Courtesy of Ajale Ginger and Turmeric are ingredients commonly used to support heart health in traditional medicine.

In the U.S., heart disease remains the leading cause of death and significantly affects quality of life for many of us. Every year, approximately 647,000 Americans die from heart disease.

The challenge for the typical American remains making significant enough lifestyle changes to eliminate the need for medications and stave off further disease. Following are some suggestions for how to take a measured approach to restoring cardiovascular health, including natural treatment options to help increase circulation, lower blood pressure and manage high cholesterol.

Poor circulation

Poor circulation is most common in the limbs or outer layers of the skin, but can also happen to internal organs or the muscles of the heart itself. Common circulation issues include a tingling sensation or pain in the hands and feet, muscle cramping and fatigue. Poor circulation isn’t a health condition on its own; rather, it’s a symptom of an underlying illness, such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease.

In my practice, I use acupuncture to improve circulation to specific body parts as well as internal organs. Hawthorn is the premier herb for managing circulation problems. A group of compounds produced in the leaves and berries of the plant offer powerful benefits to the arterial system. Hawthorn also has been shown to increase the contractile force of the heart, reduce the severity of heart arrhythmias and provide a powerful array of cardioprotective antioxidants.

Ginger offers powerful circulatory benefits as well. It’s one of the most common herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine for stimulating blood flow. Active ingredients in ginger have been shown to inhibit angiotensin-converting enzyme and increase nitric oxide to help dilate blood vessels. When blood vessels are dilated and blood pressure is reduced, there’s less resistance for blood to flow, making it easier for the heart to move blood around the body.

High blood pressure

The ideal blood pressure is approximately 120/80mmHg. High blood pressure is considered anything over 130/90mmHg. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hypertension is common, affecting roughly half the adult population in the U.S.

A variety of prescription medications effectively control hypertension, but some include unwanted side effects related to kidney function and the production of sex hormones.

The most popular alternative treatment options for managing mild to moderate hypertension include acupuncture and herbs. In my clinic, I use Yang Lao (Small Intestine 6) along with Zu San Li (Stomach 36) as foundational points in my treatments for blood pressure. Generally speaking, acupuncture will lower blood pressure because of its ability to promote homeostasis. Specifically, acupuncture will up-regulate the parasympathetic nervous system and down-regulate the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system.

Garlic has long been used for managing high blood pressure. Several active ingredients in garlic help reduce blood pressure, but the primary and the most-studied component is a sulfur-based compound known as allicin. Studies have repeatedly shown that allicin helps the blood vessels relax by increasing the release of hydrogen sulfide and nitric oxide, both of which are key chemical messengers responsible for dilating blood vessels.

If you want to avoid taking a garlic supplement, considering eating at least one raw clove of garlic daily. Cooking garlic inactivates many of the wanted allicin-related benefits.

High cholesterol

The body requires both water-soluble and fat-soluble compounds to function properly. Many of our hormones, for example, are made from cholesterol and other fatty substances. We also use lipids as a source of energy to power our cells and need a steady supply to build the fatty portion of cell walls. Fat and water don’t mix, so we need special proteins to help dissolve fatty substances into the water-based blood.

Too much fat in the blood (hyperlipidemia) can cause a buildup of plaque around the arteries that may lead to a heart attack or stroke later in life.

There are two types of cholesterol – LDL and HDL. The general idea is to reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL.

A few herbs can help get this job done effectively, among them turmeric. The active ingredient in turmeric is a compound called curcumin. It’s been studied in-depth for its ability to regulate blood pressure, fight inflammation and reduce cholesterol and other blood lipids.

Turmeric also provides a powerful array of antioxidants that have been shown to protect the arteries and heart muscle from hardening.

Bottom line

Taking care of your heart requires attention in several areas – from the food you eat to the amount of time you spend exercising and relaxing. Factors such as alcohol, smoking, processed foods and stress can all impact blood circulation, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

While there are clear benefits to using herbs or techniques such as acupuncture, prevention is still the best treatment. Eating a well-balanced diet, avoiding excess sugar and preservatives, and paying attention to food volume can all positively impact your health. Small changes can lead to big benefits later on.

Exercising regularly is a foundational aspect to both cardiovascular and emotional health. The body does not like stagnation, and strong muscles not only burn more calories, but also prevent injury and support the circulatory system.

Ted Ray, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, is owner of Peninsula Acupuncture in Mountain View. For more information, call 564-9002 or visit peninsulaacupuncture.com.