RETHINKING HEART HEALTH: Pioneering Doctors and Patients Reinvent Cardio Care

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by Linda Sechrist

In 1977, Dr. Dean Ornish began to think beyond an allopathic medicine paradigm that defined the reversal of cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease (CHD) and the hypertensive diseases such as heart failure and stroke, as physiologically implausible. Undaunted by the challenge of funding his research, he pushed forward. Results of his foundational 1986 to 1992 Lifestyle Heart Trial, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, proved that individuals with preexisting coronary atherosclerosis that make intensive, integrated lifestyle changes can begin to experience improvements in their condition after as little as one year without using lipid-lowering drugs.

Based on his 30-plus years of clinical research, Ornish and his colleagues further showed that five years of following proper nutrition, fitness and stress management—which must include love and support—can reduce symptoms of CHD and other chronic conditions. He remarks in Love & Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health that despite numerous studies showing a medical basis for its occurrence, the reason why CHD is reversible is still the subject of debate.

Ornish’s work has paved the way for a growing corps of pioneering integrative physicians successfully collaborating with patients to reduce the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States.

Plaque the Culprit

The cause of cardiovascular disease is arterial plaque, a fine layer of fatty material that forms within the arteries and blocks blood flow. It is largely the result of food and activity choices, plus the degree of inflammation in the arteries. Dr. Steven Masley’s three keys to improving heart health highlighted in his book, The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up, and an upcoming PBS special, concern lifestyle factors capable of shrinking plaque, improving circulation and strengthening the heartbeat. “Abnormal plaque growth is preventable 90 percent of the time,” states the president of Masley Optimal Health Center, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

While conducting research on the heart health of nearly 1,000 patients over a period of 20 years, Masley suspected that the traditional assessment approach of measuring cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure didn’t effectively address the biochemistry within arteries. Testing intima-media thickness (IMT) using a simple 10-minute external ultrasound confirmed it. The test bounces high-frequency sound waves to measure the thickness of the carotid arteries’ innermost two layers on either side of the neck.

“This valuable tool allows for an estimate of arterial age. A healthy, young cardiovascular system has less plaque and an unhealthy, old one has more,” advises Masley. IMT, a useful tool for preventing future heart attacks and strokes, differs from standard carotid Doppler ultrasound, which looks for artery obstructions suggesting surgery.

A practitioner of functional medicine, Masley explains heart-related diagnoses differently than his allopathic counterparts. “Rather than diagnosing high blood pressure as hypertension, I categorize it as not enough exercise, not enough fruits and vegetables, high emotional stress and excessive body fat.

To optimize heart health, Masley employs a broad, holistic matrix of options that enhance the cardiovascular system—the interactions among diet, activity level, weight, environmental toxins, hormones, stress and bio-chemical factors such as blood sugar control and inflammation levels. He prescribes heart-healing foods that simultaneously help to manage the aging process, following a customized, heart-friendly supplement plan; engaging in exercise that strengthens the heart and arteries; and learning how to better manage stress.

He contends that cardiovascular events remain the top cause of death because individuals are largely unaware of treatment options before they get into trouble. More, “Most people falsely assume that their condition has been fixed with a medical procedure and/or drugs, and that a lifestyle change isn’t necessary.”

Cholesterol’s Bad Rap

Dr. Stephen Sinatra, an integrative cardiologist, anti-aging specialist and bioenergetics psychotherapist in Manchester, Connecticut, has also shifted his heart health paradigm. He now prescribes a combination of conventional medicine, food, supplements, mind/body strategies and natural healing methods. His book, Heartbreak and Heart Disease: A Mind/ Body Prescription for Healing the Heart, relates many inspiring case histories that address the psycho-emotional component of heart health and illustrate how to repair and reopen a broken heart by releasing long-repressed emotions.

Following two years of Gestalt psychotherapy training and seven years of bioenergetics training, Sinatra likewise realized that heartbreak was one of the major causes of heart disease. An expert in the field of natural cardiology, he had once believed that cholesterol and fat were the primary causes before 40 years of treatment research taught him otherwise.

It is no coincidence that we address our physical and emotional heart by the same name. Our physical heart usually reflects the state of our emotional heart, and vice versa. ~ Dr. James Forleo

“Cholesterol is not the reason for heart disease,” advises Sinatra, founder of HeartMDInstitute.com and author of The Great Cholesterol Myth. “The body produces and needs cholesterol to convert sunlight to vitamin D, to make sex hormones, vital semipermeable membranes for the body’s trillions of cells, plus bile salts for digestion. Even your brain makes and uses cholesterol to build connections between the neurons that facilitate learning and memory.”

