Key Ingredients To A Healthy Heart

Ah, the heart. Though considered the engine that runs the body, it’s metaphorically the very center of a person’s concept of themselves. It’s as if that’s where soul, intelligence, courage, emotion, and intention are found. It’s the “place” from which we love.

The heart is more than just a vital organ; it also represents spiritual character.

In the Bible and other religious texts, the heart expresses mental and spiritual attributes. Jesus said:

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8)

Does the process of purifying our heart so that we can see God also change how we see ourselves and others? You bet. And, what proceeds from that process might give us a clue about how to keep the heart healthy.

Medical science has gone to great lengths to find ways to maintain heart health. The problem is that research, experts’ theories and outcomes aren’t always consistent, especially over periods of time.

In a recent change, guidelines from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology suggest that cholesterol numbers – touted for years as the key to heart health – are, in fact, not a good determinant of the risk of heart disease. They suggest that, rather than focusing on physical statistics, it is the whole person that matters – how we think and feel, and our lifestyle.

Current wisdom has described a three-legged stool for heart health: don’t smoke, eat healthy, and get moderate exercise.

But I’m thinking that there’s a very important fourth leg of the stool and that’s what comes from “within the heart.”

Many doctors agree that negative emotions and stress are hard on the heart. But positive attributes like helping others, being “light hearted” and fun loving make for a healthy heart. For example, loving your spouse is more likely, according to research, to give your heart a stronger and longer life.

Some go even farther and suggest that connecting with the Divine can cause a “change of heart” that has powerful health benefits. Mary Baker Eddy, a prominent 20th century healer puts it this way:

“…there must be a change from human affections, desires, and aims, to the divine standard, … This change of heart would deliver man from heart-disease, and advance Christianity a hundredfold.” (Miscellaneous Writings, 50)

The divine standard of loving and giving selflessly is the essential, unchanging ingredient to a healthy heart.

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You Can Reduce Stress Through Prayer

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m stressed out and it’s awesome”? Probably not.

And, while some research identifies certain types of stress as beneficial – the kind that comes from being excited about positive things or that helps us survive certain events – too many of us live in a perpetual state of feeling out of control and enduring more pressure than we should.  And, that doesn’t feel good; nor is it healthy.

I’ve definitely experienced times in my life where I didn’t pay attention to how I was reacting to events that seemed to be “too much”. Being aware of stress per se and what causes us to feel this way is fine, but I found it doesn’t go far enough. We need more than just awareness or ways to “manage” the stress.

Since stress is simply the way we react to certain events – not the events themselves – I’ve organized my life in a way that starts with stress-reducing activities, especially quite moments of prayer. As the prophet Isaiah puts it:

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. (Isa 26:3)

To have more of this perfect peace in my life, I’ve learned to keep my thinking focused on, and trusting, the Divine. When I can enter into the calming atmosphere of prayer, that place where I affirm all that I know to be good and where I experience a Divine presence, I am more productive, more relaxed, and unstressed. This equips me to put the challenges of life into their proper perspective and to calmly develop solutions.

Reducing stress is about more than just feeling less pressured. According to Dr. Bruce S. McEwen, director of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at Rockefeller University, research suggests that “prolonged or severe stress has been shown to weaken the immune system, strain the heart, and damage memory cells in the brain. Stress has been implicated in aging, depression, and heart disease.”

It is important to take proactive steps to reduce chronic stress. And, a daily dose of prayer is a good first step in this direction.

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Can Words And Labels Affect Our Health?

It would be a rare person who could navigate through life completely unaware of expectations placed upon him by others or himself.

One way that expectations are powerfully conveyed is in the words we choose and how we use them.  As my wife and I found in raising our children, word choices, or labels, as well as our thoughts about the kids, clearly affected their behavior.

Last year, the mental health field updated the manual it uses to aid psychologists and psychiatrists in diagnosing and treating mental disorders. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) includes an expansion of diagnoses that can be treated with drugs and therapies, which up to now have been considered “normal” according to Dr. Allen Frances, M.D, professor emeritus at Duke.

