Balance & Restore: Heart & BrainBalance & Restore: Heart & Brain

By Dr. Mao Shing Ni, L.Ac., D.O.M., Ph.D., Dipl. C.H., Dipl. ABAAP

We need to take care of our hearts since heart disease is one of the leading causes of morbidity in the western world. Whatever is good for our heart happens to be good for our brain, which means that the mental decline that accompanies aging can often be prevented.

In Chinese medicine theory, the health of our brain depends upon the health of our heart as well. The heart energy network is responsible for delivering nutrients to our brain, and our brain is responsible for sending neural messages to our heart. As you can imagine, emotional stress that stimulates the production of stress hormones are toxic to nerve cells in the brain. Our heart network also houses our Shen or our spirit that directs our thought so that when our brain and heart networks are functioning well, we will experience clarity of mind, sharpness of recall, peace, and contentment.

We are delighted that you are joining us on the path toward a long, happy life. We hope you will learn to enjoy and practice what you learn about heart and brain health this week and that you will incorporate these new habits into a new and vibrant lifestyle.

Improve Heart Health

Heart disease is often preventable. Our heart is a muscle, and as with any muscle, exercise strengthens it. There are two key factors with regard to exercise: intensity and duration. Knowing our target heart rate can help guide the intensity of our workouts but we also have to find activities that we enjoy in order to keep at them long enough to promote a strong and healthy heart. If we wear a tracker or use an exercise app, they can help us determine how hard we're working, the calories we are burning, and the number of steps we take in a day.

What is a healthy range for heart rate and/or workout intensity? If we strain to breathe during training or we feel tired and achy afterward, we have probably gone beyond what is good for us. A healthy range of heart rate for an average person during exercise is between 90 and 120 beats per minute. If we are out of shape, we can begin by exercising a few minutes a day, and incrementally increasing the time - say by five minutes per week - until we are able to keep at it for 30 minutes or more.

We also need to control our weight and make healthy food choices. Many adults are overweight now, so that reducing the size of our servings is a good place to begin. Losing weight is more than diet and exercise, it is also a personal journey that involves figuring out what we like to eat and then discovering what works for us.

There are over 1,400 biochemical responses to stress, including an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. If we don't manage stress, we can become trapped in an upward spiraling, never-ending cycle of anxiety. Smoking is dangerous too; it harms nearly every organ in our body and negatively affects our overall health.

As we said, in Chinese medicine theory, good blood circulation from the heart is the key to good health for the brain. A large percentage of human illness is attributed to a block in the flow of the essence that Chinese doctors refer to as Blood that nourishes the organs that produce Qi, or our life force energy. It is Blood that anchors our heart and mind which further demonstrating the importance of the mutual relationship between the two.

New Habits for a Healthy Heart

Other than having a genetic predisposition to heart disease, the most common causes of elevated "bad" cholesterol and heart disease are a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and anxiety-provoking emotions.

High sodium consumption can raise blood pressure, a major risk in heart disease. Replace salt with tasty seasonings like lemon, vinegar, garlic, onions, scallions, leeks, ginger, peppers, dill, oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, coriander, fennel, anise, and cardamom. Fresh fruit is low in sodium and so are most vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, beans, poultry, fresh fish and seafood, yogurt, oatmeal, and unsalted popcorn.

Unhealthy saturated fats, including butter, peanut oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and lard can elevate unhealthy cholesterol and triglycerides. If we use vegetable oils instead, these monounsaturated fats increase "good" cholesterol that helps protect us from heart disease. Try swapping out butter with a drizzle of olive oil. An excessive intake of added sugars is also linked to weight gain along with an increased risk of heart disease.

Cardiovascular exercise is key to a healthy heart It speeds up metabolism, burns calories, fights body fat, and helps keep high blood pressure at bay. Effective moderate exercises include brisk walking, hiking, canoeing and rowing, swimming, cycling, skiing, roller skating, jumping rope, dancing, and stair climbing. We know what moderate exercise entails. We just have to find one that we like and then commit to doing it several times a week.