Real Perpetrators

Sinatra names the real perpetrators of heart disease—stress, inflammation and overeating sugar and processed foods containing saturated fat. He counsels that the heart benefits less from a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet than one low in carbohydrates and higher in healthy fats, overturning widespread medical mantras.

Also, a high-fructose, high-grain carbohydrate diet raises triglycerides, increases the risk of metabolic syndrome and contributes to insulin resistance, causing the liver to produce more cholesterol, as well as more inflammatory, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) particles, all of which increase the risk for CHD, diabetes and stroke. The American Heart Association (AHA) estimates that metabolic syndrome, which affects nearly 35 percent of American adults, may overtake smoking as the leading risk factor for CHD.

The AHA currently is focused on increasing awareness that heart disease is the number one killer of women. Its Go Red for Women campaign emphasizes the vital need to take preventive basic actions, including adopting an exercise routine, healthier diet and doctor visits for appropriate non-invasive tests.

Essential Spirit

Dr. James Forleo, a chiropractor in Durango, Colorado, with 30-plus years of clinical experience, maintains that health is simple, disease is complicated (also the title of his book). He counsels patients, “If mental stress is present in your life, you owe it to your cardiovascular system to change to a healthier lifestyle. Your life may depend on it.”

Forleo has recognized that an individual’s state of mind can be a big help or hindrance in maintaining a healthy heart. “The heart represents a different realm of experience entirely, one that cannot be explained by logic and reason,” comments Forleo.

He champions the link between maintaining normal spinal function and healthy heart function, along with supporting the inner presence of Spirit, which he calls the healthy heart’s ultimate elixir. “Its essence relaxes the heart, opens the mind to possibilities greater than itself and provides the perspective that the heart and the mind are complementary,” he observes.

He explains that when our emotions get bottled up, something in our heart or circulation has to give. “If you or someone you know experiences heart problems, chances are that unresolved emotions lie directly below the surface,” he says. “There are exceptions, and genetic problems can explain many heart defects, but heart problems don’t usually show up unless emotions are involved.”

Forleo’s concept is supported by the work of Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., executive vice president and director of research at California’s Institute of HeartMrole in emotional experience. Research in the relatively new discipline of neurocardiology has confirmed that the heart is a sensory organ and acts as a sophisticated information encoding and processing center that learns, remembers and makes independent functional decisions that don’t involve the cerebral cortex,” advises McCraty.ath. His research papers include The Energetic Heart: Bioelectromagnetic Interactions Within and Between People.

“Today, evidence suggests that the heart may play a particularly important role in emotional experience. Research in the relatively new discipline of neurocardiology has confirmed that the heart is a sensory organ and acts as a sophisticated information encoding and processing center that learns, remembers and makes independent functional decisions that don’t involve the cerebral cortex,” advises McCraty.

To Happy Hearts

Pioneering integrative medical doctors Masley, Sinatra, Forleo and Mona Lisa Schultz, who also holds a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, agree that in matters of heart disease, emotions take center stage. Schultz, who recently co-authored All is Well: Heal Your Body with Medicine, Affirmations and Intuition, with Louise L. Hay, a leading founder of the self-help movement, applies her 25 years of experience as a medical intuitive with the best of Western clinical science, brain research and energy medicine. Shultz observes, “Every illness has an emotional component, which tells us intuitively that something or someone in our life or environment is out of balance and needs to be addressed. Our use of language— such as frustration makes our heart race, anger boils our blood—and our common sense are telling us what we don’t need more studies to confirm. If we can’t deal with our anger in a timely fashion, name our feelings, respond effectively and release them, we increase our chance of illness, ranging from hypertension to cardiovascular events.”

According to the American Journal of Cardiology, the U.S. spends 10 percent of all healthcare dollars for cardiovascular disease prevention and medical management versus 90 percent on medical treatment procedures and hospital care. For individuals interested in taking charge of their heart health, working with a physician that embraces the emerging paradigm of integrative lifestyle changes and prevention can be a drugfree, life-saving decision.

Linda Sechrist is the senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings. Visit ItsAllAboutWe.com for full interviews.

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