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Upon learning they have heart disease, many people set out in full force to overhaul their diet and exercise routines in hopes of overcoming what could at first seem like a devastating diagnosis.
While this is a good first step, there are other lifestyle factors contributing to conditions of the heart that often are overlooked.
“There are many studies that show how stress levels and emotions strongly affect physical health,” says Sarah Lavallee, a stress management specialist with the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program at Straub Medical Center.
“Taking action to manage the stress response in the body can have a significant impact on your overall health and happiness,” Lavallee explains. “Some benefits include lower blood pressure and heart rate, better immune system function, and reduced inflammation in the body. Reducing chronic stress also induces a calmer mind, creates better intuition and will help you sleep and feel better.”
One pioneer in the field of the mind-body-health connection is Dr. Dean Ornish, who in 1977 began conducting studies that have proven that patients can reverse the progression of coronary heart disease by following a comprehensive, integrated lifestyle program.
His research led to the creation of the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program, which focuses on the areas of nutrition, fitness, stress management, and love and support, to heal the heart, body and soul.
By working on all four areas, participants in the program are not only able to lower their blood pressures, lose weight, decrease their cholesterol levels, and increase their sense of well-being during the nine weeks of classes, but almost 90 percent of participants also continue a healthier lifestyle for many years after.
“It’s a very supportive program for patients with heart disease,” says Straub Family Medicine Physician Dr. Marti Taba. “The patients, as a group, have had improved blood pressures and LDL cholesterol. Most have lost weight and also have improved sugars. A few patients have had long-lasting improvements in stress management. All patients I’ve sent have shown a positive improvement in their blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar and weight.”
The Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program at Straub is designed to help patients who:
• Are considering bypass, angioplasty or stents, but are seeking an option that may reduce the need for these procedures.
• Have previously experienced heart procedures and want to minimize the chances of having repeat procedures.
• Have diabetes and are considered to have the same risk level for heart disease as those who have already been diagnosed with heart disease.
• Have risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity or a family history of heart disease.
The program’s 18 sessions each include one hour of exercise, one hour of stress management, one hour of group support and one hour of an Ornish-approved nutritious meal and lecture. Participants continue to be treated by their primary care physicians, who receive regular reports on their patients.
“The program is very positive, and almost every patient I sent was happy to participate and sad when it ended,” Taba says. “Patients showed improvement in their blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar and weight. Patients feel empowered to do something about their risk for recurrent coronary heart disease and heart attack.”
For more information on the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program, click here.
5 Tips to a Healthier Ticker
Approximately one in every four deaths in the United States is a result of heart disease. The good news is that there are a few ways to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease.
Lose Weight or Maintain a Healthy Weight. Being overweight increases the risk for high blood pressure and diabetes, among other health problems that affect your heart. Getting to and maintaining a healthy body weight reduce your risk for developing these issues and may even reverse or eliminate the condition.
Exercise. Not only can exercise help you lose weight and maintain a healthy weight, it can reduce stress. It’s recommended that individuals partake in 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity three to four times per week.
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet. A plant-based, low-fat diet that’s high in fiber is the most heart-healthy diet, according to Dr. Roy Chen, a cardiologist and medical director for the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program at Straub Medical Center. Think of your plate as a circle made up of nutritious food. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with whole grains and the remaining quarter with lean protein.
Quit Smoking. Chemicals in tobacco smoke damage the lining of the arteries, resulting in fatty material buildup and narrowing of the artery. Smoking also can elevate blood pressure.
Manage Stress Levels. Reducing caffeine intake, meditation and other techniques can be very effective approaches to stress reduction. To begin, it’s as simple as the air you breathe. “It’s easy to forget about such a natural thing like breathing,” says Lavallee. She advises making exhales twice as long as inhales. Extending your exhales has a cooling effect on the body and promotes relaxation, which research shows reduces the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. “Learning to take deep, complete breaths has many benefits for your health and happiness,” Lavallee says.