The human heart is an incredible organ. In an average lifetime, your heart will beat an astonishing two and a half BILLION times. The heart is truly a powerful muscle, but it is under attack by an enemy that accosts approximately 4.8 million Americans annually. This enemy is called Congestive Heart Failure (CHF). Twenty percent of all hospital patients over the age of 65 have CHF as a primary or secondary diagnosis, and the costs for care are staggering–estimated at more than $17 Billion yearly. Why is CHF so pervasive, and what can be done to fight it? Let’s see what we can find out.
What is Congestive Heart Failure?
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), or Heart Failure, is officially known as Cardiomyopathy. CHF is actually a byproduct of any number of cardiovascular disorders. Due to damage from these sister diseases, the heart muscle is weakened and loses its ability to pump enough blood throughout the body. Once a diagnosis of CHF has been made, it is too late to prevent damage to the heart, but intervention can be valuable to help things from getting worse and to lessen the symptoms.
CHF is most commonly due to chronic hypertension (high blood pressure) that has weakened the heart and associated arteries. The African-American community is thus found to have a 1.5 times greater chance of developing CHF than that of the general population. This is due to their abnormally high rate of hypertension. Another major risk factor is a history of previous coronary heart disease such as atherosclerosis, heart attack, or congenital heart disease, and especially any disorders involving the heart muscle or a heart valve. Statistically, if you have had a heart attack, your risk is five times greater than if you have not. Any chronic lung disease such as emphysema or asthma also puts one at greater risk.
CHF acts differently than other heart conditions such as cardiac arrest or a heart attack. The patient’s heart does not stop, it simply weakens to the point that it cannot pump efficiently enough to provide the body with the blood, oxygen, and nutrients it needs. This condition gets progressively worse over time, and as the heart is able to pump less and less effectively, fluid tends to accumulate and pool in the arteries coming from the lungs.
With all the money and research put into fighting this disease, you would think that great progress should be seen in the treatment, prevention, and prognosis of CHF. However, the statistics are not very encouraging. Every year sees approximately 400,000 new cases, and 50% of all newly diagnosed patients will be dead within 5 years. The fatality rate for CHF is very high, higher than many cancers. And experts say the problem is only slated to get worse. Between 1968 and 1993, the mortality rate of CHF increased for most years. This is in contrast to most other heart and blood vessel conditions, which experienced declines. It seems that once the damage is done, it is difficult to reverse. The horse is already out of the barn, so to speak. The best course of prevention seems to be to deal with the conditions that bring on the CHF before it has a chance to develop.
What Are the Major Symptoms of CHF?
- Fatigue, weakness, and low-energy levels
- Swollen and congested lungs due to retained fluids
- Swollen legs as the blood and fluids tend to pool here due tothe heart’s inability to pump effectively
- Shortness of breath due to reduced lung function (especially after exercise)
- Difficulty breathing in a lying down position
- Chest pain
- Frequent urination, especially at night
- Loss of appetite
- Mental confusion or disorientation
What Treatment Options Are Available?
Mainstream medicine has had limited success at treating CHF. Suffice it to say, there is no drug cure for CHF. Common drug therapies, using drugs such as digitalis, are not particularly effective and have considerable side-effects. One drug, called spironolactone, causes a spike in potassium levels, and has been responsible for over 4000 deaths in the Unites States alone! A heart transplant is often considered an alternative in many cases, but there are simply not enough hearts to go around as this disease affects so many millions of people. Due to the grim prospects for treatment, there has been much attention given to natural, herbal, and alternative therapies. Many have shown great promise at relieving symptoms for patients, and at actually strengthening the heart to keep it from deteriorating more.
Researchers have identified magnesium deficiency as a key factor in CHF. Magnesium plays a huge role in healthy heart functioning. It is essential for the heart muscle to function properly. In fact, magnesium is vital to a vast number of processes in the body. It is involved in hundreds of biochemical reactions including protein synthesis and many activities within the nucleus of cells. Your doctor can order a serum magnesium test to determine your blood levels. There is even a more definitive test called a myocardial magnesium test which actually measures the magnesium level within the heart muscle. Foods high in magnesium include green vegetables, whole grains, beans, almonds, and figs. If you choose to use a supplement, make sure it is in the form of magnesium aspartate or magnesium orotate. You may have to locate a compounding pharmacist to find these forms of magnesium.
