A while ago I saw a TV programme about the heart which started with a heart surgeon whose position was that the heart was indeed just a glorified pump. However, the program ended with the revelation that the nervous supply to the heart is much more sophisticated than would be required for something simply to pump blood, that the heart is indeed affected by or even involved in our emotional life, and that the text books need to be rewritten.
If the heart were simply a pump, it should perhaps be relatively straightforward to look after heart health. For one thing, being a muscle, it needs a good supply of blood. The reason why everyone, or at least those of a certain age, get their cholesterol levels measured, is because it is believed that high levels of cholesterol (or to be more precise, of low-density lipoprotein, commonly called ‘bad cholesterol’) cause the furring up and eventual blockage of arteries, including the coronary arteries responsible for supplying the heart with blood, thus compromising the heart’s crucial blood supply.
The cholesterol theory of heart disease, however, does not go completely unchallenged, and it is noticeable how often controversies about it surface in the media. A few years back I read a book by a Scottish GP called Dr Malcolm Kendrick, entitled provocatively ‘The Great Cholesterol Con’; the good doctor is really not sold on the idea that high cholesterol levels cause heart disease (and of course the fact that the drug companies are the ones who stand to gain from the widespread prescribing of statins, the main drugs used in lowering cholesterol levels, means that, like him, one cannot but be a little suspicious )and he presents a lot of evidence to suggest that the major cause of heart disease is psychological, related to an unhealthy stress response.
Of course one of the advantages of the cholesterol theory is that it is all so easy; a little blood test to measure your cholesterol levels, and simple to pill to lower them if need be. As soon as we start talking about emotions as causes of heart disease we are entering rather murky waters; you can’t do a blood test for measure how anxious or lonely you are (at least I don’t think you can.) And you can’t just give someone a little pill to sort out their anxiety or loneliness.
Like Dr Kendrick, Traditional Chinese Medicine also focuses on emotional factors as one of the main causes of heart problems – it thinks that of the internal organs, the heart along with the liver are particularly prone to be affected by emotional imbalance. The heart is believed to house something called the Shen, which can be translated either as ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’, which may seem a quaint and antiquated notion, especially if we still hold to the idea of the heart as just a pump.
The Shen cannot be measured in the way you can measure cholesterol, but it is certainly assessed during traditional acupuncture treatment. One simple way of gauging the health of the Shen is by noticing the person’s eyes; a healthy Shen manifests in bright and lively eyes, whereas dull or dead eyes show an impaired Shen.
Acupuncture is a useful treatment for the heart from this point of view because of its ability to influence the Shen; a number of acupuncture points (target locations for acupuncture treatments – where the needles go!) for example, are traditionally used to calm the Shen if it is agitated. One I use a lot for this purpose is called ‘Yintang’, midway between the eyebrows. I find patients often like having this point as part of their treatment, and some even start to ask for it to be used, something which I don’t find happens with any other point.
Personally, therefore, I believe that looking after the heart means a bit more than keeping the pump working properly; it includes caring for the Shen. Our emotional life and our physical wellbeing are not two separate areas of concern, but are intimately related, and if we want a healthy heart we need a healthy Shen, a healthy emotional life.