The DSM, however, is not universally accepted. Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. reports that France doesn’t use the DSM. In France, ADHD is viewed as an environmental and social problem rather than a biological one to be treated with drugs. The diagnosis of ADHD in France applies to 0.5% of all children whereas in the United States it’s 9%.

Pioneer researcher in the science of connecting thought and health, Mary Baker Eddy, points out that seeing others as innately good and perfect, and treating them that way, results in better health. To me, this sense of perfection means blameless.

I’ve found that when I assign labels to others, positive or negative, they tend to reinforce my expectation. I’ve learned that when I identify only good in others, and expect only the best from them, that’s what I get. Similarly, when we all see ourselves without negative labels, it allows us to be more normal and healthy too.

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Unnecessary Medical Treatment – A Systems Problem

From much of what I’ve read, it seems that the patient-doctor relationship is mostly unbalanced. The doctor tells the patient what’s wrong, and what needs to happen to fix it. And this happens within a system that forces doctors to quickly address the offending symptoms and move on.

Turning control and responsibility for our health over to the “system” or to others may very well lead to consequences that aren’t good.

In the United States more is spent per patient on health care than in any other developed country in the world. Yet the United States came in at 37th place in the World Health Organization’s assessment of overall health outcomes of all nations in 2010.

Shannon Brownlee makes the point in her book Overtreated. Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, that:

Strengthening the patient’s role in choosing a particular treatment or test is an important aspect of moving toward more efficient care. (pg.. 297)

A health care system that allows for a more responsive patient-doctor relationship would provide for more effective two-way communication. The doctor could better understand the underlying causes of the patient’s symptoms; and the patient could actually choose treatment options that fit better his or her values.

In the late 1800s spiritual healer Mary Baker Eddy introduced a form of health care that puts the patient’s needs at the center of their care. She explains in her major work, Science and Health:

“Give sick people credit for sometimes knowing more than their doctors. Always support their trust in the power of Mind to sustain the body.”

Patient-centered health care starts with our thoughts, whether one is using a tool to help make decisions about a medical test, drug or procedure or choosing an approach outside the current biomedical health-care paradigm.

It’s reasonable to conclude that spending more time discovering the patient’s mental state and resulting behaviors can be the basis for improved health and lower costs.

Within integrated, patient-centered care models the needs of the whole person can be attended to, including mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs.

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Is Brain Activity Equal To Consciousness For Clues To Health?

Is brain activity equal to Consciousness for clues to health? 

Scientists envision brain mapping as a “concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.”

Understanding where perception, actions, and consciousness comes from or resides is an intriguing idea, but I’m wondering if the search will ever provide the answers we want or need.

Sages and holy teachers through the ages have stated that consciousness cannot be equated with brain activity. If this is the case, then we can research the function of the brain but it will not, necessarily, tell us more about consciousness.

In a webinar broadcast by the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine Dr. Norman Doidge, MD suggests that how we view the functioning of the brain is rooted in mechanical physics—“the idea that the human body was a machine and the the brain was like a machine.”

He goes on to explain how the brain is actually not a machine, but is rather an adaptive organ responding to damage to itself and to changes in the environment.

He describes a woman who was born without a left hemisphere in her brain. Yet, over time, the right hemisphere adapted and performed functions normally done by the left side. In many respects she functions normally even though a brain-mapping venture might say she shouldn’t be able to.

His conclusion? “Half a brain does not make for half a mind.”

Interesting, yes; but not a new discovery. Over one hundred years ago theologian and medical researcher Mary Baker Eddy noted that “…brain is not mind”. She explained how Jesus was able to heal the body through reflecting the consciousness of the divine, rather than the content of his brain as described in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.

Perhaps we should focus on the quality of our thought instead of colorful maps of neuron activity.  As the Bible encourages:  “let us all be of one mind:, “having the mind of Christ”.  Understanding this could unleash a powerful healing force for the body.

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You Don’t Need To Be Scared Into Sickness

“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror…”

Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke these words during his first inaugural address at a time when this country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Powerful words, and perhaps outlandish to those living in severe economic hardship. Yet, they show Roosevelt knew what needed to be addressed in order to get the public to mobilize and progress.