Another wonderful feature of using magnesium (whether from foods or supplements) is that it has been found to help combat the depletion of magnesium that is a common side effect of traditional drugs given to treat CHF. These drugs include digitalis, diuretics, and vasodilators.
Low levels of potassium have also been indicted as culprits in CHF. Insufficient potassium levels have been linked to magnesium deficiency. Potassium is necessary to make the heart beat correctly, and low levels are associated with erratic heartbeat or heart arrhythmia.Again, a diet of fruits and vegetables along with whole grains, beans, and nuts is recommended. Four ounces of almonds contain 800 mg. of potassium, and brazil nuts are very high in potassium as well.
Thiamin is also a crucial nutrient in the war against CHF. Deficiency leads to retention of sodium and increases swelling in patients. In addition, some popular drugs used to treat CHF have a side effect that reduces thiamin levels.
Low levels of selenium have been linked to Keshan Disease, which is a form of CHF. It has also been discovered that selenium helps the body to use vitamin E more efficiently.
Speaking of vitamin E, this vitamin is a powerful antioxidant that is a major enemy of free radicals in the body. It has also been shown to be effective at strengthening and stabilizing heartbeat.
CoQ10 supplementation has shown tremendous success at helping CHF patients. Researchers have found this enzyme to be important in the creation of energy in the heart muscle. Many doctors and patients have seen impressive results from CoQ10. One physician stated that he has had more than one patient who took CoQ10 while awaiting a heart transplant, and as a result they did not need a transplant after all. The FDA has threatened to take it off the market because they claim it has no effect, but even their own studies have shown no negative side effects at all from CoQ10. Maybe they ought to leave it alone and take a second look at a drug that has taken over 4000 lives. Makes ya’ wonder, doesn’t it?
Certain amino acids are critical as well:
- Carnitine has been tested in several studies, and has been shown to improve the heart’s function in folks with CHF. It is involved with energy production on a cellular level. The body makes its own carnitine, but supplementation may be necessary when battling CHF.
- Taurine is also manufactured by the body. It is made from another amino acid called methionine. Methionine can be supplemented in the diet with eggs, whole grains, nuts, beans, and cheese.
- Arginine improves cardiac output, and has been the subject of much research. It is a growth amino acid thought to aid in the repair and re-growth of cardiac muscle tissues. Peanuts are an excellent source, as well as eggs, cheese, beans, and whole grains.
The herb hawthorn has shown some promise too. It helps to stabilize minor irregular heart beat, and has been most effective in the early stages of CHF.
Beta-carotene, a well-known antioxidant, has been studied for its affects at relieving CHF symptoms, as well as reducing risks for strokes and heart attacks. One long-term study involves over 22,000 male doctors that have been taking beta-carotene for about six years. It seems that beta-carotene found in foods works better than supplements. Your best sources are yellow/orange fruits and veggies like carrots, cantaloupes, sweet potatoes, peaches, and dark green leafy and cruciferous veggies like broccoli, spinach, and kale.
Recently it has been recommended that warm baths and even a dry sauna may be helpful. This is contrary to most medical advice from the past. The typical wisdom was that heart patients should avoid these environments so as not to put stress the heart or increase the heart rate. However, some patients have been helped by moderate use of these tools at lower temperatures.
Diet plays a huge role as well. We have already discussed many food sources for helpful nutrients, but a general plan that has been labeled the “Mediterranean Diet” seems to be just what the doctor ordered for CHF patients and for all of us who would seek to avoid becoming CHF patients. The basic components of the diet are:
- Olive oil: relatively high in fat, but mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil helps to improve hypertension and keeps blood sugar levels in line. Canola oil is also recommended as it is high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
- White cold-water fish: high in omega-3’s
- Lots of garlic and onions which are terrific at boosting the immune system
- Low carbs: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains
- Avoid animal fats and high-fat dairy products
- Moderate consumption of wine: 1-2 glasses per day (best with meals) is thought to have many benefits to heart health
- “The French Paradox” refers to the phenomenon that while the French have more fat and cholesterol in their diets than Americans (hard to believe), their incidence of coronary disease is lower. This is attributed to the “Mediterranean Diet” that is foundational for many of the French.