Chances are, nearly every adult who is reading this has some level of plaque in their arteries and at a minimum, early stage cardiovascular disease ??? thanks to our American diet and sedentary life style. It???s no secret that heart disease and stroke claim many thousands of lives every year. And while there are many treatment options available, it???s important to recognize that quite a few of them only tinker with the symptoms, rather than treat the disease itself. Angioplasty or a bypass, for example, may improve pain symptoms of a condition like angina, in which the heart struggles to cope with insufficient oxygen and blood. But even those invasive, serious procedures do nothing to halt the development of the real problems ??? heart disease, accumulated plaque, and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).
When arteries are clear and wide open, blood flows freely from your heart through the rest of your body. But substances that circulate in your blood ??? fat, cholesterol, calcium, and waste products from cells, for example ??? can collect inside the arteries in clumps. As these clumps grow, your arteries become narrower and less flexible. The result is atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and heart disease.
Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease
Although millions of Americans have been diagnosed with heart disease, millions of others are unaware that they have it or are at high risk. Risk factors include:
- Obesity (check your Body Mass Index (BMI))
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Poor diet, especially a shortage of omega-3 EFAs
- Unmanaged high blood pressure
- Low HDL (???good???) cholesterol and high LDL (???bad???) cholesterol
- Unmanaged diabetes or insulin resistance
- High levels of C-reactive protein (CRP)
- High levels of anger or stress
- Older age
- Family history of heart disease
Since heart attack symptoms are somewhat different in men and women, I???ve listed them separately:
Heart Attack Symptoms in Men
- Shortness of breath, even when lying down
- Chest pains or feelings of discomfort or tightness in chest
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Irregularities in heartbeat
- Nausea or vomiting
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
- Pain, pressure, or discomfort in the chest, one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or abdomen
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Serious fatigue
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
If any of these symptoms occur, call 911 immediately. This is an important point and one that too many people ignore, thinking they???ll wait to see if they feel better.
Please, if you or someone you???re with experiences these symptoms, call 911 immediately!
The key to surviving a heart attack is quick action. In addition to calling 911, chew one standard (not enteric or safety coated), 325 mg aspirin for 30 seconds before swallowing. The aspirin helps prevent a blood clot from forming, and chewing the aspirin first speeds up the process. This is a case where more is not better, so please don???t take additional aspirin.
Four Innovative Ways To Keep Your Heart Healthy
I???d like to talk about some useful heart-health tools you should be aware of. Too many physicians simply prescribe statins or blood pressure medication, again treating the symptoms instead of the problem. If your own physician gives you a blank stare when you mention one or more of these procedures, it may be time to find a new doctor. All four of these methods are proven lifesavers and may be covered by insurance. As my patient Ryan discovered, you may have to prove to your insurance company that you need these lifesavers in order to return to a normal life.
EECP (Enhanced External Counter Pulsation)
When arterial blockages force the heart to do its job with too little blood or oxygen, a patient may experience chest pain (angina), which sometimes extends down the left arm, in the jaw, or between the shoulder blades. Without some sort of intervention, angina can lead to heart failure. The damaged heart muscle then has difficulty pumping blood throughout the body. Heart failure patients often experience shortness of breath or feel exhausted even after very little physical activity. Sometimes these symptoms occur even while the patient is at rest. Untreated, angina can lead to a heart attack. Generally speaking, an angina attack only lasts for a few minutes. But if it continues for 20 minutes or more, call 911 and get medical attention.
EECP is a simple, non-invasive method of increasing the blood and oxygen supply to the heart muscle by painlessly forcing blood out of the lower part of the body and toward the heart. In essence, this allows the heart to take a bit of a break. During the treatment, the patient lies comfortably while adjustable cuffs are wrapped around the legs, from the groin to the ankles. The cuffs are inflatable, like blood pressure cuffs. Inflating them gently pushes blood toward the heart, while reducing the heart???s workload.
While the EECP process itself is simple, it requires commitment on the patient???s part. A normal schedule involves daily, one-hour long sessions five to six days per week for about six weeks. But the benefits go beyond simply relieving angina. Heart attack survivors are often treated with EECP to strengthen the heart, as well as to encourage blood vessels to develop new branches that can create a ???natural bypass.??? One recent study found that EECP even helps reduce inflammation, a major complicating factor in heart disease. In addition, a clinical trial published in the journal Cardiology reported that EECP???s benefits continue for at least six months after treatment.
