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Heart disease and tcm

Rebuilding the House of Shen:
Chinese medical approach to recovery and prevention of heart disease
According to the EHN (European Heart Network), each year cardiovascular disease (CVD) causes over 4 million deaths in Europe and over 1.9 million deaths in the European Union (EU). CVD causes 47% of all deaths in Europe and 40% in the EU. Additionally CVD is the main cause of death in women in all countries of Europe and is the main cause of death in men in all but 6 countries. In other words, almost one in every two deaths in Europe can be attributable to heart disease! The causes of CVD are well established. They include obesity, smoking and diabetes. While genetic history plays a big role in heart disease lifestyle has become the biggest factor in the cause of heart disease. Sedentary lifestyle, diet high in sugar and processed foods coupled with environmental toxins all conspire to create the perfect storm for heart disease. Chinese medicine has long recognized these same factors and more when it comes to CVD. It has been understood that the heart is the house of shen or spirit, and that when the spirit is unloved, disturbed, or worse injured, the breakdown of the physical organ of the heart ensues. Modern research has begun to confirm the wisdom of Chinese medicine. For example, studies show that depressed or lonely people are twice as likely to develop heart disease than non-depressed people. When it comes to the treatment of heart disease Western medicine’s main focus is using statin drugs in maintaining ideal cholesterol profile, blood thinning and pressure lowering medications and treating associated conditions like smoking, diabetes and obesity. There is evidence that this approach is working as incidences of CVD have been falling across Europe. However, for a disease that still kills over 4 million Europeans each year, and almost one in every two deaths, the rate of decrease in heart disease is not fast enough. By looking closely at the mechanism of plaque formation in the arteries that leads to the ultimate blockage of coronary arteries you will discover several simple facts. First, plaque tends to form when there’s inflammation in the vessel wall. Second, ruptured plaque is usually what causes an event—myocardial infarction as the body produces clots in response. Third, chronic states of vasoconstriction increase risks of blockage as blood vessels narrow. Inflammation in the body and vessel wall can be caused by infections such as a common cold or bronchitis, allergies to pollen or gluten and environmental toxins like pesticides and formaldehyde. Chinese medical approach to stamping out the inflammation is to clear heat and detoxify or qing re jie du. The therapeutic use of foods like cabbage, cilantro (Chinese parsley) and oregano and herbs such as dandelion (pu gong ying), skullcap (huang qin) and magnolia (xin yi hua) are helpful to cleanse, detoxify and douse the inflammatory fire and therefore lower the risks of plaque formation. Abnormally high levels of platelets or clumping, sticky blood cells, (think dehydration, high sodium, high glucose, etc.) encourage clot formation. In the perspective of Chinese medicine it portends blood stasis. Employing the treatment principle of huo xue hua yu or activate blood and removing stasis foods such as turmeric, cinnamon and tree-ear mushroom, as well as herbs like myrrh (muo yao), salvia (dan shen) and safflower (hong hua), are recommended due to their natural blood thinning properties. Chronic vasoconstriction is often due to caffeine, alcohol and high sodium consumption. However, one causative factor that’s often overlooked is the impact of stress on blood vessel function. Fight or flight response is associated with the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine—stress hormones that cause tightening and narrowing of blood vessels throughout the body, especially the coronary arteries, raising blood pressure and temper. Stress leads to qi stagnation in Chinese medicine, which manifests in the emotional patterns of depression, melancholy, anxiety, obsessive-compulsiveness, nervousness, resentment and anger. In other words qi stagnation blocks love, the expression of the heart shen from emanating. According to Chinese medicine shen disturbance is at the crux of the cause of heart disease. I would like to share recent incidents that illustrate this point. Within the last year and a half I have had two friends in separate cities at age 48 suffer heart attack. Both of these men were skinny, exercised and did not smoke. So how could this be that relatively healthy individuals develop CVD? The common denominator for them was that they were both under tremendous amounts of stress in their lives. When the shen is unhappy or unsettled her house (heart) may break down. It sure happened to them both. Acupuncture may be one of the most effective and side effect-free treatment modalities for chronic vasoconstriction. Its fundamental therapeutic property of activating qi flow and removing stagnation plays well to counteract the narrowing vessels by vasodilation—relaxing and expanding the blood vessels. Studies confirm that acupuncture restores the balance of the sympathetic-parasympathetic system thereby widening the blood vessels and restoring normal blood circulation and pressure. Additionally acupuncture facilitates heart health through calming the shen and nourishing the heart, which not surprisingly may be due to its endorphin-serotonin optimizing action. In general a plant-based diet low in animal products, regular and consistent cardiovascular exercise and staying away from environmental toxins are the foundation for heart disease recovery and prevention. However, besides dietary and lifestyle changes one of the most important ways to empower patients is with meditation and qigong. Both practices have their origin in the Taoist tradition and both promote mind-body regulation and regeneration as the goal. Studies show the benefits of meditation and qigong, which is sometimes considered a moving meditation, to be quite profound for heart disease prevention and recovery. Besides neutralizing the stress response, these mind-body practices have been found to reduce inflammation, increase oxygenation of heart muscles and dilate arteries that feed the heart. Managing CVD as well as prevention of heart disease requires a multidisciplinary and holistic approach that addresses both medical and lifestyle while at the same time healing physical and psycho-spiritual aspects of the person. Patients must be asked to take personal responsibility for their own health and given access to the wisdom and practices of the East. When the doctor provides guidance and support and the patient participates diligently then there is health, joy and peace. Only then can humanity experience freedom from heart disease and her shen can once again express love, the most powerful medicine of them all.


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