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Complementary Corner

The HEART of it all

Renee Lehman

(10/2012) "Get to the heart of the matter."

"Listen to your heart." "What is your heart telling you to do?"

"Speak from the heart." "Follow your heart."

Donít these phrases sound familiar? What do these phrases mean to you?

These phrases are commonly used to imply that the HEART is the most important or critical, the deepest, most meaningful aspect of yourself. Sometimes we interact with the world from the level of our brain, because the brain has knowledge. However, the HEART has knowledge and an "understanding," a "feeling" of how our actions can affect others and the entire universe.

In the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the HEART is the "Supreme Controller." In China 3000 years ago, there was an Emperor who governed his kingdom. The Heart is your Emperor/Empress who controls and co-ordinates all of the Officials within the body (your other organs) and at the same time relies on them for guidance in "running the kingdom." The heart is not viewed as just a physical organ. On a physical level, the Heart is responsible for circulating blood to all parts of the body. When this is done well, then we feel nourished and strong. On an emotional and mental level, the Heart is responsible for clear thinking, insight, cognition, perception, consciousness, and self-awareness that gives life meaning. On a spirit level, the Heart is responsible for your capacity to feel compassion and demonstrate warmth, joy, and love. When in balance on a body/mind/spirit level, the Heart will allow you to feel calm, serene, and to "just be." You will be in harmony, balance, and peace.

Heart Research (Old and New)

In Western medicine, the heart is a muscular organ that constantly pumps blood throughout the entire body. It has four separate chambers that blood moves through. The deoxygenated blood travels via blood vessels into the right side of the heart from the body. The deoxygenated blood travels from the right side of the heart into the lungs to become oxygenated. Then the oxygenated blood travels into the left side of the heart to be pumped back out to the body again. The heart is often thought of as a pump.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2011, cardiovascular disease (CVD) causes one in three (approximately 800,000) deaths reported each year in the United States. Also, yearly overall costs resulting from CVD are estimated at $444 billion. Non-modifiable risk factors include: age, gender, race and genetic background. Modifiable risk factors (from highest to lowest risk factor) include: sedentary lifestyle, obesity, high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes.

However, there is increasing scientific evidence that an individualís emotional state, how someone truly "feels" in their heart, is a very strong predictor of heart problems. It is becoming clearer to Western medicine that stress, depression, grief, and anger all take their toll on the heart. Interestingly, this newly gained understanding resonates with the framework from which TCM has been practiced for thousands of years.

This new science is called neurocardiology, the study of the heart's interactions with the nervous system (there is a constant communication between the heart and the brain). The Cleveland Clinic has the first heart-brain institute dedicated to gaining an understanding of this relationship.

Dr. David S. Goldstein, MD, PhD, founder and director of the clinical neurocardiology section of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has found remarkable relationships between the heart and the brain in his study of Parkinson's disease. One of these relationships was that Parkinson's patients lose nerves in the heart.

The heart has its own nervous system, with a network of 40,000 neurons. It releases hormones that enable it to not only regulate itself, but also to send messages via nerve pathways to the brain. It is also through these nerve pathways that pain and other feeling sensations are sent to the brain. These nervous signals then regulate the many nervous signals that flow out of the brain to the heart, blood vessels, and other glands and organs of the body. Thus, the heartís nervous system has an effect on the entire body. These nervous signals also cascade up into the higher centers of the brain, where they may influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes.

For example, heart problems may affect a person's mood. Dr. Goldstein has said: "If your heart isn't working well, you are much more likely to have depression and anxiety too. The heart's nervous system is so elaborate that sometimes it can override the brain. For example, some people are able to control performance anxiety by taking beta blockers, drugs that block the harmful effects of stress hormones. Even though the drug doesn't get into the brain, it blocks the heart's response to adrenaline." In this case, he said, the brain anticipates becoming anxious. But after realizing that the heartbeat has remained stable and that there are no physical signs of anxiety, the brain accepts the commands from the heart, overruling its need to be anxious.

Cardiologist, Dr. Mimi Guarneri, MD, founder and medical director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, CA, wrote a book, The Heart Speaks (2006), in which she talked about her discovery of the emotional and spiritual components of heart disease. She is also involved with The Healing Hearts program at the Scripps Center, a program that deals with reversing heart disease without drugs or surgery. This program is based on the understanding that "physical heart disease may be the final manifestation of years of abuse that begins in the psyche and spirit."

"HeartMath research (The Institute of HeartMath Research Center, www.heartmath.org) has shown that the heart responds to stress first, and sends that information to the brain with a judgment attached before mental cognition ever occurs. If the heart perceives a situation as a threat, the brain than sets off the alarm signals to produce stress hormones, which initiate the inflammatory cascade. The body starts pouring out hormones, causing the blood vessels to constrict, making platelets sticky, raising heart rate, and elevating blood pressure," Dr. Guarneri notes.

The health implications for an "unhappy heart" is as Dr. Guarneri states, "Suppressed emotions, or ones we are unconscious of, donít just simmer on the back burner indefinitely; they manifest themselves on a physical level and are reflected in our bodies as physical symptoms."

Next monthís article will continue the discussion of how emotions can contribute to heart related problems and other bodily ailments.

"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched Ė they must be felt with the heart." (Helen Keller)

Read Part 2

Renee Lehman is a licensed acupuncturist, physical therapist, and Reiki Master with over 20 years of health care experience. Her office is located at 249B York Street in Gettysburg, PA.  She can be reached at 717-752-5728.

Read other article on well being by Renee Lehman