The Heart of Medicine: Staying Connected in an Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation
In the past few articles, I’ve discussed how heart disease, the number one killer in men and women, continues to take its toll on the population.
I reviewed some alarming statistics regarding women and cardiovascular disease (CVD), highlighted traditional risk factors, and stepped into the controversies surrounding cholesterol levels and statins. Next, I explored how heart disease often gets swept under the rug for women. Specifically, there are overlooked and underrecognized risk factors and symptoms that are specific to females regarding CVD.
For example, hormonal, digestive, and mood imbalances, which are commonly seen in women, are often attributed to other conditions without considering heart health.
Understanding and recognizing these individual differences in risk factors and symptoms for CVD is important. Without this knowledge, there is a greater chance of missing something that could have been prevented. Furthermore, these aspects can help to establish an integrative, personalized, and precise wellness protocol for cardiovascular health moving forward.
Yet, even with implementing all this information, medicine will still not regain a heart healthy world. It is lacking the most important aspects to achieving truly holistic heart health in their treatments.
We’ve had incredible advances in medicine, drugs, and research in heart disease, but the one thing that our heart needs the most to thrive can’t be biochemically manipulated. It is free and one of the most powerful influencer on CVD outcomes.
It’s social connection.
Relationships, socioeconomics, and emotions are perhaps more vital for truly healing the heart than any intervention or supplement.
As stated previously, perceived loneliness and isolation are substantial risk factors for cardiovascular mortality. Yet, they are not even mentioned in most conventional articles as being ones! Furthermore, healthy relationships buffer the negative impacts of a heart attack and mental health is also linked to heart disease and eased by feeling connected. These latter two are also rarely brought to the forefront.
Medicine is missing the mark by ignoring the mind-body-heart connection.
Love is the medicine that can be most effective and boost the impact of all the other things we are doing to optimize physical cardiovascular and overall health.
In this post and video, I review more about this heart-brain link. It is critical to understand to heal all the struggling hearts on earth.
– The heart of medicine
– The heart-brain link
– The power of relationships on heart health
– Heart connections in an epidemic of loneliness and isolation
– Forming social connections in a disconnected world
– Tips for integrating more love and connection into healthcare using naturopathic, functional, and integrative medicine approaches
The Heart-Brain Link
As noted above, social connection and brain health have a powerful impact on the heart.
One review article on the psychological factors linked to CVD found that the following factors impacted risk:
- Social isolation and social support
- Psychosocial work environment
- Acute and chronic life events
- Personality type and hostility
Stress, mental health, and relationships were the strongest associations between the brain and heart. Specifically, the authors reported the following in their research:
- Depression was an independent predictor of heart disease
- Anxiety, stress, lack of social support, and psychological work characteristics were linked to coronary artery disease
- The research on hostility and type A behavior was inconsistent
- The role of chronic life events is likely to effect heart health but is hard to measure
The strong role of social support as the number one predictive factor for heart risk was expanded on as follows (bold emphasis mine):
- One of the major protective factors for CHD is social support. Some studies have shown that perceived social support during hospitalization decreases depressive symptoms in subsequent months.
- In addition, many studies have shown that after myocardial infarction the rate of depression depends upon the amount of social support.
- This study also showed different types of stress such as anxiety, depression, social isolation, social support, acute and chronic life event, hostility, and type A behavior. Among these variables, social support is more important than other variables. Not only is the lack of social support associated with the occurrence of CHD, but it is also an independent risk factor for mortality.
The Power of Social Connection on the Heart
Recently, the Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy, released “The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community” in May 2023. He stated that loneliness poses health risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
As stated in the Associated Press:
Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by nearly 30%, with the report revealing that those with poor social relationships also had a greater risk of stroke and heart disease. Isolation also elevates a person’s likelihood for experiencing depression, anxiety and dementia, according to the research…
“There’s really no substitute for in-person interaction,” Murthy said. “As we shifted to use technology more and more for our communication, we lost out on a lot of that in-person interaction. How do we design technology that strengthens our relationships as opposed to weaken them?”
The Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) further warned us of the alarming consequences of being disconnected (bold emphasis mine):
Although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely, there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk. Recent studies found that:
- Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.
- Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
Heart Connections in an Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation
Although there can be healthy ways to handle isolation and separation, which I discussed here, there is no substitute for human connection.
Social connection effects all aspects of health including:
- Biological factors (stress hormones, gene expression, and inflammation)
- Psychological factors (meaning/purpose, stress, safety, resilience, hopefulness)
- Behaviors (how we nourish our bodies, smoking habits, exercise, and sleep)
The surgeon general outlined six foundational pillars, which are possible solutions for our society to reconnect:
- Strengthening social infrastructure, which includes things like parks and libraries as well as public programs.
- Enacting pro-connection public policies at every level of government, including things like accessible public transportation or paid family leave.
- Mobilizing the health sector to address the medical needs that stem from loneliness.
- Reforming digital environments to “critically evaluate our relationship with technology.”
- Deepening our knowledge through more robust research into the issue.
- Cultivating a culture of connection.
This national strategy calls on all individuals, organizations, and communities to play a role in increasing and strengthening connections on the following levels:
- National, Territory, State, Local, and Tribal Governments
- Health Workers, Health Care Systems, and Insurers (a focus of this article)
- Public Health Professionals and Public Health Departments
- Researchers and Research Institutions
- Schools and Education Departments
- Community-Based Organizations
- Technology Companies
- Media and Entertainment Industries
- Parents and Caregivers
- Individuals (your focus in reading this article)
Conclusion: A Naturopathic, Functional, and Integrative Approach to Heart Health
Although the numbers that associate heart risk with various factors may seem scary, they are not absolute and there is a lot we can do!
Addressing traditional risk factors, nutrients, movement, lifestyle choices, and high lipid levels can help somewhat to mitigate cardiovascular disease.
Yet as stated, these only partially impact heart disease outcomes if we don’t address the underlying causes.
For example, if we treat high cholesterol with a statin, but miss that it is related to infection, inflammation, and/or a low functioning thyroid, we are just band aiding biochemistry. We are also increasing the chance that a symptom for something wrong is being overlooked.
Yet, if we ignore one of the highest risk factors in heart disease outcomes, social connection, no amount of medicines, supplements, or exercise will fully heal a physical and emotionally broken heart, no matter what the etiology.
In regards to mobilizing the health sector, we must revere the crucial impact of healthy, unhealthy, and absent relationships on wellness.
This includes discussing and assessing social support with every client and patient. It also includes health and wellness providers having available referrals to community resources for programs and groups to enhance their clients’ and patients’ connections.
There are some other practical tips that I hope the integrative community will ponder to attain a more comprehensive, holistic heart health healing for individuals.
- Recognizing the efficacy and wellness benefits of the mind-heart-body connection on CVD outcomes. This has been demonstrated through the applications of stress and coping techniques, mindfulness, mind-body approaches, the research at the HeartMath Institute, and the biochemical, psychological, and emotional influence of essential oils.
- Embracing new philosophies that view the heart as more than just an organ. For example, as it was presented by Dr. Cowen with the heart being more than just a pump.
- Factoring in the role of blood type and genetics on cardiovascular risk and how epigenetic factors such as lifestyle, stress management, and nutrition can mitigate harm. (Discussed more here.)
- Implementing personalized interventions for biochemical triggers and mediators related to heart dysfunction and addressing the whole person using a naturopathic and functional medicine approach.
- Incorporating mind-heart-body practices into medical education and at every doctor visit. Essential oils are easily accessible and can be used to promote emotional resiliency, stress relief, and hormonal balance for better intimacy skills and healthier hearts.
Addressing traditional risk factors, expanding awareness on overlooked symptoms, and integrating holistic treatments for all the mediators in heart health is not enough.
We need ultimately to embrace more love and connection into healthcare.
As individuals and health professionals, it is my wish that we can empower ourselves with this information and begin to take action to start to create a healed, heart healthy world.
How will you begin?
Naturopathic Medicine and Holistic Resources for Hormonal, Mood, and Digestive Support
- Free resources and more education on essential oils and mind-body wellness are available to you here.
- An Integrative Mental Health and Stress Resource Guide.
- Tools for coping with isolation and separation.
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Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.
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