Stress, as we said, is implicated in heart disease but we can cut back on stress by keeping an organized, home and office. Does our home or work area radiate spa-like calm and beauty or is it so cluttered or messy that it would make a visitor feel uneasy? Interestingly, the less clutter we have to deal with, the less there is for us to clean and organize, and we can begin by committing to decluttering for just a few minutes every day.

What lifestyle factors do you believe might be compromising the health of your heart? Which aspects of improving heart health are you going to work on this week?

Brain Health

Mental decline does not necessarily come with aging, and there are many ways we can protect our memory and enhance our brain function. A change in mental acuity does not necessarily mean that our brain function is beginning to decline; a change that we notice can also be a reflection of physiological swings caused by anxiety, environmental toxins, insomnia, or depression.

Aging lowers levels of chemical brain neurotransmitters that can cause a mild slowdown of memory and thought processes. Emotional distress diminishes blood flow to the brain and stimulates the production of hormones that are toxic to nerve cells. Certain medications or combinations of medications can cause forgetfulness or confusion, and so can head trauma or injury. Alcoholism can cause memory loss, and so can hypothyroidism, so we can see that there are many factors that can affect the function of our brain.

What prevents us from mentally storing a piece of information that we want to recall later? Anxiety, depression and even grief can interfere with memory, and so can alcohol, recreational drugs, some prescription medications, chemotherapy, heart surgery, and anesthesia. Fatigue and sleep deprivation, concussions and head injuries, low vitamin B12, thyroid problems, kidney disorders, liver problems, pregnancy, menopause, infection, strokes, sleep apnea, and multitasking can all create havoc with our ability to remember.

In the tradition of Chinese medicine, the health of our brain depends on the health of our kidneys and heart. The kidney energy network stores our life experiences and performs multiple tasks like regulating aspects of brain function, memory, hormones, and others. The heart organ network is responsible for delivering nutrients to the brain and eliminating waste products. The heart network, home of our spirit, directs our brain in various cognitive activities. When these organ networks are functioning optimally, we can function optionally as well.

New Habits for a Healthy Brain

Our brain can only handle so much information and overloading it is a recipe for stress. Are we a news junkie; or do we go overboard on streaming, texting, or emailing? We can perform a system reboot by taking frequent breaks from digital devices.

If we are looking for a different kind of exercise that integrates the mind and the body, consider tai chi, a sequence of slow, meditative movements that are a hybrid of martial arts and dance, based on the cyclical movements of the natural world. It is more than a sport or a dance-tai chi balances us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

An organized home helps organize our memory. We can designate areas for specific items; for example, keys are always returned to the same location so that we never misplace them. If we take a tool out of the toolbox, that's where we need to put it back. Choose one location for incoming mail and always put it there. Being organized not only helps us remember; it frees up precious brain space that we can fill with other, more important things.

Just like our hearts, our brains need a workout. Mental exercises that can help us keep our brain fit include word and logic puzzles, reading, card games or chess, memorizing names, phone numbers, or recipes, learning a poem or the words to a song. We can do math in our heads instead of resorting to a calculator. We can work on logic puzzles or challenge ourselves to new hobbies - perhaps by figuring out how to bake bread?

We can use our non-dominant hand to stimulate the opposite side of our brain in order to improve mental capacity. Functional brain imaging shows that encouraging neuroplasticity, our brain's ability to form new connections, can be enhanced with eye-hand coordination exercises like playing a musical instrument, knitting or crocheting, or putting together a picture puzzle - any activity that requires the manipulation of small parts.

Even though our bodies possess a blood-brain barrier that is designed to protect our cognitive command center from toxic assaults, the negative effects of environmental poisons on brain function have been well documented. High levels of lead and mercury cause brain damage; but even toxins that are less well known, like preservatives and artificial colors, can affect our focus and concentration.

What factors do you believe may be affecting your memory? What new habits brain health activities are you going to engage in this week?

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