February is officially American Heart Month! Beside it clearly being part of a conspiracy to increase heart-shaped candy company sales (kidding!), American Heart Month is a time for us to bring more awareness to heart health.
Heart disease is the #1 cause of death in the US and has been since 1921, and although we have taken steps in recent years to reduce the death rate associated with heart disease, we still have so much more we can do.
An integrative approach to preventing and treating heart disease, where treatment options from multiple disciplines are considered, is growing in acceptance, and for good reason: The progress we have achieved in treating heart disease recently is due to the fact that we already have started to take a more integrative approach.
Studies are showing, and doctors are prescribing, more of a focus on exercise, nutrition and stress reduction as primary means to treat and prevent heart disease. As we move forward, we should expect more of these therapies that take whole-body health into consideration to continue to make a big impact on lowering heart disease prevalence.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on a holistic view of the body, or the idea that we are more than the sum of our parts and health is predicated on all of the organs and body systems working well together. So heart health is very important in TCM, but the heart can only be as healthy as the rest of the body.
Focusing on whole health, including mind, body and spirit is essential to a healthy heart. Here are 5 things TCM can teach us about keeping ourselves healthy:
- Eat seasonally. This TCM belief comes from the understanding that during most of human history we ate with the seasons because that was the only option we had, and our biological needs have evolved to need different foods during the different seasons. Specifically in the winter, root vegetables, soups/broths and warming foods would have been more common at this time of year and provide us with more of the nutrients our bodies need now.
- Prioritize rest. Each organ system has a time when it is most active according to TCM. The heart is most active in the summer, so the winter is the best time to rest it and the rest of your body. The modern approach to heart health prioritizes cardiovascular exercise, which is absolutely important, but rest is just as important. Rest and relaxation strengthen and tone your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is the counterpart to your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS, or “fight or flight” system). A high functioning PNS is essential to whole body health, and particularly heart health.
- Relax your mind. Just as important as relaxing your body is taking steps to help relax your mind. Proven methods to tone your PNS are mindfulness practices and acupuncture. Mindfulness practices (like meditation, yoga, tai chi or qi gong) help train your nervous system to be less reactive and less likely to fall into and stay in a “fight or flight” state. There have been a number of studies that show that acupuncture is very effective at reducing stress, in the short and long term, and the pervasive theory is that it does this by activating the PNS.
- Continue to move. The heart’s main job is to pump blood to the rest of the body, and in order to do that and remain strong, it needs to be worked out like any other muscle in your body. From the TCM perspective, this does not mean you need to work yourself out to the point of exhaustion (in fact that is counterproductive). For your cardiovascular health, TCM practitioners would recommend working up a light sweat, but stopping your workout before you are completely wiped out. Your exercises should leave you with MORE energy when you are done – if you feel tired after your workout, then you are doing too much.
- Pay attention to your needs. Every body is different and your needs are going to be different from other people. Running might feel good and be a good way to workout for your neighbor, but it might not be right for you. The same goes for the food you eat and the activities you engage in. Really try to pay attention to how these things make you feel as you are doing them or even thinking about doing them. You are going to be the best judge of what your body needs if you really pay attention to how your body responds. A little hint – if something causes you pain, that is your body’s way of saying to stop doing it!
An integrative and complementary approach to heart health that takes into account the whole person has reduced the amount of heart disease we are now dealing with, but we can do better! Give me a call or shoot me an email if you want to chat about what an integrative medicine practitioner could do for you and your health.