Dec 11, 2019
The Cardiovascular System
The cardiovascular system includes the heart, arteries, and veins. It facilitates the circulation and transportation of nutrients to and from every cell in our body via the blood. The role of the heart in Western medicine is often understood mechanistically as a pump that pushes blood into the organs and throughout the body. Everyday Westerners have a more nuanced approach to the heart though. They innately and intuitively understand the relationship between the heart and our emotions. The scientific tradition bases our feelings in the domain of our mind which lives in the brain and in this tradition, the mind and brain are the domains of neurologists and psychologists separately. The cardiologist is left out of the conversation completely to the detriment of our whole system. In this essay, we will explore new generative models of the heart and Hawthorn as an ally in this work.
The Foibles of the Cartesian Perspectives
Quintessentially, compartmentalizing the heart from the mind obscures simple, safe, and effective mind-body approaches to heart health. Understanding the heart as purely physical has allowed practitioners in an industrial medical complex to efficiently treat huge volumes of unhealthy people living and operating in environments that are not conducive to their wellbeing. We thank them for their service and we grieve the reality that our culture and environment create sickness rather than health at an industrial scale. While mechanistic heart treatments may be efficient, the “effectiveness” of intensive medical interventions is under question.
Research from Harvard Medical School in the Journal of the American Heart Association, concluded that heart attack sufferers who receive treatment during periods when interventional cardiologists are away at conferences are more likely to survive than when the cardiologist are present. Non specialist were less likely to carry out intensive, high risk, low impact procedures. Cardiologist John Day in his book The Longevity Plan: Seven Life-Transforming Lessons from Ancient China enumerated a number of common but ineffective heart care interventions. Stents for example are metal tubes that physically pry open blood vessels. They are used to unclog the arteries of folks experiencing chest pain to proactively prevent heart attacks. Unfortunately, this commonly used procedure does no such thing. The heart is not a mechanical pump and arteries are not drainage pipes that need to be cleared. The heart is a complex, living organisms that responds to a number of conditions and stimuli in unique and individual ways. I appreciated The Longevity Plan because I got to watch yet another western scientist come to terms with the limitations of his paradigm. I got to watch him contend with the fact that the health of the heart corresponds directly with the health of the psycho-emotional state as well as the health of the surrounding environment. He learned the hard way that the heart cannot be viewed in isolation and viewed accurately at the same time. By taking on the life lessons of Chinese Elders, in what was coined “ Longevity Village,” he’s been able to resolve heart conditions using lifestyle changes like walking 10,000 steps a day and addressing underlying social emotional disturbances. He corrected for endemic emotional patterns in the West like loneliness and social isolation by helping groups of people heal as a collective. Dr. Day does use intensive interventions with medications or surgery, but when it’s absolutely necessary. It’s not his first action. There is a proper place and a proper time for extremity.
The Heart from the Perspective of Elders
Heart Brain Coherence
The HeartMath Institute is an organization committed to developing, collecting and assimilating data that enables people to better recognize and access their intuitive insight and heart intelligence. I find that the majority of their work is in line with and supportive of ancestral perspectives . They similarly understand the heart as the heart-brain, and see the cardiovascular system as an intrinsic cardiac nervous system. They've found that beyond its pumping ability, the heart has an intricate network of complex ganglia, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells that mirror those in the “cranial brain.” The heart-brain’s neural circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain to learn, remember, make decisions, feel and sense. They use scientific data demonstrate the intelligence of the heart.
The Heart, the Emperor both perceives and communicates masterfully. Connected directly through the vagus nerve, the heart sends more data to the brain than the brain sends to it. The heart is multilingual. It communicates emotions in pulse waves, with hormones and through electromagnetic fields that can be experienced by others several feet away from the body. Like a drum, The Emperor is always striving towards dynamic relationship.
HeartMath researchers have discerned a model of coherence to describe a state of dynamic synchronization in the body. “When functioning in a coherent mode, the heart pulls other “biological oscillators” into synchronization with its rhythms, thus leading to activation of these systems. These oscillatory systems include our heartbeat, breathing, hormones, sleep wake cycles and many other processes. Many of the processes which industrialization disrupts. When the body’s oscillatory systems are reactivated and operating at the same frequency, the autonomic nervous system shifts towards increased parasympathetic (rest & regeneration) activity decreasing “negative” emotions such as anger, anxiety and frustration. As coherence increases, the regulation of life processes in the body becomes optimized, efficient and free-flowing. Flow state is when our mind and body are one. This oneness is measurable.
