The Heart is many things, but it is certainly not just a pump. We moderns have seemingly lost our faith in the heart. Before the Common Era, the heart was the seat of the emotions and the soul. It was even thought in certain cultures to be where we housed our minds.
That is simply not the case today. Science in its grand quest to know all the intricacies of the universe found the heart to be nothing more than a pump in relation to the rest of the anatomy and believed the matter closed textbook style.
Yet as happens so often, those ideas that preceded the scientific era are proving closer to the mark than we ever anticipated.
Table of Contents
- 1 Western view of the Heart
- 2 Heart Intelligence
- 3 A Heart of Hormones
- 4 Heart Herbs
- 5 Factors that Make the Heart Healthier
- 6 The Seat of Us
- 7 Resources
Western view of the Heart
Hypertension is the word used to describe a state of continued high blood pressure in the body.
High blood pressure is a normal part of existence. When we exert ourselves physically, our heart beats faster to move more red blood cells to the bodies cells to deliver oxygen and remove the extra waste that results from the higher work capacity, creating higher blood pressure in the body. A high cardiac output is a normal state, and the body can adapt to these conditions to become ever more efficient in them. One way is from the heart becoming a stronger, more toned organ.
There are three separate factors that affect our blood pressure.
High blood pressure is actually necessary for sustained physical activity. It should be mentioned that our cardiac output is highly subjective though as any one person will be able to sustain higher or lower levels than others for differing amounts of time periods1. Training the cardiac system to be able to hold more variability for differing amounts of time is essential to a healthy heart system and came naturally when humans existed in environments in a more harmonic state with the world.
Blood volume is the second-way blood pressure raises1. The addition of more liquids (such as water) to a contained system is simple plumbing 101. Pressure builds until released, hopefully in a controlled fashion.
Salt plays a particularly important role here. Reducing high blood volumes is one reason those experiencing hypertension are told to avoid ingesting too much salt as these hydrophilic molecules pull the water out of the cells and increase blood pressure to an already highly taxed environment1.
Coronary Artery Disease
Finally, the most harmful and most common way to achieve a state of hypertension is through resistance1. This resistance is the primary cause of heart attack and strokes. It also happens to be the leading cause of death in the United States far surpassing all other causes³.
Increased resistance in flow rate can be achieved through the breaking down of flexibility in the artery walls. This is largely due to the inability to repair collagen4. Youthfulness (age) and/or the diet provide the means to process and utilize collagen from the foods we consume. High collagen levels allow for bendy and stretchy arteries that respond to the hearts beat and the blood and allow much better operating conditions when we need it the most4.
When we become depleted of this essential fiber of the body, our arteries and veins begin to lose their elasticity and potential to work with the heart. They become crusty and stiff, allowing for easy breaks to form4.
The electric potential of blood cells and the arterial wall are the opposite of each other. This facilitates streamlined movement in the system. A tear in the wall opens the blood to the collagen layer beneath, which is the same potential as the blood cells. This attracts the blood, creating a clot that is eventually covered by calcium and LDL cholesterol4. This cholesterol is an essential mechanism of allowing the wall to repair while at the same time allowing the smooth movement of blood cells to continue4. For more on cholesterol, you can read this article.
When not enough collagen is being created to outpace overall body wear and tear, the arterial wall will not necessarily be repaired in quick fashion. This weak point can enlarge, attracting more cholesterol to allow the now diminishing vessel to continue to function, though at a reduced capacity4.
The mechanism by which enlargement takes place is by the ‘clot’ or ‘patch’ rupturing, necessitating blood platelets to gather and form a blood clot and eventually heals into the patch already there. If the clot breaks off though, it has the potential to clog arteries across the body but with especially deadly significance in the heart and brain, causing what is known as a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or a cerebrovascular accident (stroke)4.
To repair collagen, we require vitamin C as a catalyst. Without it, the bones, skin, blood vessels and cartilage cannot heal properly. As one of the few animals that cannot synthesize it ourselves, consumption of high vitamin C sources is essential4.
One of the sure signs of the large incidence of heart disease can be traced back to the following fact: Wild plants provide prodigious amounts of Vitamin C in comparison to that produced by those plants we have domesticated through our farming practices. We are simply not getting enough Vitamin C in the diet as compared to those that consume wild plants on a daily basis.
The other state of resistance involves blood viscosity1. Thick blood can make it harder for your heart to push it through the arteries. That is one reason hydration is so key to health. A big part of it has to do with keeping your blood thin enough to efficiently deliver oxygen and transport waste while allowing the heart to work at a much lower threshold.
Our society tends to the dehydration side of things. This is is particularly the case of those taking prescription medications. Learning proper hydration will not only help any long-standing heart issues but will also work to improve other areas of weakness or excess in the body.
