Nancy Gahles, DC, CCH, RSHom(NA) discusses heart health and ways that we can achieve greater balance and avoid heart disease.


by Nancy Gahles, DC, CCH, RSHom(NA)

The heart that sings, the heart that listens, the heart that jumps with joy, the heart that breaks, the heart that sighs, the heart that aches…this is the other heart. Within the heart, the muscular organ that beats rhythmically, circulating blood throughout our bodies, lives the emotions. Love is the predominant emotion of the heart. Love is that imponderable that imbues us with life. A meaningful life, a life that is filled with joy and hope, with a sense of being connected to something more than oneself, with socially sustaining relationships, this is a lifestyle that decreases one’s risk of heart disease. Evidence-based medicine notwithstanding, it is common knowledge that one can literally die of a broken heart. Heart ache is a real pain as is the loneliness which accompanies it. Elvis Presley captured this essence in his popular song, Heartbreak Hotel, as he crooned that he was so lonely he could die. Many of us sang along with him, our hearts resonating with his.

Anger, fear and anxiety are emotions that are also felt in the heart, ones that harden your heart and cause its rhythm to vary wildly, predisposing you to risk of heart disease and sudden heart attacks. Edgar Alan Poe, in his short story, The Telltale Heart, describes how the guilt and anxiety of a man who had committed murder caused his heart to beat so loudly within him that he thought the police could hear it, which caused him to confess to his crime.

Love is a many splendored thing and where you fall on the emotional scale of love has long been implicated in the causal relationship to depression, despair and death. Rarely has love been cited as a cause in the absence of disease, longevity or well being nor are prescriptions written for love instead of an anti-depressant. Literature through the ages is replete with references to the emotions of love and fear as they pertain to conditions of the heart as far back as the Bible, for example. A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken. Proverbs 15:13.

Wisdom traditions of all religions teach us that love is the answer. It’s a lifestyle. An attitude.  The spirit of Buddha is that of loving kindness and compassion – Buddha.  The highest wisdom is loving kindness – Talmud.  Perfect love casts out fear – Christian.

Attitudes are active coping styles. Conscious thoughts have an effect on our health. Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology shows that there is a distinct connection between thoughts and emotions.  There is also a distinct connection between emotions and immune function and another connection between immune function and the risk of major illness.  Neurocardiology calls this the heart-brain circuitry. Whole systems research goes further to intimate that all parts of the human organism work together in a complex interrelated way.

Esoteric teachings define vortexes of energy called chakras underlying each major organ system that act as conductors of energy to move through all the layers of the subtle bodies influencing our physical, emotional and mental states. The heart chakra is described as the seat of joy. Because it is said to hold ideas and attitudes about our worthiness to give and receive love, we can use our mindful consciousness to create heart health through cultivating right attitudes of love and forgiveness. In the case of heart disease, anger, anxiety, fear, sadness and stress rank among the top contenders for increasing your risk. Conversely, love, appreciation and gratitude along with connection to a meaningful social support system lower your risk of heart disease.

Emotions and their effect on the heart rate and rhythm have been recently studied through the use of heart rhythm patterns and heart rate variability tools. The Institute of HeartMath has been a leader in this field and researches the effects of emotions and coherence. Coherence is a state in which the heart, the brain and other bodily systems are in synch. In my day, we called it equilibrium or homeostasis or simply balance. The simplicity of bringing the heart rate into balance can be achieved by the act of breathing. Simple is the operative word. Deep rhythmic breathing balances the autonomic nervous system, returns the heart to normal rate and balances the whole system creating a sense of relaxation and peace. When one is trained, through practice, to recognize this state in themselves, they are more likely to notice a slight deviation from norm, and more able to bring themselves back into balance by simple breathing techniques. In this way, their emotions do not run amok but rather serve as an indicator of where they are on the emotional scale.

The other heart desires balance. A balanced diet of emotions, thoughts and attitude and an exercise program of right action and behavior. The course in Problem Solving for Heart Health 101 was not offered in my college curriculum. I learned how to love, forgive, and get back into the game in the School of Hard Knocks. It is understood that we are nurtured and supported in growth and development through the milestones of the years from infancy to young adulthood. From then on, you are set free into the vast wilderness of life. It’s a jungle out there! 

The maladaptive patterns to stress that one develops are predictors of disease.  The way in which one copes positively can lower your risk of cardiac incidents. When I studied heart disease, the Type A personality was commonly referred to. This was the coping style NOT to adopt. I always pictured the explosive banker, Mr. Mooney, I believe was his name, in the Lucille Ball sitcoms.  He would become so angry and frustrated at her antics that he literally looked as if he would blow his top. She would tell him to count to 10 in order to calm himself down and avoid a heart attack or a stroke. It was common knowledge that anger, hostility and impatience could cause cardiovascular issues, especially in men.

