American Heart Month: The Joyful Heart Lifestyle
February 2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of Proclamation 3566, a document signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson designating February as American Heart Month, which succeeding presidents have signed every year since. The American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, active advocates for heart health, feature heart health information on their websites year round. Since the beginning of the month, the AHA has sponsored heart health workshops and held events to raise funds for continued research into the number one killer of men and women in the U.S.
Research has pointed to a number of factors that can increase or decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. They include
- the use of tobacco products,
- high cholesterol,
- high blood pressure,
- exercise levels,
- obesity, and
While we can’t change our genes, we can take charge of our heart health through the choices we make. We can choose what I call the joyful heart lifestyle.
The joyful heart lifestyle supports the bodymindspirit in its wholeness and includes a Mediterranean diet, regular exercise, medication–if prescribed by a physician, meditation for profound relaxation, and a heart-centered approach to ourselves, the people in our lives, the work we do, and the communities in which we live.
The Mediterranean diet has been in the news lately, since research has shown that it reduces the risk of heart disease. Incorporating whole grains, nuts, vegetables, fruit, olive oil, spices instead of salt, fish, and chicken, it provides a wide range of foods that can delight the senses and the spirit. Especially if you bring to food preparation the wisdom of my Italian grandmother, Jennie, for whom I was named. I would sit in her kitchen as a little girl and watch her prepare meals. One of the first lessons she taught me in her halting English was this: “the finger…puts the love into the food. Don’t be afraid to use your hands.” And my grandmother demonstrated by rubbing a bowl with love to receive the ingredients she had chopped for the salad she was preparing for dinner that night.
She would remove the outer covering of a garlic clove, cut the clove in half, and then, cut side down, rub the clove all over the salad bowl until every inch had been covered. My grandfather, Adamo, liked the taste of garlic, but he didn’t like to eat the clove. Every time my grandmother prepared food for him, she incorporated a little act of love. And, of course, she was serving both him and their family a salad, prepared in the Mediterranean style with olive oil and vinegar, a dressing which has been recognized to be part of a heart healthy diet.
Not everything my grandmother cooked was heart healthy, given her southern Italian heritage. Several of those dishes, including mouth-watering chicken parmesan and its eggplant counterpart, begin with breading and frying, and frying needs to be kept to a minimum or not used at all in a heart-healthy diet. The basics of healthy eating, however, were there in my grandmother’s approach to food for following generations to cull. Over the years, I’ve modified many of the dishes I learned at my grandmother’s side with, according to my husband, more than successful results. I’ll be sharing those recipes from time to time, including one at the end of this post, so check back for updates.
Incorporating regular exercise routines into our daily lives has been shown to have benefits for the cardiovascular system. You can think of it this way: since the heart is a muscle, it will benefit from staying fit. Exercise increases the heart rate and makes the heart work harder, thus increasing its capacity for work. It may also have some benefits for the aging brain. Studies have shown that exercise can increase the production of brain cells, as reported by Gretchen Reynolds in an article in the New York Times, April 18, 2012, to mention only one of numerous articles reporting this benefit. However, if you are thinking of starting a regular exercise program, the most important thing you can do to protect your heart and brain is to consult your doctor to see which kind of exercise program is right for you, especially if there is a history of heart disease or stroke in your family.
Sometimes your doctor will prescribe medication for you to control high blood pressure, one of the risk factors for heart attack, stroke, and much more. The Mayo Clinic’s website on the dangers of high blood pressure provides clear information on just what can result without treatment. I know from speaking to many physicians and from firsthand experience that taking medication daily can greatly improve the health outlook for someone with high blood pressure. Don’t be discouraged if the first medication you try doesn’t agree with you. I had to try several medications before finding one that controlled my blood pressure without intolerable side effects.
Meditation can induce profound relaxation of bodymindspirit. Meditation, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, can be as simple as closing your eyes and breathing from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet while visualizing light moving through your body and into the earth. These seconds-long visualizations keep you in touch with the primary flow of energy that nourishes the human energy system and moves from the spine through meridians to every cell in the body. Free flow of energy supports the natural healing and regenerative processes in the bodymindspirit and is the focus of practitioners of acupuncture and energy balancing.
Meditation with visualization is an easy introduction to stillness meditations, which can be frustrating and sometimes intimidating, and breath work with color visualization is the easiest of all. Sit in a comfortable chair with your hands resting in your lap, palms turned up. Imagine a light above your head and while inhaling see that light enter your body and move through to your feet. While exhaling, see the light pool in your feet and send roots of light deeply into the earth until your light reaches a place of great light. You may see this place as a cave of light crystals or a garden of light. Look around this place of light until you see a source of red light. Connect your light to that red light. While inhaling, see the red light move through your roots of light and into your feet. While exhaling, see the red light move into your root chakra, coming up your legs as well, into your body and out the top of your head. Inhale again, and while exhaling see the light in your aura all around you and expand your light six to eight feet. Now see yourself in a cocoon of red light. You have grounded your energies, one of the first steps in balancing your energy system, and you have supported your root chakra.
You can continue working with color, moving through each chakra in turn. See my earlier blog on color meditations.
A heart-centered approach to ourselves means knowing when to say no when demands of family or work begin to overwhelm our ability to give from the heart. Love needs to inform everything we do in life, whether it is writing to inform or persuade, relating to those with whom we think we have little in common, coping with a fussy child or an angry partner, or healing on many levels. The key is learning to love ourselves so that we can truly love others. That may mean setting boundaries to protect our energy levels when people ask too much of us. If we give more than what is comfortable for us to give, whether to family, work, or community, then love turns to resentment, and resentment harms both the giver and the receiver.
As February ends and March begins, the lessons of the joyful heart lifestyle can inform this next month and every month of the year. Adopt a heart-healthy diet and an exercise program (after consulting your physician), take medication if prescribed for you, meditate a few seconds daily and longer weekly, and approach the people in your life through your heart. Your heart will love you.
Disclaimer: All healing paths, while they share certain things in common, are unique to the individual. Nothing I write in my blogs should be construed as medical advice. All decisions about physical and mental health should be made in consultation with your physician or other licensed or certified health care practitioner.
Jennie’s Pesto Sauce
2 cups basil leaves
1/2 to 3/4 cup walnuts
1 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 heaping teaspoons Grey Poupon mustard
Place above ingredients into a blender. Mix for at least 12 seconds. Then liquefy for an additional 12 seconds. Adjust ingredients to taste. This recipe eliminates animal fat, thus the absence of cheese, which is a standard ingredient in a pesto sauce. This sauce can be used on pasta, baked potatoes, chicken, and fish or used as a dipping sauce for Italian or French bread. Remember that a little goes a long way. Both walnuts and olive oil have high caloric counts per tablespoon, but are high in monounsaturated fats, which are heart healthy. Buon Appetito!