Top 5 Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Alternative Heart Medicine

Question #4: What other alternative therapies have been proven effective in clinical trials?

Heart-friendly alternative medicines aren't confined to a capsule. In fact, there's a whole category of therapies that have been shown to help the heart in many of the same ways as those mentioned above. It's called mind-body medicine. As the name suggests, mind-body medicine addresses how your mind can enhance your body's health.

While each therapy may have its own specific advantages to the heart, the basic idea behind mind-body medicine is simple: It reduces stress. Stress is one of the heart's worst enemies. Extreme episodes of stress (like the death of a loved one) or chronic day-to-day stress (like an 80-hour work week) cause your body to release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. In the short term, these hormones help us -- your body needs to be able to think fast and spring into action even faster. Adrenaline is what makes the heart beat faster and increases your blood pressure to get the optimal amount of blood to your brain and heart. Cortisol gives you a boost of energy by giving your brain the sugar it needs to function. In the long term, however, the constant release of these hormones can damage the body, including your heart, resulting in high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a lower immunity to illness.

Meditation is one of the simplest ways to reduce stress. In hard-number terms, one study found that meditation lowered a patient's chance of death due to heart problems by 30 percent, primarily by lowering blood pressure. That decrease is especially impressive when you compare it to those who take prescription medication to reduce their blood pressure, whose risk reduction was 25 percent [source: Schneider et al.]. While this study focused on transcendental meditation, many experts say that it doesn't matter which type of meditation you try as long as it works for you.

man doing yoga while his doctor checks his heart
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Yoga: good for the heart and for the mind.

Yoga probably needs no introduction, but here's a quick summary. It's an ancient practice from India comprised of both physical and mental exercises including breathing, stretching and meditation. The health benefits from yoga are well documented (and impressive): improved blood circulation, decreased stress, lower "bad" cholesterol and higher "good" cholesterol and lower blood pressure, among other benefits. One study showed that total cholesterol levels could decrease by as much as 25 percent [source: Innes et al.].

The concept behind biofeedback is learning to control functions in your body, such as heart rate and blood pressure, with your mind. It's not a skill you learn on your own. During biofeedback training, you learn physical and mental exercises from a certified clinician who monitors your progress using skin sensors. For example, if you're attempting to regulate your blood pressure, you get hooked up to a blood pressure monitor and you do the assigned exercises. When you achieve your optimal blood pressure level, your monitor alerts you so that you can then gauge what type of exercise, and at what intensity, is needed to control it. While studies have shown that biofeedback can help the heart, we don't know by how much. The good news is that the small studies that have been conducted are promising, with a few studies showing that biofeedback might even help repair a damaged heart [source: Moravec].

Using your mind to heal your body or adding a few vitamins and herbs to your diet sounds like a safe bet, right? Before you say yes, read the answer to our next question: Are alternative medicines safe?