Recently, a new pattern has been recognized. According to Lauren Dzubow, in her article, “The Sense of Being Slighted”, the Type D personality seems to be harmful to your heart. D is for distressed. Distressed as in chronic, long term anger, anxiety or depression. The hormones associated with acute anger or fear, such as Mr. Mooney displayed, are the fight- or- flight hormones adrenaline and cortisol, among others, that rise sharply in order to save your life and then diminish in the bloodstream as the event passes. When the emotions that trigger their release persist on a daily basis, these hormones remain active in the system and can cause hypertension, heart palpitations, high cholesterol, blood clots and all manner of autonomic nervous system dysfunction and depressed immunity. 

When I think of the word distressed in relation to a state of being chronically distressed, it brings to mind a book written about Florence Nightingale by Barbara Dossey. In it, she wrote that Florence’s first job experience was as a superintendent in a London Hospital called the “Institute for Sick and Distressed Gentlewomen.” Most likely the “inmates” were menopausal women who were angry, impatient, anxious and depressed with heart palpitations, chest pain of “unknown etiology”, nauseous and light headed with flu like symptoms of chills and cold sweats. And that brings me to the topic of heart disease in women. These are the symptoms of heart disease in women. They sound like, and are, very similar to the symptoms many women experience in menopause. For this reason, I think, signs of a heart attack often go unnoticed in women.

When I was in school, the only signs we learned were those for heart attacks in men. It is a failing in our medical system that we often apply male standards to women. There is a dearth of research on women’s health, particularly heart health, the number one killer of women. It may be no coincidence that women are thought to be more emotional than men and that their symptoms, the ones from the other heart, are marginalized as unscientific. The evidence-based research on the effects of emotions and disease may not have trickled down into the hallowed halls of medicine as pervasively as I would like but trends are showing that this is, indeed, an area that has merit.

Heart disease is one of the major illnesses that account for 75% of health care costs. It is preventable and even reversible by changing diet and lifestyle. Our current lifestyle is an accident waiting to happen. We are functioning on high stress, 24/7. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with myocardial infarcts, heart failure, hypertension and stroke. This risk is higher in women than in men. Who is more sleep deprived than a mother? Especially one who also works full time outside the home. Who is more chronically depressed than the average person who has recently lost their life savings or their home or watched their 401K dwindle to the point where their future is in jeopardy?  Who is more anxious than the average person watching the news reports telling you that 2009 will be a terribly bad year for the economy? I am willing to bet that we will see an increase in number of deaths from heart incidents for 2008-2009. We need a College for the Afternoon of Life. A place where learning about oneself, what makes us tick and what makes us sick is the major course of study. Elective courses on coping strategies, lifestyle changes and how to access integrative healthcare practitioners would empower people to take charge of their own health. A Certificate of Completion can be attained on reversal of illness or some such measurement of achievement. Becoming actively involved in your own care is a key to integrative healthcare.  So, take heart! We can have some measure of control over this situation.

Courage is a matter of the heart. Courage is derived from the French word for heart, Coeur. Take heart because we now know that the emotions of love, appreciation and gratitude are able to return the heart to its normal rhythm. Have courage to utilize this understanding in your practice. As an Ordained Interfaith Minister, I have seen this principle applied with (pardon the pun) miraculous results. Touch, with the intention of giving love, can also be healing. Results from a study published in Alternative Therapies, July/Aug. 2008, Vol.14, No.4 titled, “ The Efficacy of Healing Touch in Coronary Bypass Surgery Recovery: A Randomized Clinical Trial, concluded that significant decreases in anxiety and length of hospital stay were noted in patients who received healing touch. These results offer a starting point for intregrating spirituality into healthcare practices along with the body based therapies such as chiropractic.

As we begin to integrate the simplest protocols into our practice, we can derive our own set of outcomes that may assist us in developing more effective strategies. For instance, we know that the adverse effects of poor sleep can be mitigated with positive social relationships. We know that when we perceive our situation from a higher perspective we can change our patterns of thinking and thereby change our heart patterns. We know that we can create coping skills suited to our own particular needs. We know that heart disease is reversible. We can have hope. Hope is a healing thing. It is the work of the other heart. Always at your service. Perhaps the Beatles were right.  All you need is love…love is all you need.

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