By Dr K.L. Chopra
The chairperson of the Heart Care Foundation of India draws his creative muse from personal experience and holds it up against the comforting light of India’s ancient wisdom on matters of the anatomical and emotional heart
One upon a time, they used to say you are what you eat—whoever they might be. They should also have appended to that: you are what you think, feel, etceteras. You are your attitude. And if you wear your attitude like a comfortable cape, it is likely that you will be crusading to a ripe old age. It’s all a matter of the heart.
The heart of the matter, however, is altogether a more serious affair: over 30 million adults in India suffer from coronary artery disease, which leads to angina or heart attack. The number of people here who die of heart attacks today is 2.5 million, as compared with one million deaths due to cancer. What is disturbing is that relatively younger people, usually in the prime of their lives, end up with their tickers giving up.
In terms of a global roundabout, smoking and smoking-related trauma claim six victims every minute, or one death every 10 seconds. The majority of these deaths occur in developing countries, with India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh on the front-line.
But excess can kill people as swiftly and mercilessly as abject want. It is a wry tragedy that many people of the middle class and the affluent segments of society the world over actually die of one of life’s ironic capitalist oxymoron: ‘over-consumption malnutrition’.
In the Gita, Lord Krishna says that good or sattvic people eat food that increases vigor, vitality, and cheerfulness, and also tastes pleasant. The rajasic or passionate person relished food that is bitter, sour, salty or much too hot, which produces discomfort and disease. Tamasic or dull people suffer from inertia, sloth, and disease. The Gita recommends gastronomic moderation: eat neither too much for fear of difficult locomotion nor so little that you starve.
Take also the Bible. In The Old Testament. God admonishes Moses: ‘You should eat no manner of fat, ox, sheep, or goat for whosoever eateth fat of the beast shall be cut off from his people.’ It must have been good advice: Moses was 120 years old when he died and his eyes were not dim, and his natural force had not abated.
Today, we are will aware that people who ingest excessive animal fat (which has a high cholesterol content) suffer from premature heart disease. To prevent or at least arrest this, we have to turn to a heart-healthy diet much before the heart begins to complain, not after. The age-old principles of ayurveda prescribe different diets according to individual constitution and body type.
The ayurvedic text, Charaka Samhita, circa 1,000 BC, said, ‘By physical exercises one gets brightness, capacity to work, firmness, diminution of impurities, and stimulation of digestion and metabolism.’ It’s no secret of patent or process now that with 20-25 minutes of daily aerobic exercise like brisk walking, cycling or swimming, cardiovascular efficiency shoots up much like a cat on a hot tin roof. We eat, sleep, think, work and love better, indeed protect both our hearts—the anatomical and the emotional—against premature disease.
At the other disease-free end of the scale of body malfunction lies the sleeping dog of atrophy; it you retire early from active life and don’t use your brain, the damned organ atrophies. Briefly put, what you don’t use you lose.
No longer is there any medical dispute that subtle, lurking grief is a time bomb with a short fuse: it is the only risk factor manifested in more than half the patients of coronary heart disease, the various cancers and other degenerative diseases.
The other explosive device is emotion—of which anger is the easiest to feel. Even its remembrance can be punishing: a report in the American Journal of Cardiology in 1953 said that recalling anger constricts blood supply to the heart muscle , which reduces its ‘ejection fraction’, an impairment visible on echocardiography.
The British Medical Journal also reported in 1976 that the stress of bereavement is a green light to heart attacks with, for reasons yet unexplained, more widowers dying than widows. Constant worrying raises adrenaline levels and weakens the engine, much like high-octane fuel would corrode automatons used to leaded petrol. Although easy to come by and surrender to, alcohol, smoking and tranquilizer are no options for bodies and minds trapped in anxiety, fatigue or depression, These medications could club you senseless, but you’d wake up a few hours later with fatigue, agitation, and hostility still rampaging inside you.
How then does one attain peace and happiness without chemical artifice and be rid of bondage, misery, and disease? Asked this question by Rajrishi Janak, 12-year-old Guru Asthavakra replied: ‘The seed of every thought blossoms into action and affects the body. Purposeless thoughts give rise to unhappiness and positive thoughts make you happy and healthy.’
Our thoughts, emotions, memory, and beliefs are very real impulses that impact on the molecular world of matter outside, and for the purposes of keeping the body going, they are converted into chemicals called neuropeptides. In essence, therefore, thoughts are not ephemeral, transient abstractions but real electromedical events, which are converted to matter.
New Age guru Deepak Chopra says that the mind isn’t confined to the skull; it is present in entirety in each of the 50 trillion cells of our body, each of them communicating in biochemical language, cell to cell, organ to organ. In his book Quantum Healing, he says that the division of the body into various discrete systems, with the brain as overlord, may soon be outmoded. When you say, for instance, that you have butterflies in your stomach, or that your heart is sinking, you literally mean it: your neuropeptides are acting up again.
The neuropeptides determine the availability of the body’s building blocks: the neurotransmitters, immunomodulators, hormones and enzymes, which raise or raze fortresses of immunity.
Headlines were made when San Francisco cardiologist Dean Ornish showed scientifically that advanced heart patients could actually shrink the fatty plaque deposits blocking their coronary arteries to an extent that chest pains were relieved and the risk of a fatal heart attack reduced. Help came in the form of regular yoga exercises, meditation, and a strict low cholesterol diet.
The other half of the miracle are so many people with high cholesterol levels in their blood but not a trace of arterosclerois or premature heart disease. It is likely that positive thoughts and quietude of mind made these individuals immune, to the extent that any excess at all was rerouted down an alternative metabolic pathway instead of creating traffic jams and building up deposits on the inside of the arteries.
Hovering over these biological matters of hone and gristle and muscle and blood are the angels of happiness and joie d’ vivre. Oddly enough, they balance out. Strict regimens stay strict and regimented only for a brief flicker of a candle: beyond it lies another balance, the equilibrium of life and a heart that treated others well and was treated in ample measure.
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