popular writer Michael Crichton described a discovery he made while he was a medical student at Harvard University. While doing his cardiac rotation, he asked patients, “Why did you have a heart attack?” Everyone had an answer, and it was not that their cholesterol level or blood pressure was too high or that they didn’t exercise enough. The responses were personal and meaningful. One man said he got a promotion but his wife didn’t want to move. Another said his wife was planning to leave him. Most responses expressed deep distress over relationships, children, or jobs. Crichton wrote, “What I was seeing was that their explanations made sense from the standpoint of the whole organism, as a kind of physical acting-out. These patients were telling me stories of events that had affected their hearts in a metaphysical sense. They were telling me sad love stories, which had pained their hearts. Their wives and families and bosses didn’t care for them. Their hearts were attacked. And pretty soon, their hearts were literally attacked.”

Over time, the chronic effects of stress contribute to the hardening of the arteries and hypertension.

Each person’s heart tells the story of his or her life. A healthy heart requires you to relinquish beliefs, feelings, and behaviors that are not nourishing, and bring into your life food and relationships that deeply nurture your body and mind. I encourage you to create love stories that will serve you physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As a result, you will be able to spend more time enjoying your precious human heart.

Let’s explore some of the most powerful tools and techniques we can use to create balance in our lives and support our heart and well-being.

Nourishing your heart

Ayurveda teaches that food is more than just protein, carbohydrate and fat; it is the concentrated, intelligent energy of the universe. When you nourish yourself with wholesome food, you are nourishing not only your body, but also your mind and soul. By following these simple Ayurvedic principles, you will naturally be eating a diet that brings you health:

  • Eat a wide variety of foods during the day.
  • Listen to your body’s signals of hunger.
  • Eat only food you find delicious.
  • Favor fresh, whole foods over processed foods.
  • Use herbs and spices liberally.
  • Eat with awareness.

A healthy diet reduces the major risk factors for heart disease: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and unhealthy weight. One of the most important dietary precepts is to focus on eating whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, which are rich in the fiber and nutrients that promote cardiovascular health.

Healthy protein sources known to aid in lowering high cholesterol levels include cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel and halibut. These fish are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. If you don’t eat seafood, make sure your diet includes ground flax seed, which is also a rich source of omega-3 acids. For overall heart health, choose lean protein sources such as soy products, including tofu and tempeh; and skinless turkey and chicken, while limiting your intake of red meat.

Lowering blood pressure

Most people with hypertension have diets rich in sweet, sour and salty foods and poor in pungent, bitter and astringent foods. The phytochemicals in the latter categories are the most important in maintaining optimal cardiovascular health. Pay attention to your salt intake, but don’t be compulsive. Recent studies have found that even very extreme salt restriction has only a minor impact on blood pressure.

The benefits of meditation for heart health have been scientifically proven time and again.

While consuming adequate fruits and vegetables is known to improve general health overall, recent studies have shown that drinking 500 ml of beetroot juice a day can significantly reduce blood pressure. The key beneficial ingredient appears to be nitrate, which is also found in green, leafy vegetables. In addition, these vegetables provide antioxidants as well as fiber.

Vegetables highest in nitrates: Radishes/ Kale/ Beets/ Celery/ Lettuce/ Mustard greens /Turnip tops/ Spinach/ Chinese cabbage/ Regular cabbage/ Eggplant/ Leeks/ Scallions/ Potatoes/ String beans/ Carrots

The principles of healthy eating are simple, although not always easy to implement. It does take the initial effort to change habits that may be deeply rooted. As a society, we now have an emphasis on highly processed and nutritionally depleted foods that appeal to us with their ability to quickly “fill us up.” Certainly, we pay the price for this convenience with our emotional and physical health. If you eat in ways that satisfy both your need for good nutrition and your need for delicious, enjoyable food, you will be on your way to ensuring a healthy heart and a long and healthy life.

Herbs and supplements for your heart

A number of minerals, vitamins and micro nutrients play a role in the regulation of blood pressure. Adequate levels of magnesium, potassium, vitamins C and E, as well as the amino acids taurine and arginine are important in maintaining cardiovascular health. A few studies also show that the potent antioxidant coenzyme Q-10 can help lower blood pressure.

Ayurvedic herbs traditionally used to balance and nourish the circulatory system include Guggulu (Indian gum myrrh) and Arjuna (Arjuna myrobalan). Current research also supports the benefits of garlic, yarrow and hawthorn in vascular health. There is enough evidence to recommend that every person take a daily high potency multivitamin that has optimal concentrations of the B vitamins and antioxidants.

Meditation

The first study I conducted as a medical student involved teaching meditation to inner city women with high blood pressure. I found that women who consistently practiced the technique twice a day had significant reductions in blood pressure that allowed a reduction or elimination of their need for medication. It didn’t work if they didn’t do it!

