by John Fenton
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), heart disease is the leading cause of death in America and the world. Hypertension and risk of stroke are not far behind. With February being American Heart Health Month, here are some lessons I've learned.
Your heart is a muscle, the hardest working one in your body. Reduced oxygen and glucose to the heart can damage it. These damaging effects can be caused by factors such as coronary disease, blocked arteries, sleep apnea or others such as stress.
I was generally a healthy person, or so I thought. I ran and worked out and thought I was eating a mostly healthy diet. But then one day, I was at the cardiologist office taking a stress test to see why my heart was feeling weak. It was not pumping enough blood through my body.
Not long into it, the doctor stopped the test and had me lie down where I waited until the ambulance arrived. I was rushed to the hospital for more tests. These revealed no coronary blockages, "pristine" the cardiologist said.
As I became more aware of my body, I realized that I was holding my breath when stressed. While I did not suffer from sleep apnea, I was not sleeping well and not getting enough rest. Other conditions I noticed were my poor posture. My shoulders were tense; and sitting at a desk for long periods of time, I was usually hunched over my computer while working. I realized that I was constricting the flow of oxygen to my chest and heart.
This eye-opening experience made me realize that I needed to take responsibility for my heart health. You don't want to wait to be rushed off to the hospital, or worse. Not an experience that I want to relive. So today, I've listed some valuable lessons I learned in responsibly managing my heart health.
1. LOWER YOUR SODIUM
Too much sodium causes the body to retain fluids (inflammatory) and also raises blood pressure, a precursor to stroke. Conventional wisdom is that we should limit our sodium intake to no more than 2300 milligrams per day. From my experience, 1500-2000mg is better. How much are you consuming each day?
Your favorite canned soup can have 600-800mg in one serving. Dining out? Fast food or not, chances are you are consuming nearly all your daily amount or more in just one meal. It's estimated that on average, we consume about 3,400mg a day, most of that from processed food.
Know what you're eating by reading labels and menus in advance.
To be heart healthy, it makes sense to get some exercise, but how much? The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, with at least 30 minutes daily, five days a week and moderate to high-intensity muscle strengthening at least twice a week.
If time is an issue, HHS recommends breaking up exercise into 10 minute segments.
I find that most of us are pressed for time so much so that even 30 minutes a day can seem daunting. My experience? Even just 10 minutes can be beneficial.
3. STRENGTHEN YOUR HEART
Practices such as yoga, tai chi and kigong are effective ways to maintain your health, engaging your whole body. These practices boost your overall health and also offer strength building and improved balance. Walking in nature is another great way to balance energy and engage in heart healthy activity.
Healthy, loving and strong relationships are good for your heart. According to Harvard Health Publications, “strong relationships... influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet and not smoking."
You can feel the physical effects that strong and loving relationships have on your body. Your heart wants to love and be loved, so choose the right people to keep in your life and give your energy to. Remember that you pick up on other people’s energy as well.
5. REGULAR CHECK-UPS
Regular physical exams help to identify potential heart issues. Taking ownership of your health means being responsible, not in denial. Between visits to your doctor, make it a practice to check in with your own body and be very aware of any changes. Personal awareness will help you identify any problems so that you can talk to you doctor about them and increase your own inner healing power.
6. IMPACT OF STRESS
How each of us reacts to stress can be different. Although we may not feel it or notice it, we typically hold stress in our chest. The effects of prolonged exposure to stress are varied and can include sleeplessness, irritability, anxiety, shortness of breath, weight gain, and more.
Hormones such as cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline are released as part of the body's defense mechanisms under stress. When these hormones are not moved out of the body they build up, and the body is thrown into survival mode.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Although I was experiencing physical symptoms of a weakened heart, my doctors could not identify the culprit. The cause, I surmised, was from my reaction to stress. I chose a natural path to healing and learned both from my doctor and my guide, and through my own research, that the effects of a lack of oxygen to the heart could be reversed—that there was hope.
With the advice from my doctor, I paid more attention to my diet, including sodium. I changed my diet to a low sodium one and learned to like it as my tastes adjusted. Now, too much sodium ruins the meal.
With the help of a guide, I began mindful breathing exercises. The benefits were a reduction of tension in the chest and more oxygen to the heart and lungs. Methods such as yoga, tai chi and kigong helped me to improve circulation, better manage my energy, expand my lung capacity, and improve heart rate, muscle tone, balance and body awareness.
There is hope. Be responsible for your heart health by practicing these and other preventive methods.
TIP: This breathing exercise really helped me reduce stress and open my chest.
Lie on your back with your arms outstretched from your body, palms facing upward. Close your eyes and relax. Focus on your breath. For five to ten minutes, inhale slowly and exhale even more slowly through your mouth. As you exhale, imagine and feel the stress from your chest releasing through your fingertips.
For more information, contact me at JFenton@JFHealthyliving.com or visit my website, www.jfhealthyliving.com.