Updated: Jul 21
Today I foraged some Hawthorn leaf and berries - a well known cardiac tonic. Given the theme of heart health, I thought I would provide a little insight into how nutritional therapists view and support heart disease.
The heart is our supreme controller of the body; a universal transporter, with trillions of cells reliant on a working heart. Five litres of blood is passed through the heart every minute, quite amazing!
Sadly, coronary heart disease is one of the top causes of death in the Western world. I think it is fair to say, that if we mention heart dis-ease most of us would think of high cholesterol or high blood pressure as the cause. But what if cholesterol wasn’t the bad guy? What if our body intelligently produced it?
Cholesterol is made in the liver. It is needed to produce steroid hormones - such as adrenaline and our sex hormones and to produce bile acids, involved in our detoxication pathways. Would the body wouldn’t make something we didn’t need? (still produced even when low levels are obtained from a healthy diet).
Allopathic medicine considers cholesterol as good or bad, yet cholesterol is cholesterol. The definitions refer to the actual ‘carriers’ of cholesterol. LDL is considered ‘bad’, which carries cholesterol from the liver to bloodstream. Excess cholesterol is picked up by HDL, which is considered ‘good’ and carried back to liver for elimination. Rather than focusing on what is good or bad, we should be asking why our body is making excess cholesterol. We really need to treat the cause of excessive production, rather than relying solely on medication.
From a naturopathic perspective the root causes of heart disease are: dehydration, damage to our arterial walls and a build up of calcium ions.
What if cholesterol was produced to manage drought in the body? Our body intelligently puts cholesterol in our cell walls to make them more rigid stopping water loss. Our body always does the best for us; a cell that loses water will not replicate correctly and will die. We don’t want to be so dehydrated that our body produces excess cholesterol. And imagine sludgy blood compared to 90% water blood - if blood is thick it is going to be more difficult to keep flow and of course, rigid vessels will mean higher blood pressure. We need water.
The aorta is the first artery to receive pumped blood, it is under lots of pressure and susceptible to damage. In terms of arterial deposits, cholesterol acts like a band aid. Repairing damage to the arterial wall is a priority. Any damage to the wall is covered in cholesterol; otherwise the walls would become rough, causing platelets to stick leading to clotting. Allopathic medicine blames the fireman for the fire but it doesn’t cause the damage.
The animals fats we eat in our modern world are vastly different to the past. Our ancestors didn’t eat transfats, food was organic and unpasteurised. As food has become more processed we have seen an increase in inflammatory conditions, including heart disease.
Homogenised dairy is well worth a mention. It is milk that has been put through a large sieve creating smaller molecules. These molecules would not normally enter our bloodstream but because they are artificially made smaller they do, passing through our digestive system relatively unchallenged. This means that zanthine oxidise, found in milk fat, enters the blood stream and causes havoc. It damages the lining of the arteries causing plaques to build up, which can interrupt blood flow.
In general, we tend to eat few good fats and rather consume lots of bad ones! Some examples of good fats are those found in nuts and seeds, olive oil and oily fish. Yet, instead we consume a high level of transfats - the dirty processed fats found in plastic bottles in the supermarket, margarines and other low-fat spreads. Transfats produce free radicals which attack and damage cells (something like a bull in a china shop).
Sadly we are subjected to so many free radicals in the modern world, whether than be chemicals, radiation, pollution, fake foods, stress. We don’t get enough of the good stuff like exercise, sunshine, fresh air. Our body is fighting a war against oxidants and free radicals.
Oxidative stress occurs when we don’t have enough antioxidants to neutralise the radicals which we associate with ageing and sickness. There is however an antidote to oxidation. Antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables. Yet, many of us eat very few. When I met Dan he told he never ate vegetables for his 40 years, as he didn’t like them. No one likes a plain iceberg lettuce and pesticide ridden tomato - but you can do so much organic vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and he has since been a real convert! But we aren’t taught their importance, rather commercial fake foods and sugary drinks are promoted. We really need to be eating around 10-12 portions of fruit and veg a day. Why? Well, our foods are at least 60% lower in nutrients compared to before the 1940s, mainly because intensive farming doesn’t look after the soils the foods are grown in - let alone being weeks old and dehydrated before we eat them!
And antioxidants are only part of the story. The thing is, we are made from food. We need glucose for energy but we are formed from amino-acids (single building blocks of the proteins we eat) and fatty-acids, thats why the expression ‘we are what we eat’, is true!
The liver spends its life breaking down proteins and reassembling them, helping to repair and maintain tissues, and produce hormones and neurotransmitters (lego is a good analogy here). Yet, this process requires something known as Methyl donors - nutrients that are involved in these conversion processes.