Coherence is a measure of flow. It shows up graphically as a perfect sine wave. Heart Rate Variability measures the beat to beat variation of the heart independent of the heart rate itself. This graph was one of the first to demonstrate to the scientific community that our emotions are reflected in the patterns of the heart’s rhythm. Heart centered emotions like appreciate and courage help to create a flowing coherent state while the frustration anxiety and worry endemic to industrial life disrupts this flow impairing performance.
Coherence is also a testament to the power of heart centered relationships that extend beyond the body. From Dr. Day’s exploration of Chinese centenarians in Longevity Village to Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones the predominant characteristic of healthy long life isn’t vegetarianism, it was small pockets of people who were consistently in relationships with their communities and the ecosystem. The residents of “Longevity Village” had movement centered lifestyles and ate foods that directly reflected the provision of their land. All their food was local and consumed in season. Villagers slept when the sun went down and woke up when it rose in the morning. Their days were full of movement and broken up by the natural rhythms of meals enjoyed with family. As they moved into a call and response with their bioregion, their bodies better called and responded to itself in such a dynamic rhythm that their whole being merged into the music of the earth and they became one thing. Where and how we live our lives matters to the function of our heart as well as the state of our mind.
Heart Focused Breathing Technique
Because the systems in our body are interconnected. A change in one system can create a change in another. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia describes a bodies heart rate variability in synchrony with respiration and the benefits it brings. Our lungs and our hearts are in the same place after all, they should work together. We can use our breath to change the rhythmic patterns of our heart. Here’s one example of Heart Focused Breathing that can get you there.
Focus your attention on the left side of your chest.
Listen in for your heart.
Deepen your breath.
Breath in for six seconds and out for six seconds
(You may find that placing your hand over your heart helps you maintain your focus there.)
As your breath continues, imagine that its coming from your heart.
Picture yourself slowly breathing in and slowly breathing out through your heart area.
Continue this breath.
Hawthorn, The Great Ally of the Heart
Hawthorn, Crataegus is a genus of trees in the apple family. It’s leaves, berries and flowers have been used for centuries to nourish and tonify. It is a food like vitamin and mineral rich herb which gradually builds long lasting results over time with no contraindications and no overdose. Tonic herbs tone our bodies systems in the same way that exercise tones the muscles. While Hawthorn has a number of uses, we will focus on its cardiotonic abilities.
Like an apple, Hawthorne should be used on a daily basis. Used in this way it has the ability to fortify the entire cardiac system. Hawthorn can dilate coronary arteries increasing blood flow, increase metabolism in the heart muscle improving metabolic efficiency and decrease the oxygen demands of cardiac tissue allowing the heart to function optimally with less. Hawthorn intelligently modulates blood pressure. It’s been known to raise low blood and lower high blood pressure. It’s adaptive ability to read the cardiovascular system and deliver the exact medicine that’s needed helps regular users prevent heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
A celebrated herb of longevity, Hawthorn is a favorite remedy for those with aging hearts. Used over time it can turn back the biological age of the heart. One of the largest markers for wear and tear of the body overtime is systemic inflammation or “inflammaging” . In my favorite book that highlights dietary approach to heart health Put Your Heart in Your Mouth Dr. Natasha Campbell Macbride’s approach to healing the heart centers preparing and eating foods that soothe these inflammatory processes. Hawthorn is one of these foods with a rich profile of antiinflammatory flavonoids and procyanidins. The Flavonoids in Hawthorn have been found to lower the risk for both coronary artery disease and stroke.The specific flavonoid hyperoside and the procyanidin epicatechin in Hawthorn have been shown to be more effective at scavenging free radicals (unstable atoms that lead to inflammation) than established antioxidant drugs.
