An endurance athlete within all of us
Ever marvelled at how on earth super endurance athletes manage to complete multistage endurance events covering huge distances with very little time for rest and recovery? The reality is that we too have a super endurance muscle that works day in and day out, that never takes a break, and on which we depend for our entire lives. Yes, you guessed right, it’s our heart of course! Let’s do a few rough calculations:
|Average heart rate most days =
|80 beats per minute
|Number of beats in an hour =
|80 X 60 min = 4800 beats per hour
|Number of beats per 24 hours =
|4800 x 24 hours = 115200 beats per day
|Number of beats per month =
|115 200 x 30 days = 3.45 million beats per month
|Number of beats per year =
|3.45 mi X 12 month = 41 million beats per year
|Number of beats in a lifetime (75yrs)
|41 mil X75 years = > 3 billion beats in a lifetime
Wow isn’t that amazing, more than three billion beats without a break!
Most of us know that this super muscle functions as a pump and is responsible for pumping blood around the body, so just how hard does it work then? It’s calculated to pump around 5 litres of blood every minute and as much as 7,200 litres per day!
I’m sure we all appreciate that like in any machine, the moveable parts and those that work the hardest, if not adequately cared for and maintained, are the first to need repairs. So too in medicine do we find that heart and cardiovascular disease is a major cause of death worldwide. Sadly, in South Africa, more people die from cardiovascular disease than all forms of cancer combined. It accounts for 1 in every 6 deaths and around 225 deaths every day, i.e. just under 80,000 each year! In the USA it’s one in every 4 deaths with around 650,000 people each year.
The heart is a muscular organ but consists of a very special kind of muscle called the cardiac muscle, which contracts in response to an electrical signal generated in a special area of the heart known as the SA node, essentially our natural pacemaker!
The heart is divided into four chambers called the left atrium, left ventricle, right atrium, and right ventricle. The left and right side of the heart function independently from one another, and blood from the two sides do not mix. The left side of the heart sucks oxygen rich blood back from the lungs and then pumps it to all parts of the body, while the right side of the heart receives deoxygenated blood (blood without oxygen and replaced with carbon dioxide) back from all parts of the body. It then pumps it to the lungs where it unloads the carbon dioxide which is breathed out and picks up more oxygen which is breathed in.
To work properly, every muscle needs its own supply of oxygen and nutrients. The heart muscle is no different, except that it is first in line! It too needs an uninterrupted blood supply providing plenty of oxygen and glucose, plus a way to get rid of all that waste it produces. Given how hard this muscle works and that there is no room for mishaps, we can appreciate how critical the dedicated blood supply called the coronary circulator system is. These arteries and veins are found in and on walls of the heart. You can imagine how serious it is if these become blocked as seen in the image below:
When things go wrong
When one of the heart’s dedicated coronary arteries become blocked, this is known as coronary artery disease or ischemic heart disease i.e. the section of heart muscle fed by that vessel becomes starved of oxygen. Initially, this causes chest pain and a reversible condition known as angina, but if it continues too long, these starved heart muscles begin to die off and a condition known as a myocardial infarction or what we refer to as a ‘heart attack’ occurs.
The main causes of heart disease include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Being overweight or obese
- Poor diet – high in saturated fat, sugar, refined foods
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Environmental toxins.
Given these risk factors and our modern lifestyles, it’s no wonder that cardiovascular disease has become such a major health problem, leading to over 8,000 heart bypass surgeries in South Africa every year. This is when blood flow is redirected around a blocked section of a coronary artery using a piece of healthy blood vessel. In less severe blockages, the vessel can be forced open again by inserting what is called a stent which is a tiny tube inserted into the coronary vessel, keeping it open and allowing the blood to flow.
Although we’ve acknowledged the heart as a super endurance muscle, there are times where it does weaken and begin to fail. This could be a consequence of a heart attack, another major strain on the heart, or simply due to old age, which is known as congestive cardiac failure. It’s important to realise that this does not mean the heart has failed completely, but rather the pump has weakened and can no longer circulate the blood optimally. As a result of this, blood and fluids build up in the wrong places and are not circulated properly. Patients with varying degrees of heart failure typically experience shortness of breath, especially when they are physically active. They may also experience swelling and water retention, an ongoing cough, dizziness or fainting. In the USA, heart failure is the major cause of hospitalisation in people over the age of 65 with over half a million new cases diagnosed each year.