Could this also be applied to our health? Although fear can sometimes be a good motivator, one kind of fear – fear about our health – is not helpful.

Dr. Herbert Benson, points out that ongoing health anxiety has “… severe physical repercussions.” And Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at the New York University Medical School, elaborates that such fear makes us ”…more prone to heart disease, cancer and stroke, our greatest killers.”

How is it we find ourselves afraid for our health?  Shouldn’t we consider health to be normal?

Consider this: Jessie Gruman, PhD, executive director and president of the Center for Advancement of Health says that fear sells. ”…[M]ass media fly on news — meaning information has to be tarted up to be used. This plants the seeds of fear …

It hasn’t changed a lot over the centuries. Theologian and health writer, Mary Baker Eddy, observed back in the early 20th Century, how the media spreads fear about health:

”The press unwittingly sends forth many sorrows and diseases among the human family. It does this by giving names to diseases and by printing long descriptions which mirror images of disease distinctly in thought…. A minutely described disease costs many a man his earthly days of comfort.”

At some point, though, media will catch up with the leading edge of research on the negative impact fear has on our health. When it does, it will self-regulate the heavy emphasis on fear and perhaps share more of the good news – that spirituality and a connection to a faith community produce consistently good health outcomes.

For example, some of Benson’s research has also led him to conclude:

“According to medical research, faith in God is good for us, …For many reasons, religious activity and churchgoing is also healthy.”

What is it about faith in God that leads to good or improved health? While I can’t speak for others, I find that by starting with the fact that God is good I see my natural state as one of harmony and health. It’s true no matter what the media is promoting or spreading about health.

And, isn’t it a bit like what FDR was trying to help American’s see so long ago?

Fear- it can’t harm us if we don’t let it.

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You Do For Others And You Get Health

At the University of Michigan, professor of medicine Bertram Pitt MD, has found that forgiveness and regular acts of kindness contribute to people’s overall happiness.

Happiness is not the only benefit, however, from being altruistic. A study of 2,700 residents of Tecumseh, Michigan, found that men who volunteered in their community were two and a half times less likely to die than non-volunteering men.

K. C. Blair, Founder and Director of Good Samaritans International, says: “I never thought as a scientist I would find myself saying this, but our research data has led to our conclusion that compassion creates healing and maintains health.”

In the Bible, Jesus gives us a parable of compassion. The story of the Good Samaritan has an important message for me. It presents a moral imperative to show compassion for others, even if I might consider them unworthy.

That a Samaritan would stop to help a Jew who was in trouble, was unthinkable by social norms of the day. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans after centuries of mutual animosity. Perhaps one point Jesus was making in the story, is that the injured man was worthy of compassion, not because he deserved it, but because he needed it.

Nothing in this parable suggests that “my neighbor” must earn my compassion, or that I should get anything in return for my benevolence.

Then why do it?

I know that when I feel compassion for others, and act selflessly on it, I feel a sense of peace and inner happiness. But it goes deeper than that. Because I feel that the essence of our being comes from a Divine source, I view my fellow man as my brother and sister, not figuratively, but literally. Whether or not you feel an obligation to love your neighbor as yourself, as I do, compassion for others can make life better for them. And, it can improve your own longevity and health.

But, as anyone knows who tries to practice compassion, it isn’t about logic and head games, but about expanding the heart.

As spiritual activist Mary Baker Eddy puts it:

Take away wealth, fame, and social organizations, which weigh not one jot in the balance of God, and we get clearer views of Principle. Break up cliques, level wealth with honesty, let worth be judged according to wisdom, and we get better views of humanity.

Many of those who make compassion their way of life understand this.

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Mental Discipline To Achieve The Best

With the winter Olympics in Sochi history, attention turns to Brazil two years hence.  Once again records are sure to be broken.

How does this happen?

A British sports scientist, Kevin Thompson wondered the same.  Could he get bicyclists to go faster than ever … by tricking them? He had bicyclists try to catch a virtual avatar on a computer screen that was going faster than the cyclist thought. “The cyclists ended up … going significantly faster than they ever had gone before,” according to a Canadian news report.