Research has been shedding light on the fact that the brain is not the prime director of the body as we are all taught in school. This is an important perception shift for those raised in the West. The mind is traditionally taught to come from the brains incredibly powerful processing centers. Yet, while the neurons of the brain play a significant role in shaping our mind, it is still a reductionist view of how the body actually works5.
What has been found is that the heart actually takes the lead in many of our decision-making processes. What is not well-known is the large amounts of neurons found throughout the body but especially in our organ networks. The heart itself has some 40,000 neurons5.
These are called sensory neurons because they monitor circulating hormones and neurochemicals and monitor the volume, pressure, and flow of the blood. The heart then responds to this information and sends signals to the brain through the brain stem which regulates many of the autonomic functions of the body. This heart information is used by the medulla to modulate many different functions in the body, but some of it is passed on up to the higher cognitive areas of the brain and thus enters our conscious awareness5.
40,000 neurons may not seem like much compared to the brain’s vast storehouse of neurons, but even that small amount is enough to influence and guide the rest of the system heavily. Couple those neurons with self-produced neurochemicals, protein structures, and support cells and you get an intrinsic neural network that qualifies the heart as a ‘little brain’ in itself5.
This ‘little brain’ can operate without input from the brain and is the reason heart transplants are viable. To exchange hearts, surgeons must operate on the vagus nerve and the nerves leading from the heart to the brain along the spinal cord. These take time to reconnect fully yet the heart functions perfectly fine before it’s done because of its build-in nervous system5.
The information the heart sends to the brain could be maybe described better as ‘feelings.’ It even flows along the same pathways that the pain signals do (perhaps why love can hurt so much). That means that when we can harmonize our feelings with the actions of the mind (commonly called thoughts), we are cultivating coherence between the autonomic and somatic nervous systems5.
The factor of coherence in establishing a balanced flow in the systems of the body, mind, and spirit cannot be downplayed.
Coherence can be thought of as the norm that the human being should be operating out of. With it, comes efficiency in every system and the cascading benefits that result.
Entropy is king in this universe yet life seems to build up rather than tear down (though this is deceptive and wrong).
From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat6.
High coherence, a state that seems to come naturally to all life on this earth (except for those that appear to have lost their natural affiliation with it, i.e. Homo sapiens in their modern form) is the greatest expression of life in its capacity of conserving energy. When we are not in a healthy state of coherence, we lose a lot of energy to the environment, whether that be mental (like mental instabilities), physical (like heat or sickness), or emotional (like allowing emotional extremes to take over).
In other words, our state of entropy is not up to par with our potential.
Our perception of the outside world is not just determined by outside stimulation as was previously believe. In actuality, our perception is sourced from the external world and our internal multi-systematic world and its many feedback cycles. This dynamic is all about balance, reaction, and counter-reaction.5
The heart has been found to be the most critical producer of ‘rhythmic information patterns’ in a person5.
This means the heart is also the fastest way to achieve coherence5. This is easily seen in the act of meditation where breath control is usually vitally important to the practice. For those that have made a habit of meditation, coherence within is the goal and the benefits of meditation flow forth from achieving greater and greater levels of coherence.
The Heartmath Institute has done much of the current groundbreaking research on the heart and is where much of this information comes from5. They have also built some tools that provide direct bio-feedback from the heart to practice the building of coherence in the body. I have found it to be very similar to meditation and many have found it to be highly effective.
A Heart of Hormones
It is not commonly known that the heart produces hormones but it does, three distinct and important ones to be exact. These are:
- Atrial Natriuretic Factor (ANF)
- Brain Natriuretic Factor (BNF) – first discovered in the brain
- Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide (CGRP)
The big one is ANF. It is a powerful chemical messenger that bears heavily on our total health. Its functions include the like of regulating blood pressure, body-fluid retention, smooth-muscle states, and electrolyte homeostasis.
Interestingly enough, the happier people are, the more the heart secretes this hormone. Its effects on the body reverse catabolic effects already in play in the body that are, for example, caused by such things as high cortisol levels. It has the power to inactivate the HSD-1 enzyme that potentiates stress-release from adipose cells and can ramp down the production of cortisol in the adrenals4.
Another way to release this hormone is through physical movement7. It is probably highly relevant that a connection exists between physically trained individuals, personal happiness and the release of this hormone from the heart.
This may also explain why happy people are usually healthier than the rest of the population.
Testosterones Role in Heart Health
Free testosterone in the blood corresponds directly to heart health. The less of it in the blood, the higher the cardio risk factors become. This list of the effects of low free testosterone’s effects on the Heart system comes directly from Stephen Harrod Buhners book, Vital Man4.
