Monday, January 25, 2016

How to Love Your Heart

Hearts are everywhere! Even before we flipped the calendar page to February, the shelves in retail stores were stocked with heart-themed gifts and cards that declared our love in fancy words and pretty pictures. Boxes of questionably flavored crème-filled chocolates were stacked strategically though out the store under signs reminding us that “Valentine’s Day is February 14.” 

While Valentine’s Day started as a religious holiday – in fact some denominations still celebrate the feast of St. Valentine – it has evolved into a secular holiday. Heart-shaped symbols, winged baby cupids, and bouquets of roses proclaiming romantic love are its distinguishing characteristics.

With all the decorative hearts and Valentine cards, it could be easy to miss that February is also the American Heart Association’s annual campaign to inform the public about the importance of maintaining a healthy heart and cardiovascular system. With 1 in 4 deaths in America being attributed to heart disease annually, it’s clear that we as a nation have an opportunity for better cardiovascular health. A heart-healthy lifestyle includes wise dietary choices, nutritional supplements, and regular exercise. From an integrative approach, having a healthy heart not only includes care for the physical heart, it also includes care for the intellectual heart and the spiritual heart! Here are some ways we can love our hearts – body, mind, and spirit – better.

The Physical Heart
The physical heart is a muscular organ that is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body via the circulatory system. The blood travels through the body delivering oxygen and other nutrients to cells for essential metabolic function. If the heart fails to pump, eventually all metabolic function will cease. Heart failure is typically the result of heart disease.

Heart disease occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed due to a buildup of plaque on the arteries’ inner walls. Plaque is the accumulation of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. As plaque continues to build up in the arteries, blood flow to the heart is reduced. High cholesterol is a marker for heart disease. Although the liver makes enough cholesterol for bodily function, more is introduced through dietary selections making plaques issues worse. Your doctor can order tests on cholesterol and triglycerides to check this marker for heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women; 50 percent of men and 64 percent of women who die suddenly of heart disease show no previous symptoms of the disease. As frightening as these statistics may be, heart disease can be avoided by making healthy lifestyle choices. The National Institutes for Health has defined the “Big Four” habits that help to prevent heart disease: getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking, and eating a healthy diet.

Another way to reduce risk for heart disease is to manage health conditions like high blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a leading cause of heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 67 million Americans have high blood pressure. People with high blood pressure are 4 times more likely to die from a stroke and 3 times more likely to die from heart disease, compared to those with normal blood pressure.

High blood pressure often shows no signs or symptoms, which is why checking blood pressure regularly is important. Blood pressure screenings are easily available in most doctor's offices and drugstores and can be checked at home using a home blood pressure monitor.

Another significant risk factor for heart disease is diabetes. Diabetics have issues in creating insulin which is the hormone that helps move glucose into the cells. When someone is insulin resistant or doesn’t make enough insulin, glucose accumulates in the blood and adds to blood flow issues involving plaque buildup. Individuals who are diabetic and have suffered a cardiac event may benefit from chelation therapy; the Trial to Access Chelation Therapy study which was funded by the National Institutes for Health suggests that chelation therapy may significantly reduce a recurrent cardiac event. Consult with an integrative practitioner for more information and to evaluate personal benefits of chelation.

Check the suggestions in the NIH’s THE BIG FOUR for ways to reduce your risk for heart disease and check with your doctor for a complete health screening so that your physical heart is in top notch condition!

The Intellectual Heart
In this article, the Intellectual Heart is referring to the heart-head connection and the importance our thoughts and our emotions play in our physical heath – especially in the health of the physical heart. Life is full of surprises and often things don’t happen the way we’ve decided they should happen. Our thoughts and emotions regarding events in our everyday lives directly impact the amount of stress we can experience. While stress is not necessarily a bad thing – stress can motivate us to be alert and action oriented, it can also trigger health problems when not dealt with in a healthy way.
In addition to following the steps to care for the Physical Heart, here are some practices that can help you care for the Intellectual Heart:

  • Notice things that cause you to feel stressed; are these things you can avoid? If not, can you change your thoughts about these things?
  • Accept the fact you may not be able to change certain situations.
  • Learn and practice relaxation exercises. Invest time each day in relaxation, even if it’s just taking 3 minutes every hour to sit and do nothing but breathe.
  • Make getting enough quality sleep a priority. Relocate electronic devices away from the bedroom and stop looking at electronic screens at least one hour before bed.
  • Prioritize the tasks on your schedule; make sure you include time for laughter.
  • Avoid negative "self-talk." Make a commitment to the Golden Rule and start with yourself. 
  • If work is stressful, leave at lunchtime to take a short walk or to just enjoy a different environment.
  • Get help. If you are having a hard time controlling your stress on your own or you are using unhealthy habits to reduce your stress, you may need help from a licensed therapist to learn how to control your stress.
  • Work with your doctors to find the best way to learn stress management.
The Spiritual Heart
The Spiritual Heart is the core of our being – the place where our physical body, our intellect, our personality, and our deepest desires converge with a longing to know our connection to something greater than ourselves. The Spiritual Heart is the seat of our undeniable desire to love and be loved. Having strong, healthy social connections with family, friends, and coworkers strengthens the immune system, lowers rates of anxiety and depression, and increases longevity.

Caring for the Spiritual Heart requires a commitment to being open to love and to be loved in all ways – from simple personal affection to familial love; from platonic love to romantic love; from self-love to religious love. When we close down to giving and receiving love, we create physical stress that negatively impacts the body. Many secular and faith traditions work to keep the Spiritual Heart open and the physical body healthy. Try the following practices to keep your Spiritual Heart open, or speak with someone in your faith community on ways to love your Spiritual Heart.

  • Forgiveness: Every night before bed list off any transgressions that others have made against you. Actively forgive these transgressions in whatever manner feels right to you. Then list off the transgressions you have made to others and to yourself. Actively forgive these transgressions in whatever manner feels right to you. Forgiveness releases the negative energy we are holding that interferes with us connecting to others and to ourselves from a place of love.
  • Gratitude: Start a gratitude journal and make a goal to list ten things daily for which you are grateful. Nothing is too small or too great to add to your list. You can keep your journal private or share it with family and friends. The active expression of gratitude improves our mood and connects us with our heart center, making it easier to connect to other people.
  • Collect Hugs: Whenever and wherever it’s appropriate, hug people who are important to you. Physical touch not only causes the release of hormones in the body that create a sense of well being, it also encourages people to become more empathetic and cooperative. Please note that while it’s a human need to be touched, not everyone welcomes even friendly touch. Always ask other people if they are open for a touch or a hug. If the answer is no, don’t take it personally; it’s probably not about you. If you are uncomfortable with physical touch, be clear about your boundaries and work with a licensed body work professional to make sure you can experience healthy physical touch in affirming ways.

Body, Mind & Spirit: Loving Your Heart
The heart is so much more than the complex muscle that’s in charge of the delivery system for all of the nutrients that need to make their way through our bodies. It’s the seat of emotion that intersects with out every thought and action. It’s the center of our being that calls out to be a part of something greater. Loving your heart is the ultimate act of self-love. It may be the most challenging love, but it’s where we have to start if we’re going to love anyone or anything else.

Enjoy your questionably-flavored crème-filled chocolates. Or better yet – throw them out and go take a walk!

Contributed by Todd Humphrey, Practice Manager of Vaughan Integrative Medicine.

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