East Meets West
As a Harvard-trained cardiologist, I see the value in modern Western medicine for heart-related diseases. However, 20-plus years of experience has taught me that heart health is much more than just caring for the physical organ that pumps blood throughout the body. Western medicine often overlooks the fact that the mind and body are highly connected, and that to have optimal heart health you must also tend to your emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
Eastern philosophies and healing systems have incorporated this mind-body connection into health practices for centuries, but it has only been in recent years that the Western medical community has begun to see the value in promoting holistic wellness therapies for overall heart health. I believe that the only way to achieve a vibrant and revitalized heart is through a combination of modern medicine and holistic healing practices that focuses equally on the mind, body, and soul.
The connection between the mind and the body is of the utmost importance when it comes to heart health. Most, if not all, heart-related diseases arise as a result of the body and mind being out of harmony. When your emotions, mental state, and soul are in alignment with your body, the organs are at ease, working efficiently and at maximum capacity.
On the other hand, when the body and mind become disconnected through negative emotions and reactions like stress, anxiety, anger, fear, and fatigue, the body enters a state of unrest or “dis-ease,” and the organs must work harder to function. Over a prolonged period of time, the organs may begin to shut down, or in the worst-case scenario, cease to function at all. This is why it is so vital to maintain the delicate balance of harmony between the body and the mind.
To achieve a truly vibrant heart, it is important to slow down and incorporate more peace and joy into our lives. This can be done through practices like meditation, controlled breathing, and hypnotherapy. In addition—just like every other living being on the planet—our bodies are made of energy that vibrates at particular frequencies. Often this energy can become blocked or resonate at frequencies that impede optimal health. This is where healing practices like acupuncture, emotional freedom therapy (tapping), and reiki come in.
By integrating these wellness practices into our lives we can heal the body, mind, and soul; prevent disease; and achieve the heart, health, and life that each of us desires and deserves.
Controlled breathing is one of the best things you can do when you are feeling stressed. Breathing deeply allows oxygen to enter your bloodstream, which improves circulation, lowers your blood pressure, and regulates your heartbeat. Deep breathing also prevents your body from releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, both of which take their toll on your immune system and your heart.
To practice controlled breathing, sit or stand in a comfortable position and breathe in deeply through your nose. Allow your lungs to fill completely and watch your lower abdomen rise. Hold the breath for a second or two, and then slowly exhale through the mouth. Repeat this a few times until you feel calm and relaxed.
Meditation is one of the best things you can do for your mind and your body. Not only does meditation lower stress levels, but it can also have a dramatic effect on cardiovascular health. In fact, a study at the University of Wisconsin in collaboration with the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention revealed that people who meditate have lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks and strokes, and stay disease-free longer than people who do not meditate.
One simple way to meditate is to find a quiet spot where there are few or no distractions, sit in a comfortable position, take a few deep breaths, and concentrate on your breathing. Try not to think about the past or the future: Simply focus on the present moment and be mindful of your body and your surroundings. Even meditating for 10 minutes a day will give you a better sense of balance, peace, and overall well-being.
Quite a few of my patients try meditation and relaxation techniques, but still experience stress and anxiety. In cases like these, I often suggest hypnotherapy (hypnosis). Contrary to popular belief, hypnosis is not a parlor trick in which someone waves a watch in your face and puts you in a trance so that they can control you. Hypnotherapy is actually a powerful way to access the mind-body connection as it allows you to focus on specific physical, mental, and emotional issues you may not be able to tackle in an ordinary conscious state.
In a typical hypnotherapy session, a trained professional will discuss the issues you want to deal with and then give you some exercises to focus the mind, which could include breathing techniques, repeating positive phrases, or visualization methods. Once you are relaxed and in a meditative state, the hypnotherapist will help you to focus on the issues that are causing you pain or distress and perhaps suggest ways that you can overcome these problems. You are completely in control of your thoughts and actions the entire time.
Hypnotherapy is beneficial for your overall health as it allows you to deal with physical, mental, and emotional problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, fear, guilt, pain, and addiction. It can also lower blood pressure and stress levels and encourage you to make positive changes for a healthier lifestyle.
In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that there are meridians in the body that transfer life energy (qi) to the vital organs, tissues, and systems in the body. When these meridians become blocked, the vital organs do not function at full capacity and your immune system is weakened, putting you at risk for illness and disease. Acupuncture is one way to unblock the meridians and correct imbalances in the body.
Acupuncture involves inserting small, thin needles into specific points on the body to open up the meridians and allow energy to flow freely again. This rejuvenates the body, improves circulation, and can help lower blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol.
Recent research proves that acupuncture can also prevent heart attacks by protecting the heart tissue from damage, helping the body control and maintain a healthy heart rate, and controlling hypertension.