CIMT (carotid intima-media thickness)
For more than 25 years, doctors have been using a safe, non-invasive technique known as CIMT (carotid intima-media thickness) to gauge the status of a patient???s carotid artery wall. Your carotid arteries are located on either side of your neck, allowing blood to flow from the heart to the brain. Observing the intima-media (the innermost two layers of the arterial wall) provides doctors with a simple way to assess cardiovascular health. The CIMT allows them to see plaque accumulation and to identify a potential stroke or heart attack before it happens, so patients can get preventive treatment.
CIMT uses ultrasound to look at internal views of the arteries from different angles. This provides a more comprehensive picture of arterial health than methods that rely on just one perspective. The test generally takes less than 10 minutes, is completely painless, and is often covered by insurance, especially for individuals who are at risk for heart problems. CIMT screening has been found to be a good investment for men (cost effective in 66% of cases), although women had even better results, with 94% cost effectiveness.
But what about cholesterol levels, stress tests, and other diagnostic tools? Those are still useful, but the CIMT adds one more arrow to the quiver doctors use to identify and treat heart disease. Remember ??? as many as half of all deaths from coronary artery disease occur in people with what???s considered ???healthy??? cholesterol levels who have had no symptoms of heart disease. So CIMT is an excellent means of identifying overall problems in the cardiovascular system, as well as spot potential blockages that could result in a stroke.
Chelation (key-LAY-shun) is a process that removes heavy metals or other substances from the body. Typically, a health-care practitioner uses a solution that binds to specific molecules, such as lead or copper. The chelation solution is delivered intravenously over a period of months. Chelation has been used since the 1940s, and has been scientifically proven to work, as the new TACT (Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy) study from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute shows.
The TACT researchers compared the effects of a manmade amino acid called EDTA (disodium ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid) with a placebo (an inactive substance) on more than 1,700 patients who had previously had a heart attack. The results showed that 40 sessions of chelation provided an 18 percent reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, hospitalization for angina, or death from all causes. For patients with diabetes, the results were even better, with a 39 percent risk reduction. Similarly, patients who had experienced a specific type of heart attack, known as an anterior myocardial infarction, had a 37 percent reduction in risk.
Although chelation therapy has been studied and used successfully for decades, this is the first clinical trial showing that it can be useful as a post-heart attack therapy.
For centuries, physicians have used the pulse as a diagnostic tool to measure the functions of various organs. Now, after 25 years of research by Russian scientists, pulse analysis has gone high-tech. Heart Quest can analyze the changes in heart rate variability (HRV) by measuring the duration of each heart cycle to determine how it differs from the ones before and after it. This method provides important data on heart rate variability, and on how well an individual???s internal organs and bodily systems are functioning.
I make the Heart Quest system available to patients at my clinic because it provides a non-invasive way to evaluate the effectiveness of any therapy or treatment, including everything from acupuncture to homeopathy to conventional medicine. A Heart Quest assessment only requires a patient to sit quietly for five minutes while heart rate data (gathered by applying clips to the wrists) is recorded, and then presented in a printed report. Seeing results in black and white allows the patient to decide which therapies to pursue and which to discontinue.
EBCT (Electron Beam Computed Tomography)
Sometimes called ultra-fast CT or ???mammogram of the heart,??? EBCT uses very low-dose radiation to identify calcium deposits in the coronary arteries. The painless procedure takes only about 10 minutes. When calcified plaque is identified, patients can then make the lifestyle and behavioral changes necessary to reduce their risk of further complications. Recent research shows that EBCT is one of the most accurate tests available, especially when it comes to identifying calcium in the arteries.
And that brings us to my final bit of advice: Go easy on the calcium. After being bombarded for years with recommendations to get plenty of calcium for strong bones, researchers are concerned about the unintended consequences. Although the science is still being sorted out, I???m now seeing more physicians and researchers backing away from recommendations to consume large amounts of dairy products and calcium supplements on a daily basis. Until there is a definitive answer regarding the safety of calcium supplements in regard to heart health, I suggest focusing on calcium-rich foods.
While I think it???s important for you to know that these sophisticated therapies are available, the best way to avoid heart disease is not to develop it in the first place. I don???t mean to sound flip, but that???s true for so many preventable health conditions. So please revisit the lifestyle recommendations in my Pillars of Health as often as necessary to keep yourself on track and going strong in the year ahead.