In part one of this series I addressed the benefits of using hawthorn for heart health, described the heart’s impact on the entire body, and elements in our lives that can lead to heart disease or dysfunction.
This article supplements part one by including foods, nutritional strategies, and essential oils to strengthen the heart. I’d hoped to include other beneficial herbs and formulas, but the depth of information was too much. Therefore, I’ll finish this series on my website (www.redrootmountain.com) in a few weeks, and move on to a new topic next month.
Foods to Support Heart Health
It takes a lot of will and discipline to change a diet. It also takes time for the changed diet to appear as better health. Regardless, the long term benefits of healing with food are enormous. It makes for a more sustainable and better quality of life, and creates a new energy that radiates out into the world.
Most people, when faced with eliminating their favorite processed foods and treats, imagine a bland and bitter new world. But take a moment to imagine the bright new colors that will decorate your plate, and the fresh new tastes; visualize the change positively. I recommend a trip to your local farmers market to inspire change. Taste sweet strawberries (without sugar), or spicy arugula to realize there is nothing bland about them. Strike out, and allow yourself to become accustomed to a wide variety of flavors, not merely relying on a few safe options you already know.
With my daughters, I always put just one leaf of something new or possibly distasteful on their plates. They eat the leaf. It’s a start. A year later, they’re eating handfuls.
While outlining a diet for heart health is unrealistic in a single article, I will touch on a few things that everyone can benefit from whether it is something to add, limit, or eliminate. I’d also like to point out that it is clinically proven that not everyone responds to the same diet. With that in mind, if you make changes you feel should be beneficial and don’t get the results you want, consult with a nutritionist qualified to work with your condition. There may be something missing.
Flax and Omega 3 Fatty Acids
We have heard a lot about omega 3 fatty acids over the years. It is still just sinking in how important they are, and how deficient we are in them. While there is much that can be said about the different classes of fatty acids and their effects on the body, I will keep it simple here. If anyone is interested in more complex materials, please contact me via my website; I have an article from Integrative Medicine Communications that is excellent, and I’d be happy to forward it.
Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, affecting a multitude of functions on the body. They have been found to be beneficial for heart disease, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and disease, diabetes, inflammatory lung conditions, and deficiencies in the immune system. The list goes on.
Omega 3 fatty acids convert through process of assimilation into substances that increase production of anti-inflammatory metabolites. These metabolites, in turn, decrease the amount of pro-inflammatory metabolites. They also function to regulate blood pressure and clotting, heart rate, vascular dilation, and the immune response.
The benefits of omega 3’s differ from source to source. It is said that flax, my preferred type, is not as effective as fish oil at lowering lipid levels. But flax has been found to improve arterial circulation and function.
What is the best way to get your omega 3 fatty acids? Use your best judgment, and do your research. I prefer to think of omega 3’s as a food, as opposed to a supplement. In our family, we eat salmon (sashimi grade, available at Willy St Coop), but we consume flax regularly. Here are a few tricks that we use to incorporate it into our diet.
Flax oil is not heat stable. The anti-inflammatory properties are lost if it is cooked. But it can be used as a salad dressing with a little lemon and garlic, or mixed in with steamed veggies once they have cooled a bit. We love to use flax oil instead of butter on toast in the morning, with a hint of naturally-sweetened jam over the top. Our kids don’t even know it’s there. And now that summer is here, I have even slipped a bit into their smoothies.
Flax seeds can be ground fresh in a coffee grinder and baked into recipes for pancakes, breads, muffins or cookies. They also serve as a good thickener in soups.
Dark chocolate is one of my favorite foods. I’m therefore pleased that it has been recognized as a healthy one! But let’s be clear about what dark chocolate isn’t. It is not a Hershey bar. In a strong dark chocolate there is no milk and far less sugar than in milk chocolate. It’s new to some, but once you acquire a taste for it, you’ll never look back.
Dark chocolate is said to have very high levels of flavonoids, an anti-inflammatory substance that is a small subgroup of polyphenols. This knowledge has inspired multiple studies on the benefits of dark chocolate.
One such study was published in The Journal of Nutrition, and conducted by Research Laboratories of the Catholic University in Campobasso and the National Cancer Institute of Milan. Their surprising conclusion was that by consuming ¼ oz. of dark chocolate daily, people were capable of reducing levels of C-reactive protein, a pro-inflammatory protein, in their blood by up to 17%. They know this doesn’t sound like much, but it reduces inflammation enough to decrease incidents of stroke and heart attack, lessen platelet aggregation, and even lower cholesterol. The doctors overseeing the study say the ¼ oz. dose had the highest effect, and that consuming larger quantities is not as effective.
Dark chocolate is also high in magnesium, the benefits of which I will address next.
We all know that eating leafy greens is important, and there are many to choose from. But for me, arugula stands out. Not only is it high in essential nutrients for a healthy heart and bones, it is low in oxalates. Oxalates inhibit mineral absorption, and are the constituent that adversely affects the bioavailability of minerals in many other dark leafy greens.
I feel arugula is a super food of sorts. The ratio of calcium to magnesium is excellent for proper assimilation. And these two minerals are essential for muscle function, the function of the heart muscle being no exception. While calcium is responsible for the contraction of the heart muscle, magnesium is responsible for the relaxation of the muscle. Magnesium has been found to reduce spasms of the coronary arteries, may reduce cholesterol, and inhibits platelet aggregation.
Arugula is also high in vitamins C and K. Both of these have been found to aid absorption of calcium. And C is known to lower cholesterol when combined with bioflavonoids, of which arugula is also a rich source.
Folic acid is found in abundance in arugula as well. It, too, is another popular vitamin for heart health. It has shown to lower homocysteine levels in the blood, possibly reducing incidence of blood clots and fatty deposits in blood vessels.
