Nutrients for a Healthy Heart: Part I – Introduction and Heart Rate

I love to learn! It’s probably one of the most enjoyable aspects in my line of work. I am always learning. I have to, to keep up with the latest nutrition information. Be it from my clients, other practitioners, or at educational seminars – it is a continuous process. The best part of the process is once I learn something new I can apply it in my practice and pass it on to my clients and the public.

Recently I attended a seminar on cardiovascular health (Cardiovascular: Performance, Endurance, and Maintenance). While the new information is still circulating (pun intended) through my system, I’ll be sharing it with you through a series of articles.

Let’s start with a few basic facts about your heart. The adult heart weighs about 8-10 ounces, yet it is more electrical than the brain (which weighs five times as much). It contracts about 100,000 times during the day pumping six quarts of blood through over 100,000 miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries. The basics of circulation are as follows: The heart pumps oxygenated blood through the arteries to the organs and tissues. At the same time veins carry deoxygenated blood from the organs and tissues back to the heart. The deoxygenated blood goes to the lungs to get oxygen and is then pumped out again to the organs and tissues. This process is repeated over and over.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US. Each year there are 1.6 million heart attacks, with over a half million of those being fatal. And, each year there are 795,000 strokes, with 140,000 deaths. Approximately one-third of the deaths in the US each year are caused by heart disease and strokes.

This leads to the question of whether heart disease and strokes can be avoided or reduced. It appears that medicine has many theories on treating heart disease, but actual success has yet to be achieved as evidenced by the continued increase in deaths. Perhaps this is why JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) reported in February of 2009 that just 11% of the more than 2,700 recommendations approved by cardiologists for treating heart patients are actually supported by high-quality scientific testing!

There are lots of recommendations, but very few proving successful. In this and subsequent articles I will share with you nutritional information which has been proven over the last 60-70 years to enhance cardiovascular health. Ironically some of it is just now being “discovered” by today’s researchers.

Rate, rhythm, and tone are the key measurements of heart health. Rate is the speed at which the heart beats. This is influenced by the autonomic nervous system and two key minerals: potassium and phosphorus. Rhythm refers to how blood moves through the vasculature. This is influenced by the integrity of the vasculature tissues, electrical signaling and by the mineral calcium. Tone refers to the muscular strength of the heart. This is influenced primarily by Vitamins B, C, and E. The rest of this article will discuss nutrients related to heart rate. Subsequent articles will cover rhythm and tone.

The brain controls the heart rate, but interestingly enough does not directly innervate the heart. All the heart needs to beat is oxygen, which is why a heart will still beat when not connected to the body.

The heart rate is controlled by the autonomic nervous system and its two components – the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system manages our stress response (generally described as “fight or flight”) thus it will accelerate the heart. Whether we are going to fight the tiger or run from it either way we need to get moving and we need more blood flow. The increase to our heart rate gets the job done. Our parasympathetic nervous system is engaged for more normal functioning or when we are relaxed. Therefore less blood flow is necessary and the heart rate will be inhibited or lowered.

Potassium is an alkaline ash mineral used by the parasympathetic nervous system while phosphorus is an acid ash mineral used by the sympathetic nervous system. For optimal heart health you need both these minerals. Phosphorus is the key ingredient in ATP which is essential for cellular energy which fuels the heart and the body. Without sufficient phosphorus the body will be energy deficient. At the same time the body needs potassium for when it needs to curb energy (or excess energy) production. Without potassium, there will be no constraint on phosphorus and the sympathetic nervous system will continue to fire.

One of the ways potassium gets depleted is through a high carbohydrate/sugar diet. The sugar needs to be stored in the liver and muscles and takes potassium along with it. A high carbohydrate dinner can be particularly dangerous as a potassium deficiency can be created causing the heart to work extra hard during the night. Perhaps this explains how you hear of people dying in their sleep, particularly after a big meal!

In addition to heart rate, the autonomic nervous system controls many significant bodily functions including breathing, metabolism, emotional responses and digestion just to name a few. While I only discussed heart rate above, you can certainly well imagine how autonomic dysfunction caused by a deficiency in potassium or phosphorus can cause a wide range of symptoms as other parts of the body goes out of balance.

Typical symptoms of phosphorus deficiency include: morning stiffness, nausea, cramping when in one position for a long time, being a slow starter in the morning, sensitivity to cold weather, edema, high blood pressure, insomnia, restlessness, leg cramps, tight feeling in chest, headaches, irritability, throbbing sensations, excess tarter buildup on teeth, and gastric hyperacidity.
Typical symptoms of potassium deficiency include: frequent sighing, dislike for closed rooms, hyperirritability, cold sweats, and dehydration (dryness of mouth, skin, dry hard stools, diminished urination and perspiration).

Bernard Rosen, PhD is a Nutrition Consultant and Educator. He works with individuals, groups, and at corporations to create individualized nutrition and wellness programs. His office is in Mequon, WI. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, e-mail at bernie@brwellness.com, call (262) 389-9907 or go to www.brwellness.com.