The benefits of meditation for heart health have been scientifically proven time and again. A regular meditation practice reduces stress levels, increases immunity, and lowers cholesterol and blood pressure all of which are key to a healthy heart. At the Chopra Center we find the best results come from meditating twice daily once in the morning and again in the evening, for twenty to thirty minutes each time. We also recommend a variety of guided meditation and mindfulness practices, including chakra meditation.

Opening the heart chakra

Chakras are your body’s energy centers and the major junction points between body and consciousness. The heart chakra is the fourth of the energy centers and holds a very important position. This chakra is responsible for both choosing and mediating feelings. When your heart chakra is blocked, you feel a strong sense of alienation, which encourages feelings of mistrust, bitterness and fear. These feelings, in turn, plant the seeds of pain, illness and depression. It becomes very difficult to give or receive love. When your heart center is open and flowing, you feel connected to everyone in your life on a deep level, and the true nature of the heart—which is to unify and overcome separation—is allowed to emerge. The practice of meditation works to open your heart chakra and expand your ability to give and receive love, compassion and forgiveness.

Practicing meditation supports the heart chakra by releasing your personal negative messages as it calms and quiets your agitated mind. During meditation you can set the intention of opening your heart by sending in warmth and love. You can do this by focusing on love and compassion in your meditation first for yourself. As a culture, we have a tendency to consider self-love as selfish, but the truth is you must love yourself to be truly free to give unconditional love to others.

Awakening self-love

One way of bringing self-love into your meditation is through the Buddhist loving kindness mantra: May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering. Buddhism teaches that what you wish for yourself, you also wish for everyone else. Close your eyes and silently repeat this mantra for a few minutes. When you feel ready, let go of the first mantra and visualize someone you love, saying silently May s(he) be happy, may s(he) be peaceful. May s(he) be free from suffering.

Take your time with the first mantra before moving on to the second. This may mean spending an entire meditation or possibly several meditation sessions—on self-love before moving on to meditate on your wishes for another person.

During meditation you can set the intention of opening your heart by sending in warmth and love.

To continue this loving kindness meditation, the next step is to extend loving kindness towards someone for whom you hold negative feelings. By sending love to this person, you will begin to develop the ability to keep your heart open even in challenging circumstances. It’s possible that repressed negative emotions may surface during these meditation sessions. Although it is difficult at first, this is actually good news.

As your heart opens, it needs to release that which does not serve it. Gently acknowledge these feelings if they arise, and continue to extend loving kindness to yourself.

Above all, be patient and loving with yourself, without expecting immediate results. As you continue to extend love to yourself and others during your meditation sessions, your heart chakra will expand, and your heart will begin to open in surprising ways. Continue with the confidence that these heart-opening meditation practices will nourish your loving feelings towards yourself and others.

Start moving!

With your physician’s approval, begin an exercise program that gradually increases your level of physical activity.

Many studies have shown that 30 minutes of exercise at least three times per week can help bring down blood pressure. Regular exercise will help you lose any excess weight, improve the strength of your heart and lungs, and release stress. You can build gradually. In the first month, you can aim to increase your pulse rate 25 percent higher than your resting rate for the duration of your exercise session. In the second month, increase your activity intensity until your pulse is 50 percent above resting rate. Then in the third month, focus on exercising for 20-30 minutes, three times per week, at 75 percent of your maximum heart rate.

When you nourish yourself with wholesome food, you are nourishing not only your body, but also your mind and soul.

Above all, find some physical activities that you enjoy. You don’t have to go to a gym if you don’t enjoy it instead, you can try cycling, swimming, yoga, fast walking/jogging, dancing, and any number of other activities. If you think of exercise as an unpleasant but necessary requirement for health, re-frame your perspective and remember the pleasure you felt as a young child, just moving for the sheer joy of it running through the grass, sliding down a hill, or skipping rope. Explore and find ways to reconnect with your physical self in ways that feel nourishing and enlivening.

Find work you love

Researchers studying the incidence of heart attacks have discovered a fascinating statistic: In our society more people die on Monday morning at nine a.m. than at any other time. Most of us have that sinking feeling when after a relaxing weekend or vacation, we’ve had to rev up to return to a stressful job we don’t enjoy. The power of our thoughts and feelings is immense, and there is a growing body of research showing the link between job dissatisfaction and elevated blood pressure, heart disease and death. An unsatisfying job is one of the key elements of the depression and stress associated with cardiovascular disease. In general, work that allows us to be creative and use our unique gifts and talents to contribute to the world is most satisfying.

In the West, we have tended to localize awareness, intelligence and discrimination in the brain, but in Eastern thought, there is a powerful concept of “heart intelligence.” This is the recognition of an innate intelligence that we can access by paying attention to the sensations in our body. Whenever we need to make a choice, our body provides a message of either comfort or discomfort, and most of us feel this message in the heart. By tuning into this heart intelligence and honoring its wisdom, we will naturally be led in the direction of eliminating toxic substances, foods, and relationships, and making choices that nurture our heart, mind, body and spirit.

As your heart opens, it needs to release that which does not serve it.

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