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Heart Health 101: Stress, Inflammation, and Inertia

By Melissa Kuser, ND, LAc

Piggy-backing on the high visibility of Valentine’s Day red heart-shaped boxes, February has been declared National Heart Health Awareness Month.  It seems only reasonable to discuss the heart health topic from a naturopathic perspective and to dispel a few common misunderstandings.  In my practice, one of the most common questions I get asked about cardiovascular disease is how to use naturopathic medicine to lower cholesterol.  “What herbs or supplements can I take in lieu of a statin drug?”  While cholesterol and the herbs that lower it do play a part in the natural management of cardiovascular disease, it is only one piece of the overall heart health equation.  I believe that stress, inflammation and inertia play a much larger role in the heart disease process for most patients and represent the foundation of any treatment of cardiovascular disease.

S-T-R-E-S-S.  A small five-letter word that is so ingrained in the fabric of our modern lives that most of us have accepted it as a necessary evil and do what we can to cope.  Yet, every week, if not every day, some major news publication around the world shares research that links stress to poor health outcomes.  The Mayo Clinic has concluded that psychological stress is the strongest indicator of future cardiac events and the American Institute of Stress reports that 75-90% of all visits to health care practitioners were due to stress-related disorders. 

The problem, of course, is not stress itself.  In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky illustrates the difference between a healthy acute stress response, which is a vital adaptive mechanism, and the chronic simmering stress of modernity, which depletes our vital energies and predisposes us to chronic disease. In the latter, our cortisol levels remain elevated long after the stress has disappeared, disrupting sleep patterns, mucking with blood sugar, and decreasing our immunity.  Our nervous system also begins to preferentially operate in “fight or flight” mode, so we get adrenaline rushes from even minor stressors and have a hard time remembering how to truly “rest and digest”. 

In my practice, I utilize many different tools to help patients identify and reduce stress.  Acupuncture, CranioSacral treatment, and bodywork all help to bring us out of our mind, which is the royal seat of stress.   I also employ a computer program designed by the Heartmath Institute to help patients learn to live in a more heart-centered space.   Nearly 5,000 years ago, Chinese physicians described the heart as the Emperor organ. Today, research in the field of neurocardiology has demonstrated that the heart has its own internal nervous system which can function as an independent “little brain.”  Thus, the heart and the emotions we feel do not need to be slaves to the hamster wheel of our “big brain.”   Through simple practices designed to consciously cultivate positive emotions, we improve the physiological functioning of the heart.  And when the heart is healthy, harmonious, and in control, we perceive less stress and experience improved overall health. 

So go ahead and enjoy that heart-shaped chocolate truffle this Valentine’s day.  Just remember to close your eyes, savor the sweetness, and fill your heart with profound appreciation for that beautiful moment-in-time. 

Stay tuned for Part 2: Inflammation and the Heart.