The Road to a Billion Beats
Walk onto any busy street corner in America and look at the people passing by. Many of them are likely to have one big thing in common: heart disease. The symptoms will be as obvious as the noses on their faces.
Ironically, most of those who have heart disease probably don’t know it. Heart disease sneaks up on a person. The illness often begins to creep into a child’s heart and vascular system before he or she is ten years old; for the next 440 or 50 years, it slowly and insidiously becomes worse, until at the age of 55 or 65 the person is killed by a heart attack. Then the relatives lament that he or she wasn’t sick a day in their lives. The truth is that they were sick most of their lives and didn’t recognize the fairly obvious symptoms.
Before discussing how a traditional Oriental physician diagnosed a heart problem, let’s take a moment and look at what the heart does. The heart is a muscle about the size of a fist, placed in the center of the chest and leaning slightly to the left. It is made up of four chambers-the upper being the left and right atria, and the bottom the left and right ventricles. The principal function of the heart is to pump oxygenated blood to every living cell in the body, as well as to pump carbon dioxide-filled blood to the lungs, where it is cleansed and oxygenated.
By the 16th day of a woman’s pregnancy, her baby has already begun to form the incipient structure of the heart. By the 24th day, the primordial pump is beating. At that time, the entire embryo is no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. Once the baby is born, the heart will beat at a rate of about 100,000 times a day-more than a billion times in a single lifetime.
All over the world, the heart has been associated with the emotions, particularly with love. He spoke from his heart, we often hear people say. What is meant by this ageless cliche is that one spoke what one firmly believed to be true. You cannot go against your heart without paying a heavy price, is another common aphorism, and again the meaning is clear: one must follow what is true. Thus, the heart is not only the center of love but the bearer of truth-high place of honor for a single organ.
In the Orient, the heart is associated with the self. It is the place where heaven’s and earth’s forces meet and collide, causing a rhythmic beating, an expansion and contraction, a movement and a rest. Oriental physicians and philosophers referred to this action as yin (expansion) and Yang (contraction), and the heart was the perfect metaphor for the way in which the universe operated. Since humankind is regarded in the East as the result of union between heaven and earth, between yin an yang, the heart was regarded as the most essential center of a human being; thus, it was associated with the self.
Traditional healers viewed the heart as the central headquarters for incoming information from other organs, such as the liver, spleen, lungs, and kidneys. These messages represented the balanced condition of the body, giving rise to the feeling of joy, or an imbalanced condition, which resulted in panic or hysteria. These two emotions-joy and hysteria- came to be associated with the heart, joy being regarded as the most superior emotion of all, since it was the result of a harmonious condition.
Traditional healers based their healing practices on the motion of ki energy, which is essentially electromagnetic energy that flows from the heavens (from the sun, stars, and moon) and from the earth’s rotation. This energy flow along certain pathways. or meridians, in the body according to a set pattern. Traditional healers recognized that there was a distinct relationship between the heart and the small intestine; when a physician treated the small intestine with diet, acupuncture, or some external application, for example, the heart also responded positively. On the other hand, when the heart was weak or troubled, the small intestine was suffering form some malady as well. This Janus-faced relationship between the heart and the small intestine that was both complementary and antagonistic was a fundamental recognition in their approach to healing.
Several aspects of this complementary relationship are: 1) their anatomical locations: central upper torso versus central lower torso; 2) structure: solid, compacted heart muscle versus hollow, expanded small intestine; 3) functions: absorption of food and creation of blood by the small intestine versus circulation of the blood by the heart, and 4) philosophical functions: the deep, internal, invisible transmutations of the small intestine compared to the out ward, superficial, and communicative activities of the heart.
A similar relationship was found to exist between the kidneys and the heart. This relationship is well established in Western medicine today. When the kidneys become overburdened by a diet rich i n saturated fat and salt, they can no longer cleanse the blood at the normal rate the body is used to. This balance is then thrown off and a kind of bottleneck takes place. The consumption of excessive amounts of salt and fat are major causes of this bottleneck; sodium causes the kidneys to contract, thus reducing their capacity to handle the normal quantity of blood coming in for cleansing. Naturally, the blood gets backed up and high blood pressure, or hypertension, results. This, of course, puts enormous stress on the heart. Also, toxins that the kidneys normally filter out of the blood remain within the body for longer periods of time and are often absorbed by cells, thus creating problems in other areas of the body.
When the kidneys are functioning well, the flow of blood is facilitated and the heart’s job is made easier.
Thus, Oriental physicians saw the need to create harmony within the system by treating the whole body. In the case of the heart, the proper functioning of the small intestine and the kidneys is essential if the heart is to do its job properly.
There are two types of heart disease, one being the result of foods high in saturated animal fat and cholesterol. This results in hardening of the arteries and in fat deposits surrounding the heart. The heart and arteries ultimately lose their elasticity and vitality, and the heart is forced to labor excessively in order to pump blood. Meanwhile, because of an excessive amount of fat surrounding the organ, the heart gets insufficient oxygen, further debilitating it. The second type of condition is an expanded heart, the result of an excessive amount of alcohol, sweet drinks and fruit juices, sugar, refined foods, and stimulants such as coffee. This condition causes the heart to swell and beat irregularly; eventually the heart becomes weak and fluttery. Both conditions make the body highly prone to heart attack and other coronary diseases such as palpitations and angina.
The traditional healer needed only a few minute to diagnose a heart problem. He or she needed neither x-rays nor invasive tests nor radioactive dyes. They needed only to look at the person’s face, listen to their speech, watch their physical movements, probe a few points on their bodies, and ask a few simple questions.
