A “Nature First, Drugs Last” Approach to Cardiovascular Health

By Dr Michael Gaeta, DAOM, MS, CDN

Director, Gaeta Institute for Wholistic Health Education and Gaeta Clinic for Chinese and Functional Medicine, at michaelgaeta.com

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) affects one in three American adults. Every minute, on average, an American dies of a heart attack. These statistics were published in the journal Circulation on February 23, 2010. This is tragic. Given how common CVD is, it is no surprise that the pharmaceutical industry has developed drug interventions to manage these diseases. The American Heart Association’s website lists 11 different categories of cardiovascular medications “that you will take for the rest of your life.” 

But few of these drugs have demonstrated efficacy, and most will eventually trigger more disease – cardiovascular or otherwise, e.g. statins. Regarding cholesterol-lowering statin drugs,

“Most people are taking something with no chance of benefit and a risk of harm.”

James Wright, MD, PhD, family physician, and professor at the University of British Columbia

Medications, which address downstream effects (symptoms) of an upstream cause, can be a useful part of a short-term protocol, but should not be where we start, especially if the goal is non-toxic treatment, root cause resolution and prevention. We should always strive to begin with the cause in mind, and adopt the “nature first, drugs last” approach which is the foundation of my 33-year clinical practice in Chinese and functional medicine, and educational Institute (learn more at michaelgaeta.com).  

As a major risk factor for any type of cardiovascular event, e.g. heart attack or stroke, a diagnosis of hypertension is almost synonymous with cardiovascular disease. It is important to understand that hypertension, though a contributing factor, is not a disease. Elevated blood pressure is a reading on a machine, an effect of some deeper cause, such as poor diet, lack of exercise or micronutrient deficiency. 

“No randomized trial has ever demonstrated any reduction of risk either overall, or cardiovascular death by reducing systolic blood pressure to below 140mmHg.”

European Heart Journal. “There is a non-linear relationship between mortality & blood  pressure.” Port S, Garfinkel A, Boyle N. EurHeartJ (2000) 21 p 1635-1638

Treating blood pressure with drugs gives the patient a feeling of confidence, while doing nothing to find or resolve the underlying cause.

“…unless it is extremely high, lowering blood pressure is a particularly futile exercise in ‘sweeping a symptom under the carpet’.”

Noted Scottish physician Malcolm Kendrick, author of The Great Cholesterol Con

Chronic inflammation is the number one contributing factor to hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Inflammation should be limited to an acute or short-term wound healing response. What is causing damage to the heart or blood vessels that makes inflammation become chronic or long-term? Why isn’t it self-limiting? We might also ask which came first, deterioration of blood vessels (often called endothelial dysfunction) and heart tissue, or the elevated blood pressure? 

Undiagnosed nutrient deficiencies need to be considered. Processed foods, altered fats and artificial sweeteners, among other food products, may be contributing toxic by-products and depleting nutrients, causing imbalances. Salt intake, commonly restricted in those with hypertension and cardiovascular risk, contributes less to the overall picture than the ratio of sodium to potassium. A diet that is ideally local, not packaged, organic, and tailored to the individual, is the most important way to prevent or reverse hypertension and CVD. The primary components of a diet that will promote self-healing and repair are:

  • Eliminate bleached white flour. This is the “old poisoner” and contributes to everything we’re trying to correct.
  • Increase beets. A natural source of betaine, beets are an impressive detoxifier of the liver. They support methylation, improve bile flow and fat digestion, balance blood sugar and help with carbohydrate metabolism. They are rich in dietary nitrates which your body can convert to nitric oxide for vasodilation, which brings improved blood flow and reduced blood pressure. With patients and for myself, I often use an organic beet root and leaf concentrate as a therapeutic food.
  • Eat buckwheat. Its many flavonoids, including rutin, prevent blood clots and improve vascular health. Buckwheat is also a great source of magnesium, which is important for all forms of cardiovascular disease. Low magnesium is associated with angina, arrhythmias, hypertension and heart disease, as well as high blood sugar and insulin, two major drivers of cardiovascular disease and death. I take and frequently recommend an organic buckwheat leaf and seed supplement as a food concentrate.
  • Add fresh garlic. Garlic (Allium sativum) is perhaps the single most researched herb in the world, and for good reason. It is effective against all four classes of pathogens: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. It supports bowel flora and corrects gut dysbiosis (too many bad guys and not enough good guys in the gut microbiome). Garlic, like HDL cholesterol (the so-called “good cholesterol,” though LDL is also protective, not “bad”), clears excess arterial plaque, but works in a different way, making it a great preventative for cardiovascular disease. Garlic also improves circulation and increases cancer resistance (learn more at cancercourse.com). I’ve seen excellent clinical results with this enteric-coated garlic formula.
  • Supplement with hawthorn. The leaves and flowers of Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) are very important for cardiovascular health. It is cardiotonic (strengthens the heart), prevents atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), promotes vascular elasticity and endothelial health, and maintains peripheral circulation. Most notably, it is normotensive. As a sort of blood pressure adaptogen, it will raise low blood pressure or lower high blood pressure, as needed. Hawthorn has earned a nickname as the “the nurse of the geriatric heart,” and can be taken in low doses preventatively over age 50 to help keep your heart strong and more. Here’s the hawthorn formula I take myself, and use with patients.

Along with these dietary recommendations, of course, is exercise. The heart is, in part, a muscle, and so it needs exercise to stay strong.

“A low level of physical activity and decreased daily energy expenditure contribute to the increased risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality… Exercise prevents plaque development and induces the regression of coronary stenosis…”

Clinical Science Aug 01, 2011, 121 (3) 91-106. The forgotten face of regular physical exercise: a ‘natural’ anti-atherogenic activity.

As blood moves and oxygenation improves, the vascular system is strengthened and circulation improved, allowing the heart to pump more effectively. 

Hypertension often accompanies cardiovascular disease and stroke, but it is not necessarily the whole picture. In treating the entire person, we must understand the roots of cardiovascular disease and address it in a wholistic manner. By seeking out the source of the problem and providing the nutritional and herbal catalysts to restore the body to a healthy state, you will be more successful in preventing cardiovascular events from happening in yourself and your practice. Learn more in our online course with six faculty, new lectures each week, and live monthly classes, at cardiocourse.com.

If you or a loved one have a cardiovascular condition, or would like to do your best to find hidden risk factors, and for prevention, improving function and vitality, schedule an evaluation at michaelgaeta.com and receive an individualized assessment and natural functional medicine care plan.