Holistic at heart
Sky news ran with a startling story last month about the state of British hearts. According to their revelations, we are all at risk of cardiovascular disease even though we may exercise, have low cholesterol, eat a healthy diet and abstain from smoking. One could also argue that, although we may take these and other health precautions on a daily basis, we are all at risk of getting run over by a bus.
However, if the figures are correct – that almost 70,000 adults die of heart attacks each year, 10,000 of those working-age (around 200 a week) – they are indeed quite shocking. It makes you think – is medicine missing the mark when it comes to cardiovascular disease, in some way? Are there any other ‘risk factors’ that are being overlooked?
I don’t think any doctor or natural health practitioner would argue that eating a low-salt, low-trans fats diet, doing moderate amounts of exercise, monitoring your cholesterol and blood pressure, and avoiding cigarettes are not essential to good heart health. However, for some people, it may be necessary to look beyond these basic measures and look at the bigger picture of their overall health.
One lesser known evil where our blood vessels are concerned is the presence of other types of inflammatory diseases. Diabetes and obesity are the obvious ones but also arthritis, colitis and even depression result in the presence of inflammatory markers in the blood which can predispose the body to further illness. Many diseases have inflammation at their root and heart disease is no exception.
The interesting part is that, although we associate the term ‘inflammation’ with physical signs like redness and swelling, there are in fact many components of everyday life that can be classed as ‘inflammatory’. Anxiety, poor sleep, rushed mealtimes, arguments… these all cause stress and result in actual physical inflammation in the body, perhaps as much as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet. Likewise, many activities, foods and herbs can be classed as anti-inflammatory.
Where herbs are concerned, one the most important groups of compounds are the flavonoids. The word ‘flavonoid’ is derived from the Latin ‘flavus’ meaning yellow, and these pigmented compounds are responsible for giving fruit and veg their colour. They are widely available in herbs, especially in the leaves where their antioxidant activity is said to protect the plant from ultraviolet radiation. In humans, they have been shown to produce a number of anti-inflammatory effects on the small capillaries of the body, known as the ‘microvasculature’.
The heart, the arteries and veins make up the largest proportion of the circulatory system and are the main targets of most modern treatments in terms of both drugs and surgical intervention. But from the point of view of our cells, blood flow is not through vessels at all – oxygen and nutrients diffuse through thin capillary walls and run through channels in the extracellular matrix, the jelly-like fluid in which all cells are suspended. The health of the microvasculature is therefore arguably the most important in terms of oxygen and nutrient supply to cells.
Flavonoids are considered to make these small capillaries stronger and less permeable. Several double blind, placebo-controlled trials have shown that a specific flavonoid combination improves venous tone in normal volunteers, enhances microcirculation in patients with venous insufficiency, and assists in healing of venous ulcers. The formulations used in these studies would not be available from real food or herbs, but population-based studies have suggested that having a high flavonoid diet may lower your risk of heart disease.
The big picture
The circulatory system supplies every cell, tissue and organ in the body with oxygen and nutrients, eliminates waste products and has a large part to play in immunity by way of the lymphatic system – it is therefore inherently tied to all other organ systems. In order to focus on primary prevention of circulatory diseases, a cohesive, holistic strategy needs to be employed.
Herbal medicine, like any complementary approach to medicine – ie. combined with regular visits to the GP to monitor cardiovascular risk factors – enjoys the benefit of being able to assess the individual patient and their medical history in depth, identify potential signs of poor cardiovascular health and address them early on and from all angles. The population-based, statistical medicine used in the NHS is effective for treating large numbers of people on a daily basis, but it may not suit every one of those people equally. Herbs are complex, safe, un-statistical medicines that can be tailor-made to individuals to produce immeasurably positive results in surprisingly little time.
This month I plan to discuss Hawthorn, a key cardiovascular herb that has potent anti-inflammatory properties and contains a specific class of flavonoids that have been very well researched. I will also be sharing tips for good heart health via Facebook and Twitter. If you have any specific queries about herbal medicine for cardiovascular disease, or wish to make an appointment, please comment below or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be in practice as of January 2016.