Heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States, taking the lives of 610,000 Americans every year.
While conventional medicine can offer heart patients the very latest in medications, surgeries and interventional procedures to treat heart conditions, preventing heart problems is often less precise and sometimes more complex.
“Certainly risk factors, such as family history, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and genetics are important, but often there are other, less obvious aspects involved as well,” said Poulina Uddin, MD, an integrative cardiologist at the Scripps Women’s Heart Center. Dr. Uddin is board certified in both cardiology and internal medicine and has expertise in integrative medicine.
Here are five things to know about integrative heart care, which focuses on caring for all aspects of a person’s health.
Physicians often instruct heart patients to eat well, exercise and live a healthy lifestyle, but patients may not have the knowledge and tools they need to follow through on those instructions, Dr. Uddin says.
Nutrition and cooking classes, for example, can help patients learn to make heart-healthy meals. Dr. Uddin recommends being very specific about dietary recommendations.
“I ask my patients to make a list of what they are eating, and then give very specific recommendations for substitutions, portions, and problem foods,” she says. “For example, replace your white rice with brown rice or quinoa or eat only half of what you have taken on your plate. This makes it much easier for people to get started in the process.”
“If someone comes in with a heart attack, I ask what happened that day. Were they angry with someone? Was there a stressful event?” Dr. Uddin says. “All the physical risk factors are important, but I also want to know why did it happen on that particular day? The majority of the time, there is some emotional or environmental trigger,” she says.
An integrative approach takes all of those factors into consideration when determining treatment and crafting an individualized care plan for each patient that reflects and acknowledges their unique lifestyle, she says.
Stress and anger can be major risk factors in heart disease. Learning to deal with these negative feelings can lower risk and benefit overall wellness.
“I'm a big proponent of dealing with stress. I send plenty of patients to acupuncture or healing touch — a therapy that focuses on the energy field surrounding the body — and I teach breathing exercises in my office,” Dr. Uddin says.
“I often recommend yoga,” she adds. “I became a certified yoga instructor because I wanted to be able to set up classes for my patients who are apprehensive about doing it on their own. A lot of patients just need that support.”
An integrative approach complements rather than replaces conventional heart care.
For a generally healthy patient who may be slightly overweight and have high cholesterol, lifestyle changes — such as improving their nutrition, exercising and managing stress — may be enough to lower their risk. “Having a personalized plan to follow makes that more realistic,” Dr. Uddin says.
If after six months there is no improvement, it may be time for medication — and that often raises questions about prescription versus supplements or “natural” products.
Natural supplements, such as fish oil and turmeric, have a proven anti-inflammatory effect on the body and can help reduce risk. But for someone who has already had a heart attack or a stent placed in an artery, standard medications, such as aspirin and statins, remain part of the recommended treatment.
Some patients, however, may be reluctant to take prescription drugs, preferring instead to use herbs or supplements. While these alternatives may do the same thing as prescription medications, they tend to be far less regulated and tested for safety and effectiveness than prescription drugs.
“Red yeast rice, for example, can be a substitute for statins, but the chemical effect on the body is essentially the same, and you’re still taking a pill that may or may not be as safety-tested as a prescription drug,” Dr. Uddin says.
Successful integrative heart care, she says, starts with an open, honest dialogue with your physician. “The goal is always to create a care plan that addresses your unique physical, emotional, social and spiritual health,” she says.