If My Father Only Knew
The Role of Natural Medicine in Preventing and Treating Heart Disease
A few months after my twelfth birthday, I awoke suddenly in the wee hours to ambulance lights whirling across my bedroom wall. I heard banging in the hallway outside my door and loud unfamiliar voices. I woke to learn my father had died. Like many through the middle part of the 20th century he was a heavy smoker with unhealthy dietary habits. He had stressful, sedentary work and a large family to support. With elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight, the massive heart attack that killed him, at least in hindsight, was no surprise.
We have come a long way. But though research is unequivocal about the positive impact of prevention and lifestyle medicine, the translation to patients often falls short. Heart disease remains the number one killer for both men and women in the United States. Naturopathic doctors are among a growing number of providers who use lifestyle and natural medicine to help prevent and if needed, treat heart disease.
W. Lee Cowden, MD, MPH, a board certified cardiologist and internist says, “Licensed naturopathic doctors (NDs) are very effective in guiding patients in both prevention and natural medicine approaches to cardiovascular disease.” NDs work to find underlying causes of disease and empower patients to make enduring and effective lifestyle changes. Research studies have shown that naturopathic medicine intervention is both effective and cost effective.
Here are 6 specific areas naturopathic doctors focus:
1. Reducing Inflammation. Studies show one root cause of heart disease which presents throughout the body is the result of chronic inflammation. Poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, stress, autoimmune processes, food allergies, and other sources lead to chronic inflammation. Inflammation aggravates atherosclerosis, which narrows arteries and increases risk for blockage. This can lead to heart attack and certain kinds of strokes. Naturopathic doctors are expert in helping patients reduce inflammation.
2. Targeted laboratory investigation. In addition to typical laboratory test, naturopathic doctors and increasingly conventionally trained doctors, include oxidized LDL, the primary type of cholesterol found in plaques, inflammatory markers, autoimmune markers, lipoprotein particle analysis, a full glucose panel and a comprehensive neurotransmitter profile. These additional tests help inform personalized and precise treatment.
3. Natural medicine management of symptoms. Naturopathic doctors follow the Therapeutic Order, a set of clinical decision making guidelines that prioritize minimally invasive therapies to support the body’s capacity to repair itself. Because of this, NDs lead with natural treatments. If state license permits, NDs prescribe medications such as diuretics and beta-blockers as a bridge to managing symptoms while supporting the body’s effort to repair itself. Where licensure does not allow, NDs refer patients to and collaborate with conventional medical colleagues to insure patient safety. Naturopathic doctors are also well versed in addressing potential unwanted side effects of conventional protocols with natural medicine.
4. Addressing and optimizing gastrointestinal function. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is one common starting place for inflammation in the body. The microbiome in the GI tract helps provide protection between the digestive tract and blood stream. When the flora in the digestive system is not in balance, risk for localized inflammation increases. This can lead to alterations in intestinal permeability, which can contribute to heart disease. NDs work to repair GI tract function drawing from extensive, years-long training in diet and clinical nutrition. Restoring proper PH, balancing flora, correcting intestinal permeability and addressing constipation, which is linked with increased mortality from cardiovascular disease, are focal points of naturopathic medicine for cardiovascular disease.
5. Addressing endothelial dysfunction. The endothelium, the inner lining of the blood vessels, functions throughout the body, and is essential for proper cardiovascular health. When the endothelium is not functioning optimally, there is increased risk for arterial inflammation and plaque build-up, which in turn can lead to heart attack or stroke. Modifiable factors like tobacco use, obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemias, sedentary lifestyle and poor diet all contribute to endothelial dysfunction. Endothelial function can be improved using a combination of lifestyle modification, botanical medicine and clinical nutrients.
6. Motivating physical activity. As most people know, exercise is associated with improvements in a variety of cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, depression, inflammation, and diabetes. For NDs, the exercise prescription is paramount and taking time to understand a patient’s history with exercise, what has worked for them, what is realistic and basing recommendations on that information, helps.
I wish my father had had access to naturopathic care and hope that if you or someone you know is at risk for or suffering from cardiovascular disease, you consider adding an ND to your health care team.
Naturally, I dedicate this piece to my father’s memory. I would like to thank the Institute for Natural Medicine and the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians for support in writing this article.