By Catherine Winters, Dr Steven Nissen and Dr Marc Gillinov
Could tiny needles, positive thinking and slow-motion movement be the ticket to a healthier heart? Experts have long been doubtful, but an exciting—and growing—slew of new studies shows that alternative medicine can have a strong impact on reducing heart-disease risk.
“There’s much more to the prevention and treatment of heart disease than pills and procedures,” says cardiologist Dr Stephen Devries. Here, we investigate three therapies that can have huge heart-health pay-offs.
The acupuncture answer
The newest weapons in the battle against high blood pressure? Needles. Research suggests that weekly acupuncture sessions can slash systolic blood pressure by up to 20 points, producing results that are on a par with prescription meds such as ACE (angiotensin-converting-enzyme) inhibitors.
By stimulating a few key acupoints near the elbows and knees, acupuncture releases neurotransmitters that travel to brain regions that regulate the cardiovascular system, explains cardiologist John Longhurst, PhD. Electroacupuncture, which uses battery-driven needles, is especially effective, he adds, because it lets the acupuncturist standardise the amount of stimulation and adjust the frequency.
Acupuncture can’t permanently lower blood pressure, though. “Once you’ve developed hypertension, you have it for life,” says Longhurst. So just as you would with medication, you’d need to have weekly acupuncture treatments to see results.
The positivity pay-off
Stopping stress in its tracks sounds good, but can people really learn to change the way they react to upsetting situations? And if so, can this help lower blood pressure? Well, yes and yes, according to a study by the Institute of HeartMath, a nonprofit research-and-education organisation in the US.
Its researchers found that engaging in ‘positive-emotion refocusing’—a technique that teaches you to interrupt your typical stress response by redirecting your attention—can significantly lower blood pressure in hypertensive patients after just three months of daily practice.
The study results were promising: all subjects saw their blood pressure drop, 12% were able to reduce their dose of blood-pressure-lowering medication, and one participant went off the pills altogether. Impressive stuff, and here’s why: stress sparks a cascade of hard-on-your-heart hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, whereas positive-emotion refocusing triggers a counterflood of energising feel-good hormones that short-circuit the stress response.
Even better, positive refocusing is easy to learn. When you feel anxiety brewing, work out what’s worrying you, then hold the thought in your mind like a freeze-frame from a film. As you do this, breathe deeply for several minutes, focusing your attention on your heartbeat. Now identify a positive feeling. “This calms your emotions and shifts your attention away from negative thoughts,” says behavioural psychologist Deborah Rozman, PhD. Experts recommend setting aside 10 minutes a day for positive thinking, but even a couple of minutes can be helpful.
Tai chi: more than just a workout
The combination of tai chi (a Chinese martial art) and qi gong (Chinese yoga) makes for more than a gentle workout. Practising these ancient disciplines can reduce stress and have a powerful effect on metabolic syndrome (a cluster of five conditions that ups your risk of heart disease), reducing systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and trimming waist size by at least a couple of centimetres, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
One reason is the fact that these slow-mo sports can burn as many kilojoules as moderate-intensity activities such as walking do—but it’s the mind-calming benefits of tai chi and qi gong that really increase their heart-healthy cred. Research shows that because people find the meditative component of tai chi relaxing and enjoyable, they tend to stick with it—and that’s crucial for any heart-disease-prevention strategy.
“Sustainability is very important if you want to see ongoing effects of the practice,” says Xin Liu, PhD, a senior research fellow at The University of Queensland’s School of Medicine. So don some baggy pants and move—gracefully—towards an even healthier heart, for life.