The Heart of
By Brenda Watson
Heart disease has long been
thought of as a man’s disease, but this idea is mistaken. Heart disease or
stroke kills one out of every two women. Compare this to breast cancer, which
kills one out of every 25 women, and you can see the extent of the problem. It
gets worse — 42 percent of women who have a heart attack die within one year
compared to only 24 percent of men.
Symptoms are another
important distinction between men and women when it comes to heart disease.
Symptoms of a heart attack in women differ from those in men. Men tend to
experience the classic heart attack symptoms of chest pain and pressure,
whereas women often experience subtle symptoms that mimic less-critical health
conditions, such as gastrointestinal distress, anxiety, or stress.
The main risk factors for
heart disease in women include high total cholesterol, high LDL (“bad”)
cholesterol, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood
pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity. Conventional medicine treats these
risk factors with medications without considering what may be causing them in
the first place.
This is an important
distinction between conventional, or allopathic, medicine and integrative, or functional medicine. Conventional medicine
treats diseases by addressing the signs and symptoms while integrative medicine
looks at underlying causes of the signs and symptoms of a disease.
The Silent Culprit
Through the lens provided by
the integrative medicine approach, we can see that the risk factors for heart
disease all have a common underlying cause — inflammation. When most people
think of inflammation, they think of joint pain, cuts, or something that hurts.
But inflammation can’t always be felt. In fact, inflammation can be present in
such a way that you might not even know it is there. This kind of inflammation
— chronic, low-grade inflammation — is also known as silent inflammation
because it can be present without being felt.
Inflammation is the body’s
natural immune response to a foreign invader (such as a pathogen), an injury,
or some sort of malfunction in the body. Inflammation works to destroy and
eliminate foreign substances or abnormalities in due time. Inflammation
resolution, or the ending of the inflammatory process, is crucial for the
body’s return to homeostasis, or balance.
When inflammation does not
properly resolve and when the trigger is constant, the result is chronic,
low-grade inflammation. This silent inflammation essentially resets the body’s
point of balance — creating suboptimal normal, resulting in suboptimal function
in the body. It is this long-term, suboptimal function that leads to heart
disease and other chronic diseases.
Silent inflammation is the
initial trigger of atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque, that is the
hallmark feature of coronary heart disease. Silent inflammation leads to, and is
worsened by, the major risk factors of heart disease, and in a chaotic array of
vicious cycles each feeding into the next, the imbalances triggered by silent
inflammation trigger and worsen heart disease.
Get To the Heart of the Matter
If silent inflammation is the
common denominator leading to and worsening the risk factors of heart disease
and heart disease itself, the question becomes: What
causes silent inflammation? Rather than treating silent inflammation with
medication, we instead seek to understand the underlying causes.
There are a number of causes
of silent inflammation. One of the most important is poor diet. The Standard
American Diet (SAD) is high in inflammation-promoting foods: processed, refined
grains and sugars, chemicals and additives, and unhealthy fats; and low in the
anti-inflammatory foods: vegetables and fruits, fiber, healthy fats, lean
proteins, nuts, and seeds. SAD is exceedingly high in omega-6 fats, which is
found in many vegetable oils, and exceedingly low in omega-3 fats, found in
fish, flaxseeds, chia seed, and walnuts.
Excess omega-6 consumption
and insufficient omega-3 intake increases inflammation. That is why it is
important to increase your intake of omega-3 fats. The omega-3s found in
certain fish and in fish oil supplements decrease inflammation and prevent the
development of heart disease when taken in the right amounts.
Sugar consumption in the
Standard American Diet is way out of control. The average American eats 37
teaspoons of sugar daily, yet we only need 8 to 10 to maintain healthy blood
sugar levels. What’s more, if you consider the contribution from carbohydrates
on blood sugar levels (after all, carbohydrates break down into sugar in the
digestive tract), then an average American could
easily consume 87 teaspoons of sugar in one day. High sugar intake is a major
trigger for silent inflammation.
Low fiber intake is another
main cause of silent inflammation. I recommend 35 grams of fiber daily for a
healthy heart and healthy digestion, yet the average American only eats 10 to
12 grams daily. The best high-fiber foods are vegetables and fruits, because
they pack plenty of fiber, but also because they are nutrient dense, rich in
antioxidant phytonutrients, and anti-inflammatory
The Gut Connection
Aside from diet, which is
where everyone must begin, we must also consider one cause of inflammation that
is not often mentioned. In fact, it’s a taboo subject in general, but it just
so happens to be my favorite topic — digestion. After all, they don’t call me
the “Diva of Digestion” for nothing.
