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Matters of the Heart: Cultivating Heart-Healthy Practices

The Heart - physically, emotionally, and spiritually – is at the center of our lives. In growing embryos, the heart forms and starts beating before the brain even develops. In addition to serving the vital function of pumping oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood throughout our body, the heart is also responsible for more subtle, energetic activities.



The energetic heart, according to the Heart Math Institute, generates a powerful electromagnetic field that is 60 times greater than the amplitude of brain waves. The heart’s field can be detected and measured several feet away from the person’s body, and communicates with that of other people, making this energetic field a major factor in human connection. Isn’t that incredible?


Modern Research, Ancient Wisdom

For centuries, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has known what modern research can now prove. Rollin McCraty’s research in The Energetic Heart: Bioelectromagnetic Communication Within and Between People states that the heart has its own intelligence, along with sophisticated functions such as the ability to remember, learn, and make independent decisions.


In TCM, the Mind or Spirit (Shen) resides in the Heart and corresponds to consciousness, intelligence, and creative functions. Esoterically, the Heart is responsible for the Light that shines from behind a person’s eyes, our heart-knowing or intuition, and the ability to communicate love and care for the world and other people. In the Heart also resides our ability to transform spiritually and physically.


A Sobering Statistic & Risk Factors

The CDC reveals a sobering statistic: heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, for both men and women. An estimated 1 in 4 people, 25% of the population, die of heart disease.


Hypertension, high cholesterol, and smoking increase the risk for heart attacks, and other medical conditions and lifestyle choices such as diabetes, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol use, and a diet rich in processed foods, dairy, and animal products may also put you at risk.


But, what about emotions? Can our emotional life impact our heart health? If positive, expansive emotions like gratitude, connection, joy and love benefit our heart health, we understand that prolonged, repetitive states of stress, anger, worry, resentment and repression can also put us at risk for heart imbalances.


Caring for the Heart

How can we live a more heart-centered life that tends to the matters of our heart – physically, emotionally and spiritually?



HEART-HEALTHY FOODS

The simplest heart-centered practice you can cultivate is to increase your sources of plant-based foods, and reduce your intake of animal products (dairy, red meats, butter, eggs) and processed foods. Vegetable foods, namely land and sea vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, are free of cholesterol and are generally low in saturated fats. Also, plant fibers, particularly those found in unprocessed grains, rye, quinoa, amaranth, and oats, are widely known to help reduce fat in the blood and prevent hardening of the arteries.


HEART-HEALTHY FATS

Omega-3 fatty acids clean the circulatory system of cholesterol and fat deposits. EPA and DHA, two examples of omega-3 fatty acids, support vascular and nerve renewal, and are essential to brain development and learning ability. Sources of Omega-3s include flax seed, chia, hemp seed, pumpkin seed, soybean, walnuts, dark leafy vegetables and fish, specifically salmon, mackerel, sardine, rainbow trout, herring, anchovy, and tuna. Also, the milk and meat of free-range cows and that of other wild herbivorous animals has been noted to contain higher quantities of Omega-3s than those found in feedlot animals.


REGULAR EXERCISE

The heart is a muscle requiring movement to keep it strong and supple. Daily cardiovascular activity such as walking, running, dancing, yoga, cycling, swimming and other forms of activity stimulate the heart and lungs, and improve blood circulation. Schedule in your exercise, start slow, and work up to daily sweat-producing activity, ideally for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Make sure to consult your primary physician before making any changes to your exercise routine, and take your risk factors into account – age, physical condition, and any pre-existing illnesses, especially heart and lung issues – when beginning any new exercise program.


HEART-CENTERD HERBS*

Adding cardiotonic herbs to your regimen can support your heart-health by leaps and bounds. If you are currently taking medication, please consult your doctor before trying any herbal remedy, as many herbs, particularly those affecting the heart, thin and quicken the blood, enhancing the function of pharmaceutical drugs. These three herbs are a small sampling of the vast  Chinese and Western pharmacopeias dedicated to the heart and the cardiovascular system:


Hawthorn Berry, or Shan Zha, is well known in the Chinese and Western pharmacopeias as a cardiotonic, increasing the contractility of the heart, reducing blood pressure and emulsifying fats, decreasing serum cholesterol (blood fat). Spiritually, hawthorn focuses on opening the heart and accepting unconditional love in ways that feel safe. 


Gynostemma, or Jiao Gu Lan, is an adaptogen that protects the body from stress, increases vitality, and  boosts stamina. Gynostemma helps maintain healthy blood pressure levels by relaxing the coronary arteries through the release of nitric oxide. Gynostemma has long been touted as an herb for longevity due to its cardioprotective and cardiotonic properties.


Mimosa, or He Huan Hua (flower) & He Huan Pi (bark), focus less on the physical heart and more on the spiritual heart. Both the flower and bark of the Albizzia Julibrissin tree are used to calm the heart-mind and treat sadness, grief and heartbreak. Central nervous system sedators, the Chinese name for the Mimosa pair affectionately translate as “collective happiness flower/bark”.


*Consult your primary care physician before adding any herbs or supplements to your diet, especially if your have a cardiovascular condition or are currently taking medications.


STRENGTHENING THE HEART

Strengthen your heart-mind through contemplative, spiritual practices such as mindfulness, gratitude, meditation, prayer, yoga, qi-gong, tai-chi, affirmations, and art-making. Feed your heart with activities you love and that help you connect to yourself, those around you, nature, and a higher Source.


EMPTYING THE HEART

Many spiritual traditions speak of emptying the heart or the mind as a central practice for stillness and self-cultivation. Why? Physically, the heart is a hollow muscle and depends on emptiness to function, otherwise we develop conditions like arteriosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) or atherosclerosis (blocking of arteries due to plaque). Spiritually, we can be more open to enjoying states of peace, joy, gratitude and love when we learn to acknowledge and release our anger, resentment, judgment, and other toxic emotions. For practices on regulating emotional states compassionately, consider taking up mindfulness meditation.


Our hearts are dynamic, sensitive organs that require our care, love, and attention to keep them healthy and vibrant. Cultivate practices and habits that prioritize your heart, and your whole body-mind-spirit will thank you for it.


Sources:

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov

The HeartMath Institute, www.heartmath.org

Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford

Staying Healthy with the Seasons by Elson M. Haas, M.D.

Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology by John K. Chen and Tina T. Chen

 ANDREA PENAGOS L.Ac. 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY KRISTINE LO