heart-and-handReversing heart disease is a reality for many these days, and preventing it an attainable goal for millions more. It doesn’t simply take a pill or two from your doctor. It doesn’t happen solely by watching the foods you eat. Exercising alone isn’t enough, and there is no magic supplement. But through the advances in today’s medicine and an integrative approach, doctors and health care practitioners are helping their patients reverse and prevent heart disease in greater numbers than ever before.

The credit, however, goes to those consumers who are taking their health into their own hands and proactively implementing the necessary changes to live healthier lifestyles. These consumers are not solely depending on their doctors to ‘fix’ them; they are helping their doctors to help themselves.

But we still have a long way to go, because cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer in the United States today accounting for more deaths than all forms of cancer combined.1 “Most patients hospitalized with heart disease show a similar nutritional profile,” states renowned heart surgeon and integrative doctor, Steven Gundry, MD, “they’re overfed but undernourished, with remarkably low levels of quality protein and vitamins and minerals revealed in their blood work.”

In his new book, The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up: A Breakthrough Medical Plan to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Steven Masley, MD, states that most physicians have become accustomed to treating “so-called” high cholesterol levels, which is understandable as years ago, abnormal cholesterol profiles were deemed the leading cause of heart attack and strokes. Today, however, Dr. Masley states that the recent epidemic of elevated blood sugar levels, low fitness, expanding waistlines, and obesity (collectively called the metabolic syndrome) has become the new number one cause.

Thus to successfully combat heart disease, both patients and doctors need to take an integrative approach.

What is an integrative approach?

Integrative medicine (also called functional medicine) is a healing-oriented practice that takes into account the whole person and all aspects of an individual’s lifestyle. With heart health, it includes a doctor’s care to first help prevent disease, which is now more effective than ever thanks to advanced diagnostic testing (see page 20); analyzing the cause of your heart conditions, not merely treating the symptoms; embracing healthy nutrition that is right for you (which may mean drastic changes!); getting proper exercise, managing your stress, and replenishing nutrient deficiencies.

“Instead of a diagnosis of hypertension,” says Dr. Masley, “I would likely call it: ‘not enough exercise, not enough fruits and vegetables in your diet, high emotional stress, and excessive body fat.’” He goes on to say that his treatment plan would not be a prescription drug for blood pressure, but rather to view the whole matrix of health issues, to optimize a new lifestyle plan with customized tools for individual success, and to correct the underlying cause of the blood pressure once and for all.

One of the first pioneers in integrative heart health was Dean Ornish, MD. In his 30 + years of work, Dr. Ornish was the first clinician to offer documented proof that heart disease can be halted, or even reversed, simply by changing your lifestyle. His internationally acclaimed study showed that participants reduced or discontinued medications; their chest pain diminished or disappeared; they felt more energetic, happy, and calm; they lost weight while eating more; and blockages in coronary arteries were actually reduced.

The study indicates that, with significant lifestyle changes, blood flow to the heart and its ability to pump normally improve in less than a month, and the frequency of chest pains can fall by 90% in that time. “Within a year on our program, even severely blocked arteries in the heart became less blocked, and there was even more reversal after five years.” says Ornish. “That’s compared with the natural history in other patients in our study, in which the heart just got worse and worse.”

Since January 2011, after 16 years of extensive review, Medicare has been covering Dr. Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease under a new benefit category called “intensive cardiac rehabilitation.” Medicare will reimburse certified providers of the 72-hour training program for patients who have coronary heart disease. Many private insurance companies also cover this program, reimbursing for patients who have coronary heart disease and for patients who simply have risk factors.

Dr. Ornish’s program seems simple; it’s based on a low-fat vegetarian diet, exercise, regular yoga, meditation, and stress reduction. Yet his proven model has paved the way for many others. “Dean Ornish was one of my mentors,” states Dr. Masley. “We were the first two people publishing data to show that you can shrink atrial growth through diet and lifestyle changes.” Masley’s new book follows the same basic principles of diet, exercise, and stress management, but also incorporates advances in diagnostic testing, measured fitness programs, state-of-the-art heart nutrients and a broader nutritional plan. “I believe that you can add more healthy protein and fats (for greater patient compliance) and still achieve success.”

health-booksExercise your brain for your heart.

Learning about advances in heart health takes two things: resources and desire. Fortunately, we live in a community with hospitals, qualified health care practitioners, and even health food stores which all embrace patient education. Each holds free lectures, presentations and Q&A sessions throughout the year; taking advantage of these resources is up to you.

February is Heart Health Month and Desert Regional Medical Center will be holding their annual “Affair of the Heart” on February 14 featuring Dr. Steven Gundry, as well as, Mellanie True Hills, author of the multiple award-winning book A Woman’s Guide to Saving Her Own Life: The HEART Program for Health & Longevity. Hills is also a heart disease survivor and founder of StopAfib.org, and she will present with Desert Regional’s Hetal Bhakta, MD.

Eisenhower will hold a lecture on lowering your blood pressure with the DASH Diet on January 13, and their annual Community Heart Conference takes place on February 1. Both are free and open to the public (see Events for more information).

Our Valley naturopathic clinics, including Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert and the Live Well Clinic in La Quinta also hold educational presentations on natural health and prevention, so visit their websites for topics and schedules.

You can also pick up a book from leaders in the field. We’ve mentioned The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up by Dr. Masley which is out February 4, 2014 and will be followed by a PBS special airing nationally in the first two weeks of March. Dr. Ornish’s latest book is The Spectrum which is available now, as is Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution. Their messages are the same: preventing and reversing heart disease are possible. Each will offer a slightly different integrative health plan. Which one is the best for you? Quite simply, the one you will follow.

Implementing a new plan must be done under the care of a medical professional. With your education in hand, ask questions and follow the path that is right for you. If your doctor is not one to embrace integrative heart health, build your heart health team to include those who do, such as a registered dietitian to help with nutrition; a naturopathic doctor for prevention and complementary modalities; a massage therapist to help manage stress; a yoga instructor who can encourage a regular practice; or a fitness trainer to create a program that will keep you motivated and moving forward in the right direction. Many of these services are inexpensively offered – and even free – at your local community or senior center, and practicing at home is always an option.

Your health is in your hands. This year, make it a priority in your life and take the necessary steps to prevent heart disease or to use the tools available today to turn your heart health around.

Reference: 1) American Heart Association

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