Might the thoughts and expectations of the athlete have allowed them to perform better?

Perhaps Brent S. Rushall of San Diego State University hit on something significant when he looked at “thought content” and athletic performance. Rather than “tricking” athletes into performing better, he looked at how they could train their thinking, along with their bodies, to enhance performance.  He found that:

“Task-relevant content, positive self-statements, and mood words … maximize their performance…”

Increasingly sophisticated studies indicate what we’ve really known for a while now – athletes need to direct their thoughts in a specific way to maximize performance.

As a serious runner early in my life, one idea I found helpful, when applied to my health and physical pursuits comes from 19th century health researcher, Mary Baker Eddy. She says that “[t]he moral and spiritual facts of health, whispered into thought, produce very direct and marked effects on the body. Eddy didn’t help Olympic grade athletes improve their performance, rather, she used these ideas to heal through prayer and to show others how to do it.

While Rushall calls these performance enhancers “task-relevant content”, and “positive self-statements”, I call the process I’ve adopted communing with a higher being. Prayer is the source of my strength and ability. The more I prayed when I ran, the better I performed and the healthier I was overall.

Connecting with your highest being can improve your health and performance too.

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Ridiculously Small Steps Lead To A Healthier Lifestyle

Ridiculously small steps. That’s all it takes to make big changes. So reports syndicated columnist, Keith Wommack on his blog.

Wasted time and effort is a problem I suspect we all could work on.  Especially when we get into these cycles of resolution to make changes in our lives that we want to achieve now, but eventually give up because the final goal feels too far away.

I’m encouraged that someone has thought this through carefully, and suggests that there’s a way to achieve those big goals we set for ourselves.  In her book“Surprisingly Unstuck: The Power of Small Healthy Habits, In a World Addicted to Instant Results, Maria Brilaki talks about the limits of motivation and willpower, and the might of small steps,” says Wommack.

Yes, small steps that lead to our goal are important, but Keith takes us a little deeper into the reasons why we can be successful. He writes:

“… spirituality is the power that directs thought patterns that are mentally and physically beneficial. Spirituality, rather than motivation and willpower, takes us all the way….” [read more……]

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Are You Married? It Can Help Your Heart!

The marriage covenant is one of the most significant relationships we can enter into with someone else. We anticipate good things when we couple up in this way.

I also see the marriage pact as an expression of my relationship to a supreme Being. If I can love God unconditionally despite the attraction of materialism, then I develop a state of mind that naturally loves and reveres my wife as well. As an Old Testament author puts it:

“The one marrying you is the one who made you—the Lord of heavenly forces is his name. The one redeeming you is the holy one of Israel, the one called the God of all the earth. And he is the God of all the earth!” (Isaiah 54:5)

The findings of Dr. Carlos Alviar at NYU Langone Medical Center seem to reflect this Biblical truth. It turns out that those of us who are married, besides enjoying all the usual benefits it can provide, have a decreased risk of heart disease.

Of course there are other relationships which can benefit people too.

Take for example the tight-knit Roseto Italian-American community in Pennsylvania.  Before their community was “Americanized’ in the 60’s they had significantly lower rates of heart attack than other communities.  Research showed that the underlying cause of this phenomenon was the close relationships members within the community had with each other.

I have found that to make a marriage work and last, and probably other relationships too, such things as honesty, unselfishness, love, and good communication are essential.  These are qualities that emerge from my relationship with the Divine.

For many years I knew inherently that my relationship with the Divine was important to the health of my marriage.  Little did I know, however, that it might one day be proven, biologically, to result in a healthier heart, or longer life. I can see, though, that even if marriage isn’t on the horizon, nurturing these qualities of fidelity to the divine and in all our relationships can surely boost our health and well being.

Image ©Glow Images

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    John Clague

    John Clague explores and writes about the relationship between thought, spirituality and health. A retired Lane County Sheriff's Department captain, he is now a Christian Science media and legislative liaison. Read Full
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