- Cholesterol and triglyceride levels rise
- Coronary and other major arteries constrict
- Blood pressure rises
- Insulin levels increase
- Abdominal fat and waist-to-hip ratio increases
- Lipoprotein A levels increase
- Fibrogenin levels rise
- LDL levels rise
- HDL levels decrease
- HGH output decreases
- Energy levels decrease (leading to less physical exercise)
All these factors play a part in optimal heart health. This is happening in both men AND women. Women should be aware that just because they need much lower levels of testosterone does not mean they can ignore this vital hormone.
This information implies that correcting hormonal imbalance is an essential step in the process of fulfilling the heart’s destiny. A happy heart leads to coherence with all the other organs of the body including the brain.
Hormonal herbs that help with testosterone levels include but are not limited to:
Normally in these articles, we supply a list of herbs that are good for whatever particular function is being discussed. But Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha) is such a powerful heart tonic in itself that I think it must have its own section4.
Hawthorn is a member of the Rosaceae (rose) family, a European symbol of love. It has long been used in the Western tradition for approximately 2,000 years if not probably longer. The Chinese picked it up around 700 years ago4. The many benefits were clear to our ancestors and studies have born those traditions out to be true.
Hawthorn is an amphoteric2. That means it normalizes heart function. It can be considered a tonic for the heart because of how effective it is.
Hawthorn helps slow the heart down and even helps create stronger more powerful beats. Continued use tones the heart itself and the vessel walls4.
It does this primarily through its Procyanidins which work to “protect collagen fibers from damage, increase their elasticity, and reinforce the crosslinking of collagen fibers to make them stronger and make the blood vessels less prone to cracking.” They also promote the utilization of vitamin C, effectively amplifying its use by the body in healing collagen4.
This herb also makes the heart require less oxygen itself while at the same time promoting circulation of the blood by the heart2.
It works so well at increasing the prowess of the heart that caution must be taken when using it with heart medication as it has the potential to effectively increase the potency of the medication2.
Other Heart Herbs
If we are looking for healthy herbal sources of Vitamin C, berries tend to be really good for this. Sea Buckthorn Berry stands out from other high vitamin C foods while also being an excellent source of omega fats.
Rose Hips are an outstanding source of natural Vitamin C and help make any tea combination taste better. Roses have always been used traditionally used for matters of the heart in a medicinal way. We still use red roses to show others our romantic interest in them which is a holdover from these practices.
Another berry that is an outstanding Heart herb is Schisandra. The quality redness of the berry is a sure sign that it works to keep the blood healthy (through assisting the body with detoxification) among the other Heart promoting effects it engenders.
- Cactus, or Celanicerus grandiflorus
If taking prescription heart medications, please advise with a doctor before trying these natural remedies out as some of them have been known to interact with the drug warfarin.
Factors that Make the Heart Healthier
These are just a few factors that will help contribute to making the heart better at helping it’s owner:
- Working out/physical movement
- Spending time in the outdoors
- Healthy sex
- Some form of counseling to let go of things
- Adequate collagen production by the body
- Cultivating coherence between the brain, heart and other organs
- Eliminating added sugars from the diet
Factors that Make the Heart more Full
- Being gracious towards others
- Meditating on the Heart
- Taking your pulse daily or multiple times a day
- Spending time in deep nature
- Doing things you enjoy
- Platonic touching (ex. hugs)
- Cultivating powerful friendships
- Dealing with stuck emotional issues
- Learning to let go
The Seat of Us
What makes us, us? There is endless deliberation, thought and belief on this most human of questions, so I will very deliberately avoid that part of the equation and look at another aspect of the question.
When someone points to themselves or to another as the whole person in our society, they point to the area of the heart. There is no logical reason why this is the case. We don’t point to the head (which is now commonly assumed to be the seat of thought) or to a random leg as indicative of us or another. The heart is also not the center of us, at least gravitational. So why is it that we point there?
One possible hypothesis. All emotions and the actions they promote can be broken down to just two: fear and love. For the most part, everything we do in life is to get away from the one and closer to the other. It makes our human world turn.
Those that talk about love and have felt its powerful inner workings feel it physically comes from the heart. An aching that makes sense in light of the heart/brain communications already discussed taking place all the time.
My hypothesis involves some New-Agey kind of thinking (which I, for the most part, tend to disagree with). This is that everything actually did come about from an act of love by some thing or some action we cannot comprehend, including our individual selfness.
If this is indeed the case, then it only makes logical sense that the wellspring of love we feel should also be regarded as the seat of us.
The heart of the matter is that this organ is vastly more important than we could have ever guessed at. Perhaps Confucius summed it up best on how we should incorporate this fact oh so long ago:
Wherever you go, go with all your heart.
(4) Vital Man: Natural Health Care for Men at Midlife. Stephen Harrod Buhner