In this, to-be-continued edition, I wanted to follow-up on the discussion of last week where I explained that conventional thinking on the cause of heart disease is being challenged. In case you missed, everyone still agrees that ischemia (a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart) is the cause of heart attack. What is being called into question is mechanism that the build-up of cholesterol in the coronary arteries is the major cause of this ischemia. The new research is showing that this is merely a symptom and the real cause has to do with the nervous system; in particular a lack of nerve flow from the Vagus nerve.
The Vagus nerve is considered the major parasympathetic nerve in the body that regulates the function of most every major organ in the body. Your nervous system is broken into two parts – the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. This sympathetic is more commonly considered your fight-flight nervous system that speeds up your heart and lungs as well as other organ function for survival needs. The parasympathetic does the opposite and serves to slow down the heart and lungs. It’s easiest to think of the sympathetic as the gas and the parasympathetic as the brakes. Different lifestyle factors affect the “tone” of the nervous system and shift us into fight-flight mode just like changing the tuning of a guitar. These factors are the standard poor habits including chronic stress, lack of sleep, sugar, trans-fats, smoking, and processed grains. When we stay in a revved-up or sympathetic state, adrenaline levels go up and the metabolism of the heart muscle shifts from fat fuel sources to sugar metabolism. This will result in a dramatic increase in lactic acid production in the muscle cells of the heart. This creates an acidosis in the muscle that prevents calcium from entering into the cells effectively, thereby making the heart muscle cells less able to contract. These cells begin to swell and malfunction which is the basic mechanism of ischemia to the heart cells or more commonly, “heart attack.”
Your take-home on this should be that there is much more to heart disease than plaque build-up of the coronary arteries. Cholesterol is an effect, not a cause! When all we do to prevent heart disease is take drugs to lower cholesterol, the result is death from heart attack with better looking cholesterol numbers. What we should be doing is engaging in stress-reducing activity such as exercise and meditation, embracing loving relationships, increasing the fruits and vegetables in our diet, drinking water in place of sugar drinks, making adequate sleep a priority, and taking time to be grateful for what we have rather than stressing over what we don’t have. These are the very activities that move us out of fight-flight and into a more parasympathetic state that has been proven to be healing to the heart (and also cholesterol). So if you’re still looking to make meaningful lifestyle changes, there are about seven options for you to choose from.