By Carrie Demers, MD, Yoga+
My father and uncle both had heart attacks in their 40s. I just turned 40. Am I destined to have the same fate?
It is true that heart disease tends to run in the family, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to happen to you. In my experience, it’s not so much a question of what is genetic as it is one of what is learned. When we are young, we unconsciously model our parents—their gestures; their patterns of walking, speaking, breathing; how they communicate; and how they manage their stress. So if you’re doing the same thing your father did, then it is likely you’re going to end up with the same disease he had. But if you make significant lifestyle changes to alter your risk factors—if you eat, exercise, breathe, think, and communicate differently—you can improve your chances of overcoming your family’s patterns of illness. It’s up to you.
What causes heart disease?
Heart disease is a broad label that includes coronary artery disease (CAD), high blood pressure, heart failure, and arrhythmia. We’ll focus on CAD, the most common of these conditions, which is often used interchangeably with the term “heart disease.”
CAD refers to atherosclerosis, or the blocking of the arteries that feed your heart muscle. Arteries bring nourishing oxygen-rich blood to all of your organs. The coronary arteries bring blood flow to the heart muscle itself. If they get blocked, then the heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen and you experience heart pain, or angina. Severe blockages cause heart attacks and death. Seventeen million people have coronary artery disease in the United States. With half a million deaths a year, it is the leading killer of both men and women in the country.
In the last 20 years, there has been a lot of attention on lowering cholesterol as a primary way of reducing CAD. And while high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, it is not the only cause. Research from the last decade is showing that inflammation is often the underlying factor in the creation of arterial plaque leading to blockages.
According to ayurveda, inflammation is a sign of excessive pitta, or fiery energy. If pitta is your dominant constitution, you are likely to be driven, efficient, and successful. But if this energy is out of balance, you may have problems with impatience, anger, and inflammation (such as heartburn or ulcers). Ayurveda also says that diseases are caused by the accumulation of ama, or toxins. Blockages in the arteries are a sign of ama. That is why this ancient science places so much emphasis on detoxing. (Visit yogaplus.org/detox to learn more.)