As a student of naturopathic medicine, we learn a variety of modalities such as nutritional, herbal, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, among others. What I find most compelling about naturopathic medicine, is that it aims to treat the underlying cause of diseases in order to provide long lasting, permanent health for our patients. Ensuring that our patients have a healthy cardiovascular system is one way to establish a state of lasting health.
In addition to studying naturopathic medicine, I am a yoga instructor, and a lifelong nordic skier. My passion for nordic skiing, an endurance sport, has given me a particular interest in cardiovascular health. I would like to share with you a little about a mentor of mine, Dr. Garry “Gibber” Gibson who exemplifies how a healthy heart can lead to a high quality of life, and inspire others in the process.
Keeping up with Gibber
When I reflect on the importance of a healthy heart, my mentor Dr. Garry Gibson comes to mind. Garry, or “Gibber,” as he is known to his friends, is a remarkable man. I first met Gibber while I was studying at Augustana Faculty of the University of Alberta. Gibber is a retired faculty member, and an active member of the Camrose nordic ski community. Gibber’s enthusiasm for life infects everyone around him. His limitless energy makes you forget the fact that he is 82 years old, and, even at that age, is still astoundingly competitive on the ski trails. This year, Gibber is training to compete in the 2013 Canadian Birkebeiner. The “Birkie” is a 55km cross country ski race through Elk Island National Park in Northern Alberta, where each racer must carry a 5.5kg pack. This is an event that the average Canadian could not complete, yet Gibber is one of the race favourites for his age category! So how does he do it?
Cardiovascular-based exercise is one of four health behaviours that have been associated with a reduction in mortality. Regular cardiovascular exercise, along with not smoking, and a diet high in fruits and vegetables can combine to add an average of 14 extra years to one’s life (Khaw et als. 2008).
Gibber’s heart is certainly in good condition. As recently as 2003 he was challenging me to 30km “time trials” and posting good times! He has chosen cross country skiing as his lifetime sport, and being active helps him to maintain his cardiovascular health. ! If a healthy heart through cardiovascular exercise leads to a longer, healthier life, then what else can be done to ensure the health of the cardiovascular system? A recent systemic review found that taking omega-3 fatty acids reduces the rate of cardiac mortality (Wang et als, 2006). The same study found that taking omega-3s had a stronger effect on patients who already had a history of cardiovascular disease. How is this achieved? Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation acts by improving specific markers of cardiovascular health. EPA and DHA, the fats found in omega-3 oils, improve lipid profiles by decreasing serum triglycerides while increasing the HDL to LDL ratio. They also protect from atherosclerosis by increasing endothelial function and fibrinolysis, while simultaneously decreasing platelet aggregability and platelet aggregation. EPA and DHA have the added effects of lowering systolic blood pressure, and decreasing heart rates, blood sugar levels, oxidative stress and inflammation (Vrablík et als, 2009).
Impressive cardiovascular health aside, Gibber truly inspires me through his characteristic optimism. Knowing how active Gibber is, it came to no surprise that cardiovascular health has been associated with a decreased incidence of depression. In fact, it was found that 45% of patients who survived a heart attack also suffered from some form of depression. This stands in stark contrast to the 7-9% of the general population who are affected with depression (Grippo & Johnson, 2002). It has been postulated that the link is due to an increased level of Epinephrine and Norepinephrine in patients affected by cardiovascular disease. The increased levels of these monoamine neurotransmitters can eventually lead to a deficiency in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Interestingly, this is consistent with a Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnosis for depression. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the heart is responsible for propelling the blood and housing the Shen, which is a combination of the spirit and consciousness. When the heart is diseased, the patient not only suffers from signs of poor circulation, but also endures periods of withdrawal, melancholy or anxiety (Beinfield & Korngold, 1991). This fits into the criteria for a Major Depressive disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine, protecting the heart from disease also protects the patient from depression.
Gibber is a remarkable man. His active life combined with his boyish optimism inspires me to maintain my own health in order to maintain my quality of life. Like Gibber, I don’t intend to slow down as I grow older. If I can reach Gibber’s age and still be able to pursue cross country skiing, I am sure I will have an infectious smile just like him. It is important to me to maintain the health of my heart, because as Gibber has shown me, it lays the foundation for a long, active, and above all, happy life.
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