If the patient’s face was swollen or reddish in color, the traditional healer automatically knew that there was some heart problem at hand. Generally, a swollen face or one that bore a reddish color indicated an expanded and overworked heart. A red face also indicated the presence of high blood pressure. This is because high blood pressure results in expansion of the capillaries around the face, and particularly the nose, forcing the tiny blood vessels to the surface of the skin, thus giving the face a reddish color.
Some people have a purple color in their face or at the tip of their nose. This suggests that the person once suffered from high blood pressure, but over time the heart became extremely weak and lost much of its elasticity and strength. The result is low blood pressure and a heart that is tired and swollen. A purple hue to the face or nose usually suggests a more advanced and dangerous condition than simply a swollen face or reddish color.
A child’s stuttering or stammering speech problem is often the result of a heart murmur or hyperactive heart beat. When the heart is racing, a child’s speech responds in the same way, thus giving rise to an excited, hyperactive speech pattern. When there is a murmur, or irregular heart beat, the voice pattern may be more stuttering, filled with false starts, and unable to get on track.
In the same way that the voice gives us clues to the condition of the heart, so too does a person’s movements. Unstable, jerky kinds of movements-a person who can’t sit still or get comfortable, for example-are a reflection of a hyperactive and irregular heart beat. This is due less to impatience, a trait usually associated with a troubled liver, than to the inability of the heart to settle into a rhythmic, relaxed beating patter.
Recently I read that more than half of all heart attacks take place in the summer months and during mid-day. To som eone unfamiliar with traditional healing practices this information is puzzling. However, Oriental physicians noted that the heart receives its greatest stimulation, and thus the most stress, during the hours between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and during the summer months, particularly in July. When a person suffers from any kind of chest cramp, feels hyperactive, unsettled, or lethargic during these hours and months, this is usually a sign that a heart problem is at hand.
This rule of thumb also goes for the phases of the moon. During the full moon, the body experiences an increase in fluids, which puts more stress on the heart. As a result, the chances of heart attacks and the occurrence of other chronic cardiovascular problems are heightened during these periods.
As with the other organs, one can diagnose the condition of the heart by feeling the heart pulse, located on the left wrist closest to the hand on a man and on the right wrist in the same place on a woman (see illustration). If the pulse is excessively strong, heavy, and rapid, the heart is overworked and is suffering from a more contracted condition, the result of too many animal foods and fat deposits surrounding the heart. If, however, the pulse is weak or fluttery, it indicates an expanded condition, the result of too many sweets, soft drinks, fruit juices, and stimulants.
In the same way, you can check the heart meridian, which runs along the inside of the arms to the inside of the little finger. Have the person raise their arm above heir head and with your fingers feel along the meridian. If it is soft and gives a flabby feeling, the condition is more expanded; however, if the meridian is hard or stiff, this indicates a more contracted condition. Obviously, it takes practice and sensitivity to judge the differences, but with time and continued experimentation one is quickly able to recognize the two conditions.
A healthy pulse is unhurried, stable, and gives the feeling of being strong or full; a well-conditioned meridian is firm yet supple, and the muscle tissue returns quickly to its original position after being probed.
Finally, the Oriental healer gave a close examination to the patient’s nose. The nose, located in the center of the face, is regarded by the traditional healer as the complementary structure to the heart, which is located in the center of the chest cavity. Over the course of thousands of years of study, the traditional healers came to recognize that the condition of the nose-where it was swollen or red, or showed a waxy or irregular surface represented a similar condition of the heart.
Specifically, a swollen nose represents an expanded heart condition. When the nose is red and reveals expanded capillaries at the surface of the skin, this indicates that the heart is swollen, overworked, and lacking oxygen. The traditional healer immediately suspected high blood pressure when these signs appeared, as well as some coronary artery disease, such as atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by tat deposits clogging the arteries. In advanced cases, as was mentioned, the nose sometimes becomes purple.
The nose can show other specific problems with the heart. Sometimes there is swelling on just one side of the nose, indicating that the corresponding chambers of the heart are also expanded and overworked. Some noses have a distinct, almost waxy pallor, indicating the presence of fat deposits surrounding the heart. This is usually the result of an excessive amount of saturated fat in the diet, particularly from dairy products such as hard cheeses. This, coupled with a diet high in alcohol, refined grains, sugar, and stimulants such as coffee, puts enormous stress upon the heart and ultimately weakens this otherwise incredible muscle.
Although many people in America today are suffering form heart and artery disease in one form or another, these illnesses are relatively easy to prevent and even reverse. A diet that is centered around whole grains, cooked vegetables, seaweeds, and fresh fruits strengthens the heart and helps ward off serious illness. In addition, traditional physicians recognized that certain foods were especially strengthening for the heart, particularly red millet (corn is the Western staple that possesses the same heart-strengthening qualities), and bitter tasting vegetables such as dandelion, mustard greens, watercress, and burdock. Also, roasted sesame seeds, or such vegetables as turnips, radishes, onions, and scallions are all excellent for returning elasticity to the heart.
Moreover, one should eliminate virtually all fats, particularly saturated animal fats and cholesterol. In the case of a person who is suffering from a more expanded heart condition soups such as miso and tamari broth can be a little stronger. Also, the foods can be cooked for longer periods of time and there can be more pressure-cooking.
In the case of a person with a more contracted heart condition, the soups should be lighter and salt intake should be sharply restricted. The cooking should also be lighter, using more steamed and lightly boiled vegetables. One can use more ginger, daikon, and scallions for condiments; these foods have the effect of melting away fat deposits that surround the heart and clog the arteries.
The traditional Oriental healer also recognized that the person with heart problem suffered from some psychological difficulty with him-or herself, and with relationships in general. Perhaps we could all benefit by improving the condition of our hearts.