Heart-felt: a holistic understanding of the heart's role in stress, anxiety, sleep
Feeling run down, and maybe a little spent emotionally? February is heart health month - in its honour, I want to discuss emotional heart health and how to harness some basic yet powerful tools that you already have - sleep, diet and exercise.
For a moment, let's put physical pathology aside. Naturopathic medicine plays an important role in reversing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and risks of heart attacks - though even physical heart conditions can benefit from the tools discussed here.
THE EMOTIONS OF THE HEART
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the "heart" is the organ that governs the mind and blood flow to all the other organs. The heart's primary emotions are joy and anxiety. Stress, memory and sleep issues are all associated with the heart. As are palpitations, tongue function (speech/taste) and complexion. The state of your emotional heart impacts the health of all other organs!
Sleep and stress hormones: in the evening your body's levels of cortisol (your stress or "fight or flight" hormone) should naturally drop. Melatonin levels naturally rise in response to lack of bright light. In the morning, bright light exposure lowers melatonin, and cortisol peaks about 30 minutes after waking. Anxiety and stress can cause cortisol levels to stay high at night and impact the body's ability to get deep and restorative sleep. Poor sleep leads to poor memory consolidation. Being WIRED at night is a sign of cortisol/melatonin imbalances - and sometimes due to insufficient physical activity in the day. Learn more about how cortisol impacts your health.
PILLARS OF HEALTH
Here's some simple ways you can support "heart health" for the whole family - kids and adults alike! I've broken down my recommendations into the pillars of health that I look to when helping patients optimize wellness - sleep, exercise, stress and diet.
Take a read over this list - you may already be doing some of these already! Choose 2 or 3 things you want to try to incorporate now! Then add just one new thing each week (don't let this add to the stress!). When those are mastered, come back to this list and try some more!
the evening "wind-down" - ideally starts 2 hours before bed (or after dinner time) - this is a time to avoid bright lights (especially blue light from devices/screens), and incorporate non-stressful activity - this could be reading, or even helping with household cleaning - try to avoid screen-time or "homework" before bed - if possible. Adults requiring screen-time can use blue-light filters on computers/devices and dim brightness settings. If energy is high in the evening, consider going for a short evening walk/run outdoors (especially if not much outdoor time was had in the day), but this will be temporarily energizing, so be cautious about timing.
keep a regular bed-time - this helps your body find a cortisol production rhythm - shift workers often benefit from supplemental melatonin when transitioning to a new sleep schedule
Exercise & Stress
move your breath: "alternate nostril breathing" (see VIDEO instructions) takes a bit of practice but can be a fun game for the whole family - only takes 2 minutes a day - can be incorporated into evening activities, and if done daily will reduce overall stress. Other exercises that incorporate moving the breath include yoga and qi-gong.
move your body: try spreading your daily movement throughout the day - especially if you find yourself seated for long hours in the same position. Take a 20 second break for some jumping jacks or push-ups every 20 minutes. Get a variety of exercise - dynamic movement (hiking or running outdoors provides connection with nature too!) promotes healthy emotional flow and blood flow!
sugar increases stress(1): if you could change one thing in your diet for the greatest impact on your stress/sleep/mood, my money's on sugar. Sugar consumption is linked to increased anxiety, stress, fear and depression - as well as increasing the impulse to eat! Sugar temporarily reduces stress (so yes, it soothes you when stressed!) but don't let it fool you - sugar ends up shutting down the body's own stress-regulatory abilities - and that feeds the cravings! The addictive properties of sugar light up the same reward centres in the brain as addictive drugs like cocaine. To break the stress/sugar cycle: remove all refined sugar, and reduce the amount of refined grains you consume (ie. flours/breads/pasta). Try sticking to fresh fruits (no more than 2 servings daily) as a primary source of sugar! For a sweetener in your baking, try limited amounts of coconut sugar, dates, honey or unrefined sugars like blackstrap molasses (they are all still sugar!). Perspective: if you can eat in your ideal healthy way 90% of the time, allow days where you indulge - perhaps for special occasions? This will also help you listen to your body - when you aren't constantly indulging, it's easier to notice how your body reacts to different foods - emotionally and physically.
foods to nourish the "Heart" in TCM: I always suggest you eat a variety of vegetable colours (aim for 5+ servings of veggies daily, and up to 2 servings of fruit) - fibre is so important to vitality as it helps eliminate toxins! In TCM tradition, red foods are particularly heart nourishing, such as: tomatoes, cherries, kidney beans, raspberries, red peppers, strawberries, apples with skins, organ meats (liver), small amounts of lean red meat (grass fed), and even dark leafy greens (not red - though they build blood) I recommend organic sources of all animal products and as many vegetables as possible, at minimum aim to avoid eating non-organic foods from the "dirty dozen" list of most heavy chemical residues.
Tea - a soothing ritual
my favourite for stress and sleep: holy basil (or tulsi) is a culinary food that makes a lovely tea (it's similar to basil - and can be grown in the garden!). You can drink it morning or night - holy basil helps you adapt to stress and improve sleep by lowering cortisol in the evenings and raising it in the mornings to help with waking up. It's naturally antihistamine and soothes nervous or bloated tummies. Tasty for kids too!
As always, this information is designed for general wellness and not to be taken in place of medical advice. If you are taking any medications or have any health conditions, please book a visit for individualized support.
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(1) The impact of sugar consumption on stress driven, emotional and addictive behaviours (2019)