Reduce and Eliminate
An essential part of the process to improve your heart health, and give it the best possible chance, is to eliminate some heart offenders, and reduce others. Things to eliminate that stress the heart are as follows: smoking, hydrogenated oils, nitrates and processed meats, margarine, non-dairy creamer. Things to greatly reduce the use of: sugar, saturated fat (found in red meat and dairy products), salt (switch to sea salt, please), caffeine, and foods that are heavily processed.
The list of foods that benefit the heart is very long, from berries to cantaloupe and brussel sprouts. I believe that a diverse diet high in whole unprocessed foods is the best way to sustain heart health, and strengthen a depleted heart. Remember whole foods (meaning unprocessed and without lots of packaging), and diversity.
For further reference on eating for your body’s health and balance, refer to Paul Pitchfords Healing with Whole Foods. There is an excellent chapter about healing the heart-mind connection with sour foods.
Aromatherapy for Emotional and Spiritual Healing of the Heart
Aromatherapy is a simple and pleasing way to support any healing process. I recommend it for all my clients. But there are a few things to remember before beginning that will improve the effectiveness and quality of your experience.
For daily application, which is what I am recommending here, essential oils need to be diluted in a carrier oil first (grape seed oil, jojoba oil, almond oil etc.). It can be beneficial to practice making formulas with small amounts of carrier oils, such as 1 ounce, until you get the hang of it. That way if you dislike something, you haven’t wasted your resources.
A dilution that is appropriate for regular use is 1-2%, which works out to 6-12 total drops of essential oil in 1 ounce of carrier oil. Store your formula in a dark colored glass bottle, and keep it in a cool dark place. This will keep it fresh. It is helpful to add 10% jojoba oil to your carrier of choice. It acts as a natural preservative for it is actually wax distilled from a bean.
Label your bottles and write down your formulas and how you use them. You may also want to keep a log of their effects. The awareness this brings to the process of healing is beneficial and empowering. Get others to try the formulas too. It can be a positive way of sharing your healing experience. This mini healing community can be a connection that helps us disable feelings of aloneness as we change, and make us feel part of a bigger whole. Community can be an effective healing for the heart in itself.
Lastly, before applying your formula on a large area, try a patch test. That way if you have an adverse reaction only a small area is affected. To counter the reaction, apply plain olive oil or any other unscented oil on top of the affected area. This will further dilute the essential oils, rendering them innocuous.
Essential Oils for Heart Health
An essential oil formula for a healthy heart should be well rounded, and made to address multiple issues. As we notice in Part One of this series, an imbalanced heart is reflective of an imbalanced body and mind.
What follows is a brief description of oils I prefer to use for conditions of the heart. There are a few that relieve anxiety and calm the heart, such as rose, sweet mandarin, ylang ylang, roman and german chamomile and lavender. There are also some that support lymphatic, kidney, and immune function.
Ylang-ylang is sweet. Its scent is similar to jasmine, but without the enormous price tag! It triggers feelings of euphoria, calms nerves, and is specific for anxiety. It regulates rapid cardiac rhythm and breathing that is slow and shallow. Ylang ylang is thought to soften the spirit and the heart.
Rose is a powerful calming agent, medically indicated for anxiety. It strengthens the nervous system and the heart. It is specific for those who suffer from fits of anger.
Lavender has a balancing effect on the nervous system. It is also specifically indicated for depressed mood, and is anti-bacterial and anti-viral.
Citrus oils are light and uplifting. They make us happy, and each fruit does so in its individual way. They also balance and lighten the scent of the formula. Sweet mandarin is a citrus specifically indicated for anxiety, as it is the only citrus oil that is calming, and quiets the chatty mind. Grapefruit, which also supports kidney function, is a lymphatic, and stimulates the detoxification process.
Cypress and vetiver are spiritually great protectors. They also support lymphatic and immune function. Their addition is grounding and deepening in a formula.
Heart Harmonizer (good for palpitations): ylang ylang, rose, sweet mandarin, ginger
Heart-Lymphatic Formula: cypress, rose, ginger, vetiver
Balance: Lavender, chamomile, grapefruit, ginger
Realize that the benefits of aromatherapy come from regular use, not intermittent. I recommend hand, wrist, foot, and heart application. There are many great ways to incorporate your formula into your daily rhythm. Make a ritual of applying your formula to your feet before bedtime. Rub it into your hands after you have cleaned up from breakfast, or when you sit down to have a quiet cup of tea. This regular time of use will align you with the intent to heal your heart.
Meditation, Walking and Your Heart Mind Connection
The rhythm of what we do affects the strength of our heart. What better way to affect that rhythm then with mediation. The article “Meditation May Reduce Heart Disease Risk” by Toni Baker describes this dynamic.
He speaks of Dr. Vernon Barnes who took 156 African-American inner-city adolescents with high blood pressure and had them do transcendental meditation (TM) twice daily for 15 minuets a sitting.Their blood pressure lowered at a rate that rivaled drug intervention. And it stayed lower.
Many more studies have been done since the one by Dr. Barnes in 2004, all with similar success. It is interesting to note that with this we discover that the heart and mind just need a bit of alone, undistracted, quiet time to find their center, and their health.
When the heart is misaligned, many things go askew within us. The dis-order, be it anxiety, tension or physical ill health, prevents us from being our true selves, and connecting fully with our outer world. Isolation brings more heart dis-ease.
The tools outlined here assist the healing of the heart, spirit and mind. And there are ways to be active in community with these tools. Become a part of a community garden and grow your own food, join a meditation group, or start an aromatherapy circle.
The heart carries us through our days. It connects us to the rhythm of the earth, and the whole that is community. With the use of tools and natural healing resources, our heart, body, mind and spirit can remember how to be calm and present, providing space for healing.