Methyl donors are vital, yet, many of us are deficient and don’t meet our daily requirements (which likely should be higher, and also standard nutrition doesn't necessarily take in to account varying absorption rates between individuals).
Surrounding heart disease, homocystine has had a lot of attention. Homocysteine is made from the amino-acid, methionine. This production is normal. It is used to make SAMe and Glutathione. Glutathione is our master antioxidant, the very master which STOPS the free radicals we have been talking about, and therefore reduces damage to our cells. Without methyl donors however, further conversions can’t not take place, homeocystine stays high and our body can’t produce this antioxidant and SAMe. If we had the nutrients we needed we would be halting and repairing damage instead (as well as a hydrated fluid medium to get the nutrients to where they need to be - and - the toxins out of the cell!).
The nutrients which act as methyl donors are: B vitamins (B2, B6, B9, B12), vitamin E (mainly found in nuts and seeds), vitamin C, betaine, magnesium, zinc - the very nutrients we are often low in!
In the same vein, vegan diets have been shown to be healthful when they are well planned, however, they can be low in B12 and folate (the vital methyl donors), and the body runs into trouble just the same. Furthermore, our tissues hormones, the ones that control our mood and inflammation also require co-factors. So it is easy to see why heart disease, depression and inflammatory conditions are on the rise, often found together and part of the same problem.
As for calcium ions, many of us suffer from an electrolyte imbalance. We obtain far too much sodium and calcium and not enough potassium and magnesium. In simple terms calcium contracts and magnesium relaxes. We don’t want tight, contracted, rigid arteries and vessels that create high blood pressure and force our heart to work harder - we need supple ones. The correct balance of minerals and hydration help with these problems.
And not only diet, but our environment plays a part. Our heart cells have many mitochondria which produce energy and they require magnesium. Heavy metals can reduce the uptake of magnesium in these cells, further exasperating problems. Another reason why it is vital to have open channels of elimination and eat fibre; fibre binds with bile to produce a regular stool each day, helping to eliminate toxins. If not, we simply give the liver more work to do and will feel tried and sluggish. Not to mention stress, which dehydrates us.
What about genetics? Well, epigenetics is a new area of research. In simple terms: genetics load the gun but it is the environment (internal and external) which pulls the trigger (I think Bruce Lipton said that). We all have power over our own health - especially as the main goal of the body is to keep us alive. I have a rare blood condition, where the vessels bleed into my bones, my blood clots and produces inflammation. I was told I would be in a wheelchair aged 10 and on anti-clotting medication for life, which would have weakened my bones further; while I can’t change my physiology, eating correctly has helped me to live a fairly normal life. I can’t always afford to eat as well I should (why we need to be creating change as consumers) and then my health slips. But looking at dis-ease as a form of communication by the body, we can get our power back.
Please be aware: This blog post is simply for interest. It is very important if you are dealing with a heart condition not to make changes without seeking advice, something as simple as water intake needs to be strictly managed if you are on certain medications. I am not advising to stop any kind of medication, in this case it would be vital to work with a naturopath alongside your GP.
My top tips for having a healthy heart (for a standard, healthy person!):
Upon waking drink one glass of blood temperature water. Aim for 4 pints of water a day, by gradually increasing over a few weeks.
Drink one glass of blood temperature water BEFORE a tea of coffee, should you have to have caffeine so you don’t lose excessive water.
Include gluten-free wholegrains. Loaded with B vitamins and fibre for healthy eliminations; avoid refined grains, such as white rice and wheat which are inflammatory and lack nutrients.
Avoid processed meats, such as cured meats. If you do eat meat, eat organic as they have a healthier ratio of fats within them. Riverford do a lovely meat box, a fair price and the animals are fed well and treated well - best of both worlds!
Eat more organically, locally and seasonally - ideally 10 portions of fruit / vegetables / nuts / seeds a day; soak your nuts and seeds before eating to absorb more of their goodness.
Eat wild oily fish at least twice a week to supply omega 3.
Remove processed and refined table salt - use herbs to flavour foods instead (they contain healthy antioxidants).
Stop eating trans fats such as margarines and low-fat spreads, those found in cakes, biscuits and fried foods, and the like. They are now in the process of being banned anyway. It is really easy to make sweet treats that are actually healthy and taste great and full of HEALTHY oils. Join HOAP to find out more!
Stop eating dairy - or at least processed homogenised forms. If you are a fan of dairy, maybe have a research about raw milk.
Include some bitter foods to support the heart energetically - chicory, organic dark chocolate, rocket, are some good examples.
Learn to respond to stress, rather than react.