Your digestive tract is about
30 feet long, and acts as the interface between your environment and your
bodily systems. Poor digestion affects every system of the body, which is why
it’s so important to begin your health journey by building digestive health. A
number of digestive factors can lead to silent inflammation, which I have
The digestive tract is home
to about 100 trillion bacteria — 10 times the number of cells that make up your
entire body! Ideally, the balance of these bacteria favors the beneficial (probiotic) bacteria and neutral (commensal)
bacteria, and minimizes the potentially harmful (pathogenic) bacteria.
Unfortunately, there are many
factors that increase an imbalance in the gut bacteria. These include the mode
of delivery at birth (vaginal is optimal; Cesarean birth creates imbalance),
lack of breastfeeding during infancy, stress, poor diet, antibiotic overuse,
stomach acid suppression (with acid-suppressing medications), constipation, and
other digestive conditions.
The gut bacteria are found
throughout the digestive tract and are particularly prolific in the intestines
— where up to 80 percent of the immune system also resides. When there is an
imbalance in the gut bacteria, also known as the gut microbiota,
the immune system reacts by creating inflammation.
Food sensitivities involve a
reaction by the body against certain foods we eat. Normally, when food passes
though the digestive system, it is recognized as a friendly passerby; the
immune system leaves it alone. With food sensitivities the immune system reacts
to certain foods as if they were foreign invaders. This process triggers
Sometimes the response is
stronger and felt immediately, other times the response creates an underlying
silent inflammation that might not create overt digestive symptoms, but ones
that build over time and manifest in different areas of the body. Gluten sensitivity
is the perfect example of this process. Many people have underlying food
sensitivities and don’t know it.
Incomplete digestion of food
is a trigger of inflammation. Incomplete digestion may be the result of many
factors: poor diet, poor chewing, insufficient digestive enzyme secretion, or
insufficient stomach acid production. All these processes contribute to the
incomplete breakdown of foods into smaller, absorbable parts. The result is
poor nutrient absorption and inflammation due to the recognition of undigested
food particles as foreign by the immune system.
How to Achieve Optimal Digestion
You can correct digestive
imbalances that lead to inflammation and chronic disease with one easy formula:
The H.O.P.E. Formula — High fiber, Omega-3 oils, Probiotics,
fiber. Consume at least 35 grams of fiber daily by
eating a healthy diet full of vegetables and fruits, and adding a fiber
supplement to achieve your goal. A high-fiber diet supports regular
elimination, healthy blood sugar levels, and heart health.
Oils. Eat more fat — healthy fat, that is. Omega-3
fats from fish are well known to help prevent heart disease and quell
inflammation. I recommend 3 grams of Omega-3s daily from fish like salmon and
sardines along with a daily fish oil supplement to help you reach your goal.
your gut, heal your body. Replenish your digestive tract with beneficial
bacteria, or probiotics, that help fortify your Gut
Protection System (your body’s own GPS), build digestive health, and support a
healthy immune system for the proper inflammation response.
nutrients with digestive enzymes. If you don’t have enough digestive enzymes to
unlock the nutrients naturally present in a healthy diet, what good is the
healthy diet? Take plant-based digestive enzymes with every meal to help
counteract poor eating habits and unlock the nutrients from food so that your
body can absorb them.
By incorporating The H.O.P.E.
Formula into your lifestyle, along with a healthy diet, you’ll enjoy improved digestion
and discover you can achieve vibrant health.
All of these topics are
addressed in my new public television special on PBS, Heart of Perfect Health:
The Startling Truths About Heart Disease And The Power You
Hold To Stop It. Additionally, my recent book, Heart of Perfect Health,
will be offered exclusively to those who pledge with their local Public
Take control of your health —
you will be empowered to change the very path you travel — and this path leads
to the heart of perfect health. See you there!
Yours in great health,
Brenda Watson, C.N.C., is a
New York Times best-selling author and a renowned medical researcher. With 20
years of experience on healthy-living measures, she is teaching others how to
achieve optimal health. For more information on her upcoming PBS special that
airs nationwide in February and March of 2013, visit