“The connection between stress and heart disease is significant,” says Kumar.
In high levels, the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, can cause coronary arteries to spasm and may create micro-tears that attract potentially-dangerous plaque deposits.
Techniques to manage stress should be considered a vital part of any alternative therapy plan for heart disease, according to Kumar. She offers some examples of alternative therapies that can help reduce stress and promote heart health:
- Yoga: Lauded for its ability to boost moods, reduce stress and increase flexibility, yoga is a go-to therapy for many alternative medicine practitioners. Research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology recently found that regular yoga practice could slash irregular heartbeat episodes in people with atrial fibrillation in half. “The practice of yoga is known to improve many risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hardening of the arteries, and stress and inflammation in the body,” says study author, Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, M.D., of the University of Kansas Hospital.
- Meditation: Meditation is a form of mental training involving a combination of relaxation and awareness cultivation. Research has linked the practice of meditation to a host of health benefits—from stress reduction to helping clear up outbreaks of psoriasis. “Regular meditation has proven to be very helpful for heart disease when high levels of stress are a contributing factor,” says Angela Yvonne, licensed acupuncturist with Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.
- Qigong: The goal of Qigong, a form of mind-body exercise rooted in ancient Chinese culture, is to nurture a person’s life energy—often referred to as “chi.” The practice of Qigong combines different patterns of breath and movement that are thought to stretch and strengthen muscles, enhance balance and promote the healthy movement of fluids (blood, lymphatic fluid, etc.) throughout the body.
Acupuncture—the practice of inserting and maneuvering thin needles in certain points of the body—is also sometimes used as an alternative treatment for heart disease. The main goal of acupuncture (or acupressure) is to help realign the flow of energy in a person’s body.
“Regular acupuncture calms the nervous system, and can help alleviate stress, which contributes to high blood pressure. It can also treat things like troubled sleep, which is linked to heart problems,” according to Yvonne. The National Institutes of Health has authorized acupuncture for the treatment of certain conditions.
Benefits of a holistic approach to heart health
Most people who dabble in alternative therapies do so as a complement to more traditional approaches, says the CDC.
For example, individuals with high blood pressure may take statins in addition to making dietary changes, such as reducing their sodium intake and limiting their consumption of fats, and taking up yoga to get a handle on their stress levels.
Kumar hopes that more people will adopt this integrative approach to medicine. “Our society has become so dualistic. We see it as black and white; traditional versus alternative,” she says. “Both traditional and alternative therapies have their place in medicine, but we need to shift to a more integrative model.”