February is ‘heart‘ month so I thought I’d share 5 ways to improve Heart Health from a Chinese Medicine/Acupuncture perspective. Given that heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada, it’s always good to find ways to keep your heart happy! The following tips are just a few suggestions that I commonly share at my Calgary Acupuncture practice with my patients who are concerned about their heart health.
Happy Heart Food: In Chinese Medicine, we say that bitter foods have an affinity for the heart and are integral to great heart health. Australian researchers discovered a few years ago what the Chinese have known for millennium. Their research revealed that bitter smell and taste receptors are found in the heart! These receptors are 12 out of 25 receptors in the human genome that respond to bitter compounds. So what does this mean for us? That we should be eating some bitter food everyday! Some examples of heart-friendly bitter foods are asparagus, broccoli, broccoli rabe, and kale. If you are interested in reading more about the Queensland study, here is the link: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-05-bitter-receptors-human-hearts.html
Another type of food which makes the heart extremely happy is found in red food. Chinese medicine 5 element theory makes a connection between the colour red and its ability to strengthen the heart. Thus, eating certain red foods is a way to give some love to our heart. Here are some specific heart-loving foods: red dates, watermelon, red beans, cherries, plum tomatoes, beets, red radish, strawberries, rhubarb, and red lentils.
Take Care of Your Tummy: Within the 5 element theory of Chinese Medicine, the stomach is called the child of the heart. This means that when the digestive energy is weak (poor diet, digestive disorder, overeating, stress affecting digestion) it will affect the heart. The stomach (child) will then use extra resources from the heart (the mother), in order to strengthen itself. Interestingly, the stomach meridian (the bio-electric pathway that is used for Acupuncture) actually traverses the heart! How do you know if your digestive energy is weak? Some obvious symptoms would be diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, bloating after meals, and stomach pain.
Some ways to take care of your stomach energy are to eat mainly warm food, eat only until you’re 70% full, avoid ice drinks, limit processed sugar and dairy, and make sure to eat breakfast. A 2013 Harvard School of Public Health Study found that men who habitually went without breakfast were 27% more prone to experience a heart attack or death from coronary heart disease! That’s a pretty motivating reason to have some food before you leave the house in the morning!!
According to the Chinese Medicine organ clock (the circadian rhythm for our organs) the stomach energy is strongest between 7:00-9:00 am. We will absorb the most nutrients and put the energy to better use when we eat during this time frame. If we are really doing things right we will eat our largest meal at breakfast and our smallest meal for dinner! If you are completely out of the habit of having breakfast, just start with a piece of fruit or an egg, gradually working yourself up to a hearty breakie!! I got into the habit of having Miso soup for breakfast while I was living in Japan so that has become my favourite food to start the day.
Get Acupuncture for Heart Disease: Acupuncture is an incredible tool to help heart disease by improving circulation to the heart, reducing hypertension, calming stress, and improving heart function. Some of my favourite points for the heart are found within Master Tung Acupuncture and are called The Heart Passing Points. What is fascinating is that these heart specific points are found on the stomach meridian (bio-electric pathway) and remember, the stomach pathway goes through the heart! I’ve seen great results clinically with these points for angina (chest pain), palpitations, and PVCs.
Smile from the Heart: Whenever you have a few minutes, practice your inner smile. Just close your eyes and allow your face to soften as you notice the rise and fall of your breath. Let your thought drift to someone you love or imagine a beautiful mountain, sunset, or ocean view. Picture a golden light that flows inside whenever you breathe in and that all your stress flows out when you breathe out. Imagine this golden light as love that flows in through the top of your head and fills up your heart. This is an easy practice that you can do first thing in the morning (even if you’re in a hurry) for a few minutes. Once you’ve finished, take the calm and peace you experience with your inner smile with you throughout your day. If you are stuck in traffic, practice this technique – but of course, please keep your eyes open!
