The Human Heart
What would be your choice for the most wonderful machine in the world? An intercontinental jet? The computer? A MRI scanner? I’d plump for the human heart.
Think of it: 100,000 times a day, for a hundred years or more – should we live that long – our hearts just keep beating away, adjusting with infinite subtlety to the changing demands of exertion and age.
But a machine? Yes, of course, the heart is an organ, but it is also a pump, the driving force that circulates 2500 to 5000 gallons of blood a day through 60,000 miles of blood vessels, carrying life-giving oxygen and nutrients to our cells and carting away waste.
The heart is actually two pumps, one on the left side that circulates blood to the lungs, where it unloads carbon dioxide and takes on oxygen, and another on the right, that powers the circulatory system. Put on a pair of industrial ear protectors and you can hear them both: ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, the sound of valves closing.
Our hearts begin life in a rush, beating 130 times a minute at birth and slowing within a few years to 50-70 beats (it varies with individuals) which we will maintain for the rest of our lives. An exception is athletic training, plus the right genes, which can dramatically lower our pulse rate. (In his racing days, Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain, had a resting heart beat of only 28.) But for all of us, the efficiency of the heart falls with age, even if the pulse rate remains the same, moving only half as much blood at age 90 as it did at 20.
Given a little co-operation from us, the heart is entirely self-maintaining. That means avoiding foods that are high in saturated fats and salt but low in fiber. Such a diet hastens hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and clogs them with cholesterol, fatty material and other cellular debris. Stress, smoking and lack of exercise have the same effect, impeding the flow of blood through all those miles of blood vessels, which in turn drives up blood pressure and forces the heart to work harder.
Heart attack – called the ‘silent killer,’ because it often comes without warning – is the second most common cause of death in western countries (replaced as number one only recently by cancer). But it is highly preventable. Blockages in blood vessels are the most common cause, and the risk of these can be sharply reduced, not only by diet, stress management, and exercise, but also by nutritional supplements such as garlic, antioxidants, fish or flaxseed oil and niacin (vitamin B3). And regular check-ups with your physician can help to prevent future heart attacks.
Be cautious in your use of the ‘statin’ family of prescription drugs to reduce cholesterol. They are routinely over-prescribed, and have the side effect of depleting an antioxidant called Coenzyme Q10, which is essential to many enzymatic and energy-producing reactions in the body, as well as protecting the heart. Dietary changes, herbal medicine and acupuncture are alternatives.
Finally, and above all, watch your weight. For every pound of fat you put on, your heart has to pump blood through more than a mile of additional blood vessels, most of them capillaries too small to see except under a microscope.
©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2005.