Prevention is WAY better than cure!
Although modern medicine has fantastic lifesaving interventions such as bypass surgery, coronary artery stents, pacemakers and drugs, ideally we should try to prevent heart disease in the first place. As mentioned, there are various basic things we can do to prevent cardiovascular disease:
- Give your heart a regular workout by exercising often and avoid slipping into a sedentary lifestyle. This is why the fitter you are the slower your heart needs to beat; a really strong heart pumps so efficiently that in athletes, their resting heart rate is as little as 30-40 beats per minute!
- Don’t over strain the pump! Being overweight places an extraordinary additional strain on the heart and of course leads to higher blood pressure and possibly diabetes, both of which are major risk factors of cardiovascular disease.
- You are what you eat! Avoid processed foods, sugar, saturated animal fat, and excessive salt. Rather enjoy whole foods as you find them in nature: plenty brightly coloured fruits and vegetables packed with essential antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Choose fish over red meat and other sources of omega 3 fatty acids, your heart loves these, such as nuts, seeds and healthy oils such as olive oil. Do your research and look up how to follow The Mediterranean Diet, the most scientifically proven diet to prevent cardiovascular disease.
- Try to control and limit stress. Although easier said than done, but you can include stress relieving activities in your daily routine to offset life’s daily dramas. These include medication, swimming, breathing exercises, stretching, and laughing!
- Don’t do things which hurt the heart such as smoking and drinking excessive alcohol.
- Go for a routine ‘service’ – annual medical check-ups are important. Have your cholesterol, blood sugar, and insulin levels checked as well as your blood pressure on a regular basis, especially if you have a family history of these conditions.
- Consider supporting heart health with a natural cardiac tonic known as A.Vogel Crataegus Oxy:
Crataegus Oxy is made from fresh Hawthorn berries, hawthorn being the most scientifically researched herbal medicine for the heart and circulatory system.
A.Vogel Crataegus Oxy is a Western Herbal medicine which assists in promoting the function of the heart, and acts as a cardiac tonic.
It can also assists impaired heart performance, specifically due to congestive and ischaemic heart disease and provides broad acting cardiac supportive action (heart failure, cardiac oppression (heaviness on the chest), mild angina, arrhythmia, and geriatric heart weakness). It has also been shown to improve exercise tolerance, quality of life, breathlessness, and fatigue in cardiac patients.
- Degenring, F.H., et al., A randomised double-blind placebo controlled clinical trial of a standardised extract of fresh Crataegus berries (Crataegisan®) in the treatment of patients with congestive heart failure NYHA II. Phytomedicine, 2003. 10(5): p. 363-369. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12833999/
- Degenring, F., Therapy of reduced heart performance with Crataegisan N: Clinical study to demonstrate efficacy and safety of a herbal medicine. Schweiz. Zschr. GanzheitsMedizin, 1996. 3: p. 148-150.
- Dontas, A.S., et al., Mediterranean diet and prevention of coronary heart disease in the elderly. Clinical interventions in aging, 2007. 2(1): p. 109-115. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684076/
- Guo, R., M.H. Pittler, and E. Ernst, Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2008(1). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18254076/
- Johnson, J. 2019 Medical News Today – Our guide to the Mediterranean diet. Online: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324221
- Pittler, M., R. Guo, and E. Ernst, Hawthorn extract for treating chronic heart failure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2008(1): p. Cd005312. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18254076/
- Rietbrock, N., et al., [Actions of standardized extracts of Crataegus berries on exercise tolerance and quality of life in patients with congestive heart failure]. Arzneimittelforschung, 2001. 51(10): p. 793-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11715631/
- Tassell, M.C., et al., Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. Pharmacognosy reviews, 2010. 4(7): p. 32-41. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22228939/
- The South African Heart and Stroke Foundation. https://www.heartfoundation.co.za/