Many people take for granted that a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease (CVD) eventually means the need for surgery to improve heart health. Two common procedures are coronary artery bypasses and cardiac stents.
Coronary bypasses involve opening up the chest to insert a healthy blood vessel. It’s usually taken from the legs, into the heart to divert blood around blockages.
Stent implants are more minor operations. They typically only require local anesthetic. Here, a catheter threads the stent through an artery and into the blocked vessel to prop it open.
But what if cardiovascular surgery isn’t always the best way to improve heart health?
Research Shows Cardiovascular Surgery Doesn’t Provide Better Outcomes
A new study presented in mid-November at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting challenged the status quo surrounding heart health. It revealed that cardiac stents and bypass operations are not the best prevention for heart attacks or deaths.
According to this latest research, patients with stable, moderate CVD treated instead with medication and lifestyle changes had similar outcomes to surgery with far less stress and expense. Over 17 million Americans live with stable CVD, and one-fifth of the roughly 500,000 cardiac stent procedures are performed for stable disease. Just avoiding surgery for the 23,000 who do not experience chest pain would save $570 million every year.
Despite this, doctors commonly refer people who have abnormal cardiac stress test or angiogram results but are symptom-free, for these procedures, because they believe these are the best ways to avoid heart attacks. “That strategy is not supported by the data,” states Judith Hochman, leader of the study.
The Risks Of Cardiovascular Surgery
Surgery may seem like the easy way out, but any operation is a physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful event. Looking at coronary bypasses, up to 14 percent of patients suffer post-operative complications that need emergency care. These include kidney damage, pneumonia, and stroke. Over 200,000 Americans undergo this procedure every year, meaning up to 28,000 have these complications.
All these surgeries are expensive too, with the average cost for a coronary artery bypass procedure at $38,707 in 2011. Cardiac stents are less traumatic, but up to 10 percent of patients experience a re-narrowing of the artery and one to two percent suffer blood clots.
Do Pharmaceuticals Treat the Cause Or Symptom?
Pharmaceutical treatment for CVD typically includes antiplatelet drugs to prevent inappropriate clotting, beta-blockers, and angiotensin inhibitors to reduce blood pressure and statins to lower cholesterol. This approach is associated with high survival rates and avoidance of heart attack.
A 20-year study, the longest of its kind, found a 25 percent reduction in cardiovascular deaths from statin use. For each drop in cholesterol by one mmol/L, statins reduce heart disease risk by 23 percent. However, drugs also have negative side effects.
For example, statins impair coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) production, a substance essential for heart health and energy production. It is best to supplement with CoQ10 if you are taking statins. They may also increase the risk of diabetes, muscle damage, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Cholesterol is not the only cause of plaque formation. A build-up of cholesterol-scarfing immune cells in the artery walls starts off as a response to inflammation and becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Allowing inflammation to continue means the plaque keeps growing and is more likely to become unstable. Drugs may reduce the risk of unstable plaque and the amount of available cholesterol, but relieving chronic inflammation breaks the cycle of atherosclerosis development at its cause and boosts overall health.
Boosting Heart Health With Nutrition
Changing your diet can be a powerful way to protect and heal your cardiovascular system. A study published in August 2019 found that participants following a whole-food plant-based diet had a 32 percent lower risk of dying from CVD. But it doesn’t mean you must go vegan. A flexitarian diet where three-quarters of your usual animal foods are replaced with vegetarian alternatives can be very effective.
Research testing the Mediterranean diet helps to explain these cardiovascular benefits. High in whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fish, this diet resembles a flexitarian pattern. Volunteers on the Mediterranean diet had much lower inflammatory markers linked with unstable artery plaques compared to those on the low-fat control diet. Some of these markers help immune cells stick to the artery walls, so they can keep forming plaque.
There was also a significant drop in blood pressure and cholesterol. The participants on the Mediterranean diet were instructed to eat healthy fats like nuts or olive oil daily. Studies on health outcomes have found a 30 percent lower rate of cardiovascular events when high-risk patients followed a Mediterranean diet.
Whole Foods And Paleo
After years of poor heart health and a growing list of chronic illnesses, Rick McKeon decided it was time for a change. He adopted a whole-food, plant-based diet; quit drinking; began a mild exercise and worked on his emotional health. In over a year, his blood pressure and lab results for kidney function normalized, and his neuropathy and arthritis disappeared.
However, you may benefit from a different approach. A review of four studies revealed that the Paleo diet raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol while reducing blood pressure, waist circumference, triglycerides, and blood sugar. The diet emphasizes vegetables, lean meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, and plant oils. Grains, legumes, processed foods, added sugar, dairy, and alcohol are forbidden.
Some experts believe a key reason of better outcomes some people experience with the Paleo diet is because it’s lower in lectins, which are inflammatory anti-nutrients. Genetics, the health of your gut flora, and integrity of your gut wall all affect lectin sensitivity.
Emotions And The Heart
Don’t forget emotional regulation when improving heart health.
Unhealthy behavior such as emotional suppression and flying off the handle is linked with cardiovascular problems. Cognitive re-evaluation and acceptance of emotions, as well as a positive attitude, are beneficial.
Other research shows that stress reduction techniques help prevent future heart attacks in people recovering from cardiovascular events. As society has traditionally pressured men to hide their feelings, could this be one reason why men develop CVD much earlier than women?
In my own practice, I use resources such as The Body is the Barometer of the Soul to successfully pinpoint the emotional roots of illness. The author, a nurse turned energy healer, found from years of observation and experience that specific bodily systems and organs are correlated with areas of emotional conflict. Thoughts, emotions and vibrational frequencies they emit are some of the many environmental signals that affect cellular function. Heart issues are related to not doing for yourself, while artery plaques are related to worrying about not being perfect.
Overall, cardiovascular surgery is physically, psychologically, and financially stressful. The good news is that many procedures are unnecessary and there are much safer alternatives. To find what works for you, it is best to consult a professional such as a functional medicine practitioner, who is trained in more holistic, preventative approaches to heart health.
Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.
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