Heart disease is a major public health crisis in America. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for one in every three deaths. That's more than all forms of cancer combined.
American Heart Month in February is a time to look at how well you're taking care of your heart, and how you could do better. This begins with understanding the risks. Family history and age can put you at higher risk for heart disease, but there also a number of lifestyle factors that are within your control. Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol, are all heart-healthy choices.
Also high on the list? Lowering stress. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), easing stress and lowering blood pressure are central to protecting the heart and preventing and treating heart disease.
The Stress Factor
The western medical community unanimously agrees that stress is a major factor in heart disease — something that TCM practitioners have known for centuries. Stress raises your blood pressure and exposes you to high levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It has also been linked to blood clots, which increase the risk of heart attack.
TCM takes a multi-pronged approach to stress management. Acupuncture and acupressure are both used to induce a relaxation response and lower the heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, studies have shown that acupuncture significantly lowers stress and improves heart function, even in patients with severe heart failure.
There are also a variety of Chinese herbal formulas commonly used in TCM for relaxation and stress reduction. A TCM practitioner may also recommend meditation, which can help regulate your body's response to stress and reduce feelings of anxiety and in turn, lowering the risk of heart disease.
The slow, flowing movements and diaphragmatic breathing of Tai Chi Chuan (aka Tai Chi) are known to calm the body and mind. Tai Chi has been practiced for thousands of years in China for myriad health reasons, and recent medical research has confirmed that it can also lower blood pressure and improve heart function, among other benefits.
High blood pressure — also called hypertension — can lead to two major types of heart disease: Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease in the U.S., and hypertensive heart disease. While the exact cause of high blood pressure is unknown, lifestyle factors can play a major role. Both western medicine and TCM practitioners recommend certain lifestyle changes for prevention and treatment.
Where the two systems differ is that in the West, hypertension is also treated with medication, which can have negative side effects. TCM takes a different approach, aimed at getting to the root of the issue, rather than just treating the symptoms. In addition to exercise and dietary recommendations, TCM practitioners use Chinese herbal formulas, tailored to the individual patient.
Acupuncture is also an excellent tool, since it induces relaxation and relieves stress — the primary lifestyle factor that causes high blood pressure. There are also specific acupuncture points used for hypertension, as well as irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, another common form of heart disease. And again, natural calming techniques such as Tai Chi as well as Qi Gong, another ancient martial art, are highly effective stress-busters.
TCM modalities such as acupuncture have a lot to offer with regard to preventing heart disease, as well as treating patients whose hearts are already damaged or weakened. Of course, since these remedies and techniques are therapeutic they should be used in conjunction with lifestyle changes and a complete treatment plan, integrating the most efficacious approaches from both the East and the West.
The bottom line is that because lifestyle plays such a major role in heart disease, you are in control. This alone should set your mind at ease, but it is up to you to take the right steps to help you steer clear of heart disease.