In recognition of National Heart Month, Dr. Vincent Leonti of Princeton Integrative Health shares his personal story and offers suggestions on living a truly heart-healthy life. A former marathon runner, Dr. Leonti considered himself the “picture of heart health” until he experienced chest pain during a routine run. He then learned he had an 80 percent blockage in one coronary artery and a 70 percent blockage in another.
Every February, during National Heart Month, we are reminded to eat heart-healthy foods, get more exercise, maintain a healthy weight, know our numbers, lower our blood pressure, quit smoking, drink less alcohol, and learn to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and know how to respond. We are even encouraged to wear red to raise awareness for women and heart disease. There is no question that the American Heart Association is doing a commendable job educating the public about the prevention, detection and treatment of the number one killer of both men and women in this country.
Yet, somehow, the bigger picture is not being as clearly articulated as it could be, as evidenced by the number of people who believe that lowering their cholesterol is the beginning and end of the story. Of further concern is the notion that taking a statin, or cholesterol-lowering drug, is all the protection you ever need.
Your heart deserves better. And it has its own story to tell, so listen up: You are more than your numbers, as important as they may be. The way you live your life—the way you love, spend your free time, form connections, seek spirituality and purpose, handle adversity, and manage stress—these all have a very real effect on your heart.
Consider that Broken Heart Syndrome is acknowledged as a true, though temporary, medical condition. The loss of a loved one or an extremely stressful situation can cause such physical symptoms as chest pain. This is due to a disruption in your heart’s normal function, which can become overwhelmed by a surge in stress hormones. You can, literally, die of a broken heart.
While that may be a dramatic and rare example of the mind-body connection, its message is clear: Your heart needs to be protected from the inside out. We now know that a daily meditation practice can lower your blood pressure, just as a statin can lower your total cholesterol. A holistic approach to heart health doesn’t exclude conventional medical protocols, when appropriate; it simply favors lifestyle change to medication whenever possible.
Heart Health: Cholesterol Is Not the Whole Story.
You have probably known or heard of someone who was the “picture of heart health” before he or she had a heart attack or other cardiovascular event. I, Dr. Vinny, was a marathon runner at one time. I thought that I was living a healthy life, until one day I experienced chest pain during a routine run. I was shocked to learn that I had an 80 percent blockage in one coronary artery and a 70 percent blockage in another.
Perhaps I had a genetic predisposition since my dad had his first heart attack at age 47, but he was also 60 pounds overweight and smoked a pack of Lucky Strikes a day. But my cholesterol was “normal”—good, in fact. And I was a runner and watched what I ate, though I now know that what I thought was a healthy diet was actually a contributing factor to firing up that genetic predisposition.
Many of us believe that our risk for heart disease is low because our total cholesterol is within normal range. But guess what? Some studies have shown that 80 percent of people who have heart attacks have the same total cholesterol as people who never have a heart attack. This doesn’t mean you should run out and order a bacon double cheeseburger. Your diet is still important. Cholesterol is still a critical indicator of heart disease. You simply can’t take your heart health for granted, no matter how low your LDL.
Pay Attention to Your Heart. It Could Be Telling You Something.
Think of your relationship with your heart the same way you might a loved one. If you stop listening, nurturing, protecting and respecting your heart, you might miss the subtle clues that trouble is brewing. Be grateful that your cholesterol is low, or that you are able to stop taking medications. Just don’t be complacent.
Remember, there are so many causes of cardiovascular disease. Your genetics. Your lifestyle. Your exposure to toxins and other environmental factors. And there are just as many ways to keep your heart healthy. Here are some of our favorites:
- Know your numbers. This is still the best place to start any journey toward optimal health. Critical health markers begin with blood pressure, blood cholesterol, body mass index (BMI), and blood sugar, but we recommend more advanced testing as well.
- Talk to your doctor about advanced cardiovascular testing. To truly understand your cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, you can request an advanced lipid panel or other specialized test. Boston Heart Diagnostics has developed a series of blood tests–for lipids, inflammation, metabolics and genetics–that help us better understand a person's individual risk of disease.
- Make lifestyle changes. Eat whole foods, get outside and take a walk, keep a gratitude journal, limit your exposure to toxins.
- Volunteer at an organization whose mission is meaningful to you.
- Take a deep breath when you feel stressed. A simple breathing exercise can work wonders on reducing your body’s response to stress.
- Stay connected with others. When people come together to walk, cook, socialize, volunteer, and take part in other healthy endeavors, it creates a community, and that is good for the heart and soul.
- Explore the underlying causes of disease and dysfunction. Don’t just manage your symptoms; pay attention to what they are telling you. Understand their root causes.
Healthy people have heart attacks too, even those taking statins. As functional medicine practitioners, we understand that many factors make up a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. And this is why we never stop digging deeper to uncover the causes—from inflammation, to environmental toxins, to stress, to family history.
Making positive, healthy lifestyle choices, particularly involving better nutrition, more physical activity and less stress, will improve anyone’s health.
FIND OUT MORE. JOIN US FOR A FREE WORKSHOP
If you are looking for testing, guidance and support on your health journey, join us at one of our free community health workshops: “Advanced Prevention for Cardiovascular Disease.” For dates and to register, please visit our website at www.princetonih.com/events.
To schedule a consultation, call 609.512.1468.
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