The Best of Both Worlds Is Key to Heart Health

  • Take a deep breath. Hold it for 29 seconds.
  • In those 29 seconds, someone in the United States had a coronary event. In the next 30 seconds, someone will die from one.
  • Eighty-five percent of those who die from coronary heart disease are 65 years old or older.

These statistics, from the American Heart Association, sound like bad news, particularly to the 76 million American baby boomers.

The good news is that deaths from heart disease and stroke have fallen 60 percent since 1950. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, "Preventing Cardiovascular Disease: Addressing the Nation's Leading Killer," also says that eliminating cardiovascular disease would extend life expectancy in this country by ten years.

But is that possible? Can you really eliminate the threat of heart disease? And, if so, should you follow the advice of your conventional health care provider? Or listen to the alternative medicine enthusiasts? Perhaps both.

Differing Views of the Heart

According to Western medicine, it's basically a pump that circulates blood through the pipes, or blood vessels, of the body. Genes, smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise and stress can block those pipes, forcing the pump to work too hard and causing diseases of the heart and blood vessels. The American Heart Association wants you to avoid tobacco smoke; monitor high blood pressure; eat foods low in cholesterol and saturated fats; be physically active; maintain a healthy weight and have regular medical exams.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the heart is more than a physical pump — philosophically, it's also the residence of the mind, spirit and personality. Dr. Roger Jahnke is doctor of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, chairperson of both the Qigong Department at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) College of Oriental Medicine and the National Qigong Association, and author of The Healer Within.

"In Chinese medicine or Chinese philosophy, you think of a person in terms of the heart because heaven and earth merge to make a human being, and the place that they merge is in the heart," he says.

In TCM, the force that keeps life going is qi (pronounced chee), loosely defined as vital energy. The balance of yin and yang determines qi; bad diet, stress and/or insufficient exercise can cause yin and yang to become out of balance, disrupting the flow of qi. One symptom is "thick" blood, which makes the heart ill.

Ayurveda is India's 5,000-year-old "science of life." There too the heart is the most vital organ, says Dr. Vasant Lad, director of the Ayurveda Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. "The heart is the state of mind and consciousness, and it circulates life energy." He adds, "All factors affect the heart. We must take care of the whole person — lifestyle, diet and quality of life, according to his or her individual constitution." Each person's constitution is a combination of three "doshas" — or energy types — and "perfect health is a state of balance between the three doshas," Lad notes.

Recommendations for Heart Health

Common Recommendations for Heart Health

A common-sense approach runs through both Western and Eastern attitudes toward heart health:

  • Your Diet — Fresh Is Best Jane White, president of the American Dietetic Association, recommends a diet high in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and low in saturated fat. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the purpose of food is to maintain optimum levels of qi, moisture and blood. What a person should eat depends on the excesses or deficiencies of their system at the time. Lad says the Ayurvedic approach to a heart-healthy diet includes lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, along with an avoidance of high cholesterol and tryglycerides and excess sugar, salt and fried foods.
  • Engage Your Body and Mind in Exercise "Daily exercise for 30-60 minutes is a must," says White. The National Institutes of Health publication, "Exercise: A Guide for Aging," recommends endurance activities to improve the health of the heart, lungs and circulatory system; strength exercises to help older adults remain strong enough to be self-reliant; balance exercises to prevent falls, and stretching to keep the body limber. Jahnke's recommendation is qigong — self-healing exercises that balance qi and bring you back into harmony with nature. The exercises incorporate posture, movement, breathing, meditation and visualization, and move oxygen and nutrition from the blood to the tissues. Lad also recommended regular cardiac exercise, including walking, power walking, swimming, yoga and certain breathing exercises.
  • Maintain a Stress-Free Attitude Many Western studies have confirmed that excessive stress is a risk factor for heart disease, and both conventional and alternative medical practitioners recommend exercise as a healthy stress-buster. According to Lad, an attitude adjustment can go a long way toward heart health since worries, anxiety and confusion all affect the heart. "If you love what you do, if you love yourself as you are, you will age slowly," he said. Jahnke says an important part of qigong is "clearing the mind, which means to readjust oneself in relationship to everything that's going on in the world, so that you can be in a state of calm."

What About Dietary Supplements?

Here's where Eastern and Western paths to heart health tend to diverge.

According to the National Institute of Aging and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the best way to get the nutrients you need is through a healthy diet, not through expensive supplements you might not need.

Finding the Right Treatment for You

On the other hand, Lad, of the Ayurvedic Institute says garlic, hawthorn berries, vitamins E and B-12, folic acid, and cayenne pepper are among the supplements that can help maintain blood thinness and prevent heart attack.

Most physicians now agree that dietary supplements — particularly the antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E and the mineral selenium — coupled with eating well and regular exercise, form a strong foundation for a healthy heart. Usually, the physician's position is "supplements in moderation can't hurt."

Take Care in Mixing Vitamins and Medications

White of the American Dietetic Association advises older people with cardiac disease to consult with a physician or registered dietitian to develop an eating plan tailored to meet their specific health needs and to accommodate any condition that might change their nutrient requirements. "Many medications used to treat cardiac disease, including hypertension, can have a negative impact on vitamin and/or mineral status."

"Many herbal products can seriously affect medication regimens involving blood thinners...Vitamins, when consumed in large doses, can act like drugs in the body and may produce some unwanted effects. For example, fish oil supplements and Vitamin E in amounts above 1000 IU/day can increase the tendency to bleed in some people. Red rice yeast contains a chemical similar to that found in the 'statins' (powerful drugs used to lower cholesterol). However, most consumers do not take mega doses of vitamins."

She also warns, "Remember that there is no regulation of dietary/herbal supplements in the U.S. Safety, purity, efficacy and freedom from adulteration cannot be guaranteed in products sold in this country. And always tell your primary care provider about any herbs, botanicals, teas, etc. that you consume."

She also added the caveat that products that contain ephedra (Ma Huang, Chinese ephedra, or epitonin are a few synonyms) and/or caffeine (coffee, tea, kola, guarana, mate) may elevate blood pressure or cause irregular heart rate/rhythms. Ma Huang interferes with the P-450 system, a group of enzymes in the liver and other organs that help break down drugs and their by-products. This can extend the amount of time a drug remains active in the body and can lead to toxic levels of the drug.

Finding the Answers for Heart Health

Like the relationship between the Chinese yin and yang, or among the Ayurvedic three doshas, choosing a strategy to keep your own heart healthy seems to be a question of balance. Science may not have all the answers but neither does alternative medicine.

"There's an obvious gaping hole in Western medicine's ability to do all things. Well, there are some gaping holes in Chinese medicine, too. It turns out — it's one of the wonders of the world really — that the hole in Western medicine is very nicely filled with Eastern medicine and that the hole in Asian medicine is very nicely filled with Western medicine," says Jahnke.