Seek Joy: It’s not surprising that the ancient Chinese named joy as the emotion we associate with the heart. In Chinese Medicine theory we say that a lack of joy will negatively impact the heart. An excess of joy is also too much of a good thing. It does seem strange, doesn’t it? How can having too much joy be a bad thing? Maybe you’ve heard stories about people having a heart attack after hearing super joyful news. Though this isn’t common occurrences they do help us to understand how excessive joy could be harmful to the heart. There are even some funny Chinese stories that have people making up some negative news to give someone before they relay the fantastic news – just to be on the safe side!
The much more common experience is for people to feel a lack of joy. It took me until I was in my 40’s to go through what it really meant to lack joy. Somehow I was born with a double dose of joy which was somewhat surprising given my early family life. My mom told me that I rarely cried as a baby, smiled constantly, and as a toddler, would fall in love with everyone I met. As I grew up through childhood, the teenage years, and adulthood, I experienced the gamut of emotions such as anger, worry, anxiety, sadness and heartbreak, but never, ever, a lack of joy. Joy was easily found walking/running at night, dancing with friends, curled up for hours with a book, laughter with friends, dating, yoga, and a million other things. Just walking outside and feeling that the temperature was perfect for an evening run would propel me into joy!
It was around in my early 40’s that I experienced postpartum depression and dipped in and out of prolonged periods of joylessness. I came to really understand that when people slip into that joyless space it is very difficult to muster up the energy to do the things that used to bring happiness. Fortunately I was studying Chinese Medicine at the time so I was able to have acupuncture quite often. I knew at the time that if I hadn’t been able to have those frequent treatments it would have been much more challenging to pull myself out of the depression. One thing I did learn is that when there is a small window for joy, jump through it and feel the joy vibes!!
Many, many people in our society are going through varying degrees of feeling a lack of joy in their lives. This state profoundly impacts our heart health! Sometimes it is as simple as constantly over-scheduling yourself and not leaving any windows of opportunity to just feel what you’re feeling. Maybe it’s having a plethora of online connections with social media, but not enough face time with acquaintances and friends. First we become disconnected from ourselves and then we become disconnected from others.
A recent TED talk called “The Strongest Predictor of How Long You’ll Live” tells us that one of the strongest factors in determining longevity is our social connections. The presenter discussed the top two factors which were Close Relationships (not surprising!!) and the leading one which was called Social Integration. This one was quite surprising because it is basically about the quality and quantity of people you interact with in daily life. Essentially do you engage in some light, friendly banter with the clerk at the grocery store or with the guy working at the gas station? Do you chat with your neighbors when you see them shoveling their walk? Do you belong to any groups or communities with shared hobbies or interests?
I thought this was pretty cool because in Chinese Medicine we see the heart as the organ that encompasses the western concept of the ‘mind’ and how we perceive and ‘feel’ the world around us. When our heart is happy, healthy, and joyful we are able to connect with others in healthy and meaningful ways. So perhaps a good way to foster more joy in our lives is to start connecting, even in small ways, with those around us -with our neighbors, at our kids’ school, when we pay for gas, and even at Superstore!
There’s a lady at a little store that my daughter and I frequent. I’ve been going there for years and I could NOT get her to smile at me, and it wasn’t for lack of trying! I love this little shop but the frosty reception really tempered my enjoyment shopping there. Then one day, I took my daughter there for the first time. My munchkin, being a little joy monster, gasped over everything, shone her sparkly eyes everywhere in full appreciation at how cute everything was and to my amazement, the clerk smiled! Had I known that this lady just needed a little dose of ‘kid’ joy, I would’ve taken her there much sooner. Now, this particular clerk smiles and chats us up every time we go there. I think we all feel more joyful with that simple interaction.
One thing I gleaned from having to re-learn joy in my 40’s is that you start with something small, something that will create a teeny flame of happiness. For me, during the postpartum years, it was about getting out for walks, seeing the sun, and spending time in nature. I also find that kids really help us to remember how to feel the joy in small things. My daughter is incredibly joyful and many things bring her joy, however the most hilarious one is her passion for her Aloe Vera plant! One day I found her at the table just gazing at her plant with a dreamy smile. I laughed and asking her if she was in a trance. She glanced up at me and said fervently “I just love this plant”. I am reminded that we are all capable of finding our ‘Aloe Vera plants’ of joy!