Typically five to 20 needles are used and remain in place for 10 to 20 minutes as you relax and lie still.
Emotional freedom therapy (also known as EFT or tapping) works on the same principles as acupuncture in that it focuses on specific points on the body to release blocked energy from the meridians, thus improving physical, emotional, and mental health. Unlike acupuncture, EFT also utilizes positive thought processes to focus on a specific problem within the body or mind. This stimulates your brain and concentrates healing energy where it is needed the most.
One of the most appealing aspects of EFT is that you can practice it anywhere at any time, using just your fingertips and your own thoughts. To begin, focus on a specific problem you are struggling with and create a positive phrase that addresses that problem. As you repeat the phrase, you lightly tap set points on the body with your fingertips. The combination of tapping and repeating your positive phrase actually reprograms the brain through a process called neuroplasticity. In essence, what you are doing is rewiring the neural connections in the brain to eliminate physical pain and illness, phobias, anxiety, and stress. (You can learn more at thetappingsolution.com.)
Reiki is a holistic therapy that uses hands-on healing to channel positive energy, or qi, into strategic points throughout the body that are causing pain, stress, or anguish. The idea is that the positive energy pushes out blockages and negative energy to encourage the body to heal naturally and function more efficiently. Although scientists are still studying the effects of reiki on heart health, a promising study by Yale researchers suggests that reiki may be beneficial for people recovering from heart attacks. The study revealed that patients who incorporated reiki sessions into their treatment programs after suffering a heart attack showed improvements in mood and heart rate variability. In fact, the improvement in heart rate was comparable to the benefits seen in a study of beta blockers.
During a typical reiki session, the patient lies on a massage table in a comfortable position, while the reiki practitioner gently touches specific points on the body or hovers his or her hands a few inches above the patient’s body. The patient may feel a slight warmth or tingling in various spots on the body as the practitioner channels energy into these areas. Many people report feeling more relaxed, lighter, and re-energized after a reiki session.
When you think about how certain scents can bring back vivid memories of particular people or places, it should come as no surprise that aromas have a very powerful effect on the mind and the body. Scents can stimulate the brain to create positive reactions that enhance physical, mental, and emotional health. This is the science behind aromatherapy, an ancient practice that involves condensing the essence of plants into essential oils. To glean the benefits of the aromas, you inhale the vapors or apply the oils directly to the body.
When inhaled, the aromas from essential oils made from certain plants and flowers can produce feelings of happiness, vitality, tranquility, and clarity, while at the same time reducing stress, anxiety, pain, and fatigue. In addition, some essential oils have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that help to heal the body and promote better overall health. As to the connection between aromatherapy and heart health, a study in Taiwan recently revealed that short-term exposure to the vapors of essential oils (under one hour) can reduce both heart rate and blood pressure.
Some essential oils that are known to decrease blood pressure include bergamot, lavender, ylang-ylang, marjoram, and ginger. For better circulation, try basil, thyme, or rosemary, and for increased heart strength, marjoram, rose, and peppermint are good options.
Music has the ability to evoke strong emotions in us, including happiness, excitement, nostalgia, fear, and sorrow. It can lift you up and re-energize you or calm you down when you are feeling tense or upset. Music can help balance your body and mind and promote good health by increasing your internal vibrational frequency. Considering these benefits it should come as no surprise that many psychologists and healthcare professionals are now using music therapy to treat everything from depression to anxiety, stress, and insomnia. Scientific evidence shows that music can also be good for your cardiovascular system.
In 2006, Italian researchers discovered that blood pressure, heart rates, and respiratory rates can actually be synced to music. While music with a fast tempo causes the heart to beat faster and blood pressure to rise, slower music can actually relax the body, decreasing blood pressure and slowing down your breathing and heart rate. In addition, music can be highly beneficial for patients recovering from cardiac episodes. Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital found that heart patients who listened to music for 30 minutes a day had lower blood pressure, slower heart rates, and less anxiety than those who didn’t listen to music.
The key to a healthy heart
I am a strong believer that the key to a healthy heart and a long life lies not just in caring for the physical body or attending to the symptoms of pre-existing diseases, but rather to prioritizing all aspects of being, including the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual states. Modern medicine definitely has a place when it comes to the heart, but holistic healing therapies, mindfulness practice, and relaxation techniques can also be beneficial for cardiovascular health. By simply slowing down the pace a bit and incorporating more fun and pleasure into your life you can drastically reduce your stress levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol, which in turn will lower your risk of developing life-threatening medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
Cynthia Thaik, MD, is a Harvard-trained, board-certified cardiologist specializing in women’s health, cardiovascular health, and congestive heart failure. She is the founder of Revitalize-U: A New Body Image, a wellness center focused on health, nutrition, weight loss, and detoxification. For more information, visit drcynthia.com or find her on Facebook at revitalizeu.