Hawthorn, the Rhythm Keeper
Hawthorn is best known for its ability to strengthen and tone the heart muscle increasing the effectiveness of the heart's pumping action, regulating heartbeat, correcting arrhythmias and in my experience, increasing coherence. The scientific literature provides some profound insight about Hawthorne's ability to bring arrhythmic heart beats into synchronization. Our hearts beat with a discernible rhythm when the upper and lower chambers known as the atria and ventricles respectively work together, alternately contracting and relaxing to “pump” blood. An arrhythmia is a fairly common and often benign change in this relationship that can be caused by internal factors and our emotional states. These internal factors include debility of the heart muscles, arterial damage, chronic high blood pressure amongst others. All of which can be addressed with regular Hawthorn usage.
Hawthorn has an influence on the emotional heart as well. When we understand the heart as a sensory organ responding to internal and external stimuli it's easy to understand how the activation of the sympathetic nervous system by instances of fright, shock, and stress can alter the heartbeat. When we are threatened, the heart and the other sensory organs sends a message to our brain (the amygdala followed by the hypothalamus) triggering the release of the messenger Adrenaline. Adrenaline courses through our veins influencing a chain of reactions that aid in our immediate survival. Blood shrinks back from the periphery of the body toward the larger, interior muscles and vital organs. Our breath rate increases allowing our lungs take in vital oxygen to awaken our senses and fuel our blood supply. Our liver, the organizer, calls to release our stores of glucose and fat to fuel the fire. Our heartbeat quickens increasing our blood pressure to feed the vital system in our body the nutrient enriched blood they need for peak performance. Our digestive, reproductive and urinary systems come to a halt lending their energy the other vital organs in our time of need. When the threat ends other hormonal messengers that were activated like the proinflammatory cortisol decreases and the body shifts into to the parasympathetic, rest and digest nervous system. But what happens when you’re Black? What happens when you’re a woman? An immigrant? Queer? Poor? The threat never subsides. It’s an onslaught. The sympathetic nervous system is chronically activated. Persistent adrenaline surges damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising the risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels damage the liver disrupting its ability to manage the storage of fat and sugar leading to weight gain and blood sugar chaos. The harm continues into our digestive system. Urinary system and reproductive system where we cannot even bleed in peace. We cannot rest. Ever alert. We don’t have time to digest the food we eat. No sleep. No opportunity for restoration. All for fortune? This is America. A lifestyle that results from human engineering.
And it’s heartbreaking.
Hawthorn. Can be used to speed up recovery from heart surgery. She knows how to heal a broken heart. Her bedside manner is impeccable. Generous. Her medicine is a pleasure to both give and receive. Hawthorn works on the HPA (hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands) Axis to modulate cycles of depression and anxiety. As it modulates the rhythm of our heartbeat it changes the rhythm of our breath. Hawthorn simultaneously brings us back into ourselves and brings our hearts out into the world. More resilient than it ever was. More discerning. A heart that remembers its rightful place as our leader.
I used the berries of Hawthorn. The leaves and the flowers have beautiful medicine and taking the flowers halts the rest of its reproductive process. Taking the leaves decreases the trees ability to photosynthesize. When plants offer us their sweet fruits, it’s the part of them that wants to be eaten. Wants to be used. So I harvest my haw after the frosts in late fall and early winter. I dry some for tea. I infuse some in apple cider vinegar and I tincture the rest in 100 Proof Vodka. I use the tincture of the fresh berries before I sleep at night to guide the restorative process towards my heart and in the morning to start my day. When I take my tincture, I inhale for 6 breaths and exhale for 6 breaths, breathing through my heart.
- When the Doctor is away: https://hms.harvard.edu/news/when-doctors-away
- Heart TCM Perspective: http://www.itmonline.org/5organs/heart.htm
- Coherence: https://www.heartmath.org/resources/courses/coherence/#
- Cardiovascular effect: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249900/
- Heart Age & Inflammation: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6146930/
- CardioProtective Properties: http://nnt.pharm.su.ac.th/dis/sites/default/files/answer/1343/CrataegusOxyacanthaCardioProtectiveHerb.pdf
- History: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue22/article463.html?ts=1572550515&signature=dcdabb7f6d2486cca377f5298eb9d94c
- Bioflavonoids & Heart Disease: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4130174/
- Heart Stents: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/upshot/heart-stents-are-useless-for-most-stable-patients-theyre-still-widely-used.html & http://www.softpanorama.org/Skeptics/Health/Heart_diseases/Arteriosclerosis/Angioplasty/Abuse_of_cardiatic_stents/index.shtml
- Sympathetic Stress Response: