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 indeed a powerful muscle, but it is under attack by an enemy that accosts approximately 5 million Americans annually. This enemy is called Congestive Heart Failure (CHF). Twenty percent of all hospital patients over 65 have CHF as a primary or secondary diagnosis. 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 take a look.
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 you have a CHF diagnosis, it is too late to prevent damage to the heart, but intervention can be valuable to keep things from getting worse and lessen the symptoms.
CHF is most commonly due to chronic hypertension (high blood pressure), which weakens the heart and associated arteries. The African-American community has a 1.5 times greater chance of developing CHF than the general population. And this is due to their abnormally high rate of hypertension. Another significant risk factor is a history of previous coronary heart diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart attack, or congenital heart disease, especially any heart muscle or heart valve disorders. Any chronic lung disease such as emphysema or asthma also increases 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 significant progress should show up 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 die within five years. The fatality rate for CHF is very high, higher than many cancers. And experts say the concern will likely 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. Once the damage happens, it seems that it is difficult to reverse. The horse is already out of the barn, so to speak. The best prevention course appears to deal with the conditions that bring on the CHF before it has a chance to develop.
What Are the Major Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure?
- 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 to the 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 Treatments Are Available For Congestive Heart Failure?
Mainstream medicine has had limited success in treating CHF. Suffice it to say; there is no drug cure for CHF. There are several classes of medication in current use to treat heart failure, including diuretics (reduces fluid), ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors (open blood vessels), beta-blockers (slow heart rate), digoxin (increases the heart’s ability to contract), and vasodilators (agents that open blood vessels). Diuretics and ACE inhibitors have the best track record to date for treating CHF patients. One drug, called spironolactone, causes a spike in potassium levels and has been responsible for over 4000 deaths in the United 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, much attention goes to natural, herbal, and alternative therapies. Many show great promise at relieving symptoms for patients and actually strengthening the heart to keep it from deteriorating more.
What You Need to Know
As medical advances help Americans live longer, the rate of heart failure continues to rise. As mentioned, there are many classes of medications available to treat congestive heart failure, but no single drug is effective in treating all the symptoms. It’s important to know that research shows that a change of diet, exercise, and supplementation yields profound advantages.
Congestive Heart Failure – Natural Approaches
Supplementation with essential nutrients is crucial for those with CHF. Vitamins and other nutrients act as bioenergy suppliers to millions of heart muscle cells. The congestive heart failure – natural approaches focus on improving myocardial energy production. Numerous clinical studies have shown the value of vitamins and supplements in treating conditions such as shortness of breath, edema, and other CHF symptoms.
Age is the most significant risk factor for heart disease. However, your body contains healing mechanisms that, when properly supported, can certainly help to stop progression.
Researchers have identified magnesium deficiency as a critical factor in CHF. Magnesium plays a huge role in healthy heart functioning. It is essential for the heart muscle to function correctly. 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. Even a more definitive test called a myocardial magnesium test 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 calcium and magnesium orotate. Calcium orotate is better recognized by the body than common forms of calcium found in many supplements. Magnesium orotate enhances its effectiveness.
In addition to its cholesterol-lowering and heart-energizing effects, magnesium orotate has also been reported to improve the elasticity of blood vessels. Using capillarographic recordings Dr. Nieper was able to show that a daily dose of 380 mg magnesium orotate over 15 months was sufficient to normalize or greatly improve the elasticity of peripheral blood vessels in 60 of 64 patients. Such an effect on vessel elasticity suggests the use of magnesium orotate for lowering blood pressure as well as for inhibiting arteriosclerosis.
Another wonderful feature of using magnesium (whether from foods or supplements) is that it helps combat magnesium depletion, a common side effect of traditional drugs given to treat CHF. These drugs include digitalis, diuretics, and vasodilators.
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Low levels of potassium are also culprits in CHF. Insufficient potassium levels are linked to magnesium deficiency. Potassium is necessary to make the heartbeat 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. Be sure to check with your doctor before implementing potassium supplements or foods that contain high potassium levels.
Thiamin is also a crucial nutrient in the war against CHF. Deficiency leads to retention of sodium and increased swelling in patients. In addition, some popular drugs used to treat CHF have a side effect that reduces thiamin levels.
