Matters of the heart

February 13, 2024

The leading cause of death in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease, accounting for about 41% of deaths.

Risk factors for heart disease include hypertension, elevated cholesterol, lack of exercise, overweight, obesity, smoking and diabetes. Other environmental factors include air pollution, some synthetic chemicals, metals and drinking water quality. Among the metals, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead and cobalt have each been implicated in heart disease of one kind or another.

Lifestyle medicine is key to navigating many, if not all, of these risk factors, and it’s making an impact in some parts of the world. Recent declines in cardiovascular disease rates in high-income countries have been noted to relate to decreased exposure to tobacco smoking, improvements in diet, improved clinical targeting of cardiovascular disease prevention, and improved treatment of cardiovascular disease.

When heart disease is treated holistically, we include the body, mind and spirit. The clinical focus is on reducing lifestyle risks, but treatment also takes into consideration more delicate matters of the heart. Treat the body by strengthening weakened systems. Treat the mind, and learn how the vital organs of heart and brain are fundamentally one. Treat the spirit, and watch how the heart responds.

Naturopathic doctors have therapies focused on restoring a healthy cardiovascular system. Metabolic factors like diabetes and high cholesterol indicate a high amount of inflammation that can created clogged arteries. So, whole foods nutrition and detoxification from heavy metals, solvents and other triggers of inflammation are key. In fact, heavy metals like lead and cadmium are documented to be triggers of endothelial damage, affecting the cells that line the arteries.

Lowering cholesterol by reducing inflammatory triggers treats the cause instead of the symptom. Naturopathic doctors also dive deeper into mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are the power plants within the cell where adenosine triphosphate, vital for cellular energy, is formed. Optimizing heart function rests deeply in strong mitochondrial function, and nutrition plays a key role in how the Krebs cycle makes ATP.

Deficits in methylation have also been indicated as one of the ways families pass along heart disease. A simple screening for elevated homocysteine can be life-altering because this can indicate problems with methylation. Both ATP production and methylation can be targeted through optimizing cellular-level nutrition, balancing the folate cycle and nourishing all critical biochemical pathways that the heart depends upon. Key nutrients like glutathione, coenzyme Q10, magnesium, bioflavonoids like anthocyanins, essential fatty acids, B vitamins and others are assessed with specialty labwork that helps provide insight on personal needs for various nutritional interventions. Research consistently confirms that diets high in fiber and rich in antioxidants are cardioprotective.

Our thoughts and emotions can also create our heart’s vitality. Vagus nerve imbalances, gut-brain-microbiome communications, cortisol, DHEA, and neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline all deeply impact the cardiovascular system. In our fragmented, mechanistic medical model, depression, stress and hormone imbalances are not the focus of most cardiology assessment and treatment.

Research continues to support that our mood, our thoughts, and our personal and emotional health history all inform and influence the capacity of cardiovascular function. Elevated cholesterol is often considered a normal effect of aging, but cholesterol is the building block of all our steroid hormones.

Menopause, or andropause in men, can lead to deficiencies in estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. The liver responds to hormone deficiencies in a typical supply-demand way. If low hormones are present, cholesterol production increases. Statin medication suppresses the liver pathways that produce cholesterol. But adrenal-focused therapy, hormone-balancing foods and herbs, and stress management have the potential to reduce the liver’s drive to dump cholesterol into the bloodstream. In this way, meditation, breathing exercises, vagus nerve retraining and hormone balancing all can mitigate cardiovascular risk factors.

So much of our language related to heart health can be rooted in a deep understanding of the soul’s journey. Heartbreak, grief, resentment and regret have all been documented to play a role in heart disease risks and experiences. When naturopathic physicians assess heart disease risk factors, we invite the capacity of our hearts to connect to something larger than ourselves, whatever path resonates with each person. Layered into the stories of chest pain, tension or inflammation, there are usually indications of a crisis of the heart. Creating space for awareness, being heart-centered in our relationship to our lives and our bodies, is powerful medicine.

Kim Furtado, ND, is an expert in herbal medicine, nutrition, detoxification and hormone balancing; a mother of five daughters and three grandchildren; a school garden program coordinator; and an advocate for the environment. For more information or to make an appointment, call 302-945-2107 or go to

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