Low selenium levels are linked to Keshan Disease, which is a form of CHF. It has also been discovered that selenium helps the body use vitamin E more efficiently. I suggest using only plant-based selenium.
Full Spectrum Vitamin E
Speaking of vitamin E, this vitamin is a powerful antioxidant that is a significant enemy of free radicals in the body. It has also been shown to strengthen and stabilize the heartbeat.
CoQ10 supplementation has shown tremendous success in helping CHF patients. Researchers find this enzyme to be important in creating energy in the heart muscle. Many doctors and patients have seen impressive results from CoQ10. One physician stated that he 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 adverse side effects at all from CoQ10.
Water-soluble coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinol) is better absorbed than lipid-soluble coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone) and is directly involved in the antioxidant cycle. (R)
The optimal dose of CoQ10 for treating CHF is not currently defined. However, studies have utilized dosages ranging from 30 to 600 mg daily, and most practitioners recommend 100-300 mg daily.
Critical Amino Acids for CHF
- Carnitine has been tested in several studies and has improved the heart’s function in people with CHF. It is essential in the transport of fatty acids into the myocardium and mitochondria for energy production. The body makes its own carnitine, but supplementation may be necessary when battling CHF. The dose used in most studies is 1-3 grams daily.
- Taurine is an essential nutrient found in very high concentrations in excitable tissue. Its lack in heart muscle cells is a common cause of heart failure. CHF generally responds well to taurine therapy. In double-blind studies, taurine supplementation reduces the signs and symptoms of CHF. (R) Taurine promotes natriuresis (sodium excretion) and diuresis (urine excretion) and minimizes many of the adverse actions of angiotensin II, including the induction of cardiac hypertrophy, volume overload, and myocardial remodeling. Since ACE inhibitors are the mainstay treatment for CHF, taurine supplementation is crucial. The recommended supplement dosage of taurine is 2-3 grams daily.
- L-Arginine improves cardiac output and has been the subject of much research. It is a growth amino acid thought to aid in repairing and re-growth of cardiac muscle tissues. Infusion of L-arginine in patients with congestive heart failure results in increased nitric oxide production, peripheral vasodilation, and increased cardiac output, which suggests a beneficial hemodynamic and possibly therapeutic profile. (R) Organic peanuts, eggs, cheese (not processed), beans, and whole grains are good sources of L-arginine. Usually, 2-5 grams daily are recommended.
The herb hawthorn has shown promise in helping with CHF. It helps stabilize minor irregular heartbeats and has been most effective in the early stages of CHF. Clinical studies reported that standardized extracts of this herb show promise as supplementary agents for treating left ventricular dysfunction. Other trials have regularly demonstrated hawthorn’s ability to improve exercise tolerance as well as symptoms associated with mild to moderate CHF. Its effectiveness has been shown repeatedly in double-blind studies. The recommended daily dose ranges from 160 to 900 mg.
Beta-carotene, a well-known antioxidant, has been studied for its effects at relieving CHF symptoms, as well as reducing risks for strokes and heart attacks. 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.
A thyroid hormone deficiency in cardiovascular function can be characterized by decreased myocardial contractility, increased peripheral vascular resistance, and changes in lipid metabolism. Forty-two patients with cardiovascular disease (mean age 65 +/- 13 yr, 16 males) were investigated if iodine insufficiency can play a role as a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases. The patients were divided into five subgroups on the ground of the presence of hypertension, congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy, coronary dysfunction, and arrhythmia. Urine iodine concentration (5.29 +/- 4.52 micrograms/dl) was detected with Sandell-Kolthoff colorimetric reaction. The most decreased urine iodine concentration was seen in the groups with arrhythmia and congestive heart failure (4.7 +/- 4.94 micrograms/dl and 4.9 +/- 4.81 micrograms/dl, respectively). An elevated TSH level was found in three patients (5.3 +/- 1.4 mlU/l). An elevation in lipid metabolism (cholesterol, triglyceride) is associated with all subgroups without arrhythmia. In conclusion, the occurrence of iodine deficiency in cardiovascular disease is frequent. Iodine supplementation might prevent the worsening effect of iodine deficiency on cardiovascular disease. (R)
Warm Baths and Saunas
Recently it has been recommended that warm baths and even a dry sauna may be helpful. (R) This is contrary to most medical advice from the past. The typical wisdom was that heart patients should avoid these environments not to stress the heart or increase the heart rate. However, some patients have been helped by moderate use of these tools at lower temperatures.
Additional natural supplements and vitamins that may be useful in treating CHF patients:
- Vitamin C – Energy supply for the metabolism of each cell
- Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12 – Bioenergy carriers of cellular metabolism, particularly for the heart muscle cells; for heart function and pumping, and physical endurance
- Fish oil Supplements – Fish oil is rich in omega-3fatty acids, which are known to help lower triglycerides, lessen inflammation and blood clotting, and help stabilize heart rhythm.
Exercise for Congestive Heart Failure
Exercise (physical activity) is vital for everyone, especially those living with heart failure. It’s essential to slowly work up to more extended times of exercise.
Research, including a review of more than 30 trials published in January 2015 in the journal Open Heart, shows that heart failure patients who follow an exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation program are less likely to be hospitalized, and report better quality of life than those who do not.
A 2018 study showed that walking for at least 40 minutes several times per week at an average to fast pace is associated with a near 25% drop in heart failure risk. (R)
Some recommended exercises are walking, dancing, swimming, stretching, weight training, yoga, tai chi, and rebounding (feet do not leave mat). Talk to your healthcare provider about exercises appropriate for your health situation. It’s OK for a workout to be challenging, but you shouldn’t feel excessively breathless or dizzy or have an extremely fast or irregular heartbeat. If you feel any of these symptoms, stop and rest with your feet up for 15 minutes.
Congestive Heart Failure Diet
Diet plays a vital role in those with Congestive Heart Failure. We have already discussed many food sources that contain helpful nutrients, but a general plan, The Mediterranean Diet, seems to be just what the doctor ordered for CHF patients and for all of us who seek to avoid becoming CHF patients.
The basic essentials of the Mediterranean diet include:
- Cold-pressed, Extra Virgen Organic Olive oil which is relatively high in fat, but mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil helps to improve hypertension and keeps blood sugar levels in line.
- 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 organic fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains at every meal. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are packed full of vital nutrients that play a significant role in heart health. Berries are also rich in antioxidants such as anthocyanins, which protect against the oxidative stress and inflammation that contribute to the development of heart disease
- Avoid red meat, processed meats, and high-fat dairy products.
- Organic beans, legumes, and organic nuts as primary sources of protein
- Moderate consumption of wine: 1-2 glasses per day (best with meals) is thought to have many benefits to heart health
- To satisfy your sweet tooth, eat fresh fruits and dark chocolate
- “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.
Don’t Underestimate the Side Effects of Stress
Stress can increase inflammation in your body, which is linked to factors that can harm your heart, such as high blood pressure and lower “good” HDL cholesterol. Chronic stress can also affect your heart more indirectly, such as if you’re worried, you will sleep poorly. You’re also less likely to exercise, make healthy food choices, or watch your weight. All of these lifestyle changes can put your overall heart health at risk.
Your heart rate is regulated by your autonomic nervous system, which includes two anatomical divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (Wehrwein et al., 2016).
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) releases the hormones (catecholamines – epinephrine and norepinephrine) to accelerate the heart rate. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) releases the hormone acetylcholine to slow the heart rate. In heart failure, it has been recognized that the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated and the imbalance of the activity of the SNS and vagal activity interaction occurs. The abnormal activation of the SNS leads to further worsening of heart failure. (R)
As much as possible, it’s a good idea to stay in a parasympathetic state, especially during times of stress and also when eating, since the parasympathetic state greatly helps the digestive tract, where most of your immune system resides, do its best work. Below is are examples of how to be in a parasympathetic state.
Be Wise and Be Well
When it comes to your health and well-being, be wise and proactive. Prevention is always the easiest way to keep your body healthy. However, knowing what may or may not be going on goes a long way in eliminating fear and stress, both of which can lead to more health concerns. Once you have a diagnosis, I suggest finding a natural medicine practitioner or a naturopath to teach you how to support your body’s natural healing mechanisms. I also recommend reading my OAW Natural Health Blog weekly. Knowledge is only powerful when it’s applied.