There are few things I find magical about the month of February. If there is fresh snow on the ground, the pristine whiteness of my environment can sometimes coax an exclamation of beauty from me. It helps if the sun is shining and creates glints of light through the icicles on the trees. But by and large, by the time February has rolled around, I’m largely tired and exasperated by the continual presence of snow and cold. I’m tired of constantly shivering and shoveling snow out of my driveway. And while the days have lengthened some, night descends far too quickly, taking away whatever small amount of heat the sun brought with it, and dimming inclinations to stray far from home.
But as they say, “home is where the heart is”. For those of us in happy family situations, the cold nights of February bring us closer together. We share stories of our days and lives, laugh at each other’s jokes, and watch movies together, all while eating fattening food that brings us comfort during these cold, short days and long, dark nights. Maybe it is as much because of this, as of the presence of Valentine’s Day smack in the middle of February, that has caused February to be labeled “Heart Month”.
In Western medicine, the heart is known to be one of the most important organs in the body. Without its steady pumping of blood throughout our bodies, 365 days of the year, we would soon die. The other organs of our bodies depend on it for the constant influx of calcium, sodium, potassium salts, glucose, amino acids, oxygen, and many other raw materials, which are needed in steady supply in order to carry out the daily demands we place on them. What I’ve always found fascinating about the heart is its natural pace-making abilities. In the atrium of your heart, there is an “atrioventricular node” or AV node, that creates an electrical signal, much like the spark plugs in a car, which keep your heart pumping rhythmically. So, it is not just when we fall in love that “sparks fly”. This happens with each beat of our hearts, for as long as we live. In every moment, we contain the spark of life.
In Chinese medicine, this same idea of “sparking” also exists in relation to the heart. Aside from its physical duties of “governing the blood”, which include its responsibility of transforming the food that we eat into blood itself, and ensuring that all tissues receive the blood they require, the heart is also said to house a spiritual aspect, known as the “shen”. Shen is defined by Giovanni Maciocia as being “the whole sphere of emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of a human being”. You can actually see a healthy “shen” in someone you know, without knowing anything else about Chinese medicine. This is the spark in someone’s eyes, manifested in the enthusiasm that they show for life itself. We all know people who have a lot of “shen”. And, sadly, we most likely also know people who have very little.
People with a small quantity of shen may very well have a weak heart. But more often than not, they simply have very little blood flowing into their heart. It could be said that the thing which animates the heart is the very presence of blood, and without it, the heart, mind, and emotions are dull and sluggish. Knowing that then, in order to invigorate the heart, it is necessary to increase blood circulation through it. And as so often happens in Chinese medicine, this requires the help of another organ in the body, for no organ can function on its own in our bodies without help, just as people cannot function in the world without the help of our loved ones. In the case of increasing the flow of blood to the heart, its dear friend and help-mate in this endeavor is the liver.
As is mentioned on our website, the liver is the organ which filters all of your blood. It does this during the night as you sleep, which is why it is important to eat your last meal of the day as early as you can. If your liver is still heavily involved with the digestion of your last meal, it will not be able to devote as much attention to filtering your blood of toxins. As a result, your heart can become heavy with toxins and difficult in flowing. Blood that is filled with toxins will not be able to carry as many nutrients and oxygen to the cells of your body, including those in your heart.
Additionally, if the bile ducts of your liver are congested with a lot of old and hardened bile, which is the residue of poorly metabolized food due to poor diet or stress, then when blood enters your liver to be filtered, it may have difficulty moving out again. And the direct recipient of the filtered blood from your liver is your heart. Hence, the root cause of poor blood flow in the heart is often congestion in the ducts of the liver.
Until it went out of print, we used to sell a book entitled “The Liver Causes Heart Attacks”, by a Dr. W.P. Neufeld. In this book, Dr. Neufeld described how every patient he ever had who died of a heart attack was later found to have a badly swollen and congested liver when autopsied. From this, he concluded that the root cause of most heart attacks is actually an unhealthy liver. And so, in order to strengthen and improve the functioning of your heart, it is wise for you to consider the health of your liver. As a filtration organ, the best way to improve the health of your liver is through liver and gallbladder flushing. Directions for how to do this can be found in the gallbladder flushing section of our website.
To assist us all in our struggle through the cold, dark days of February, it would be helpful to strengthen our hearts and thereby increase our shen. I’m sure we would all aspire to be a “shen-filled” individual, who not only exudes happiness and well-being, but inspires those same feelings in all the people around us. Aside from doing regular liver and gallbladder flushing, you can also strengthen your heart by eating foods which are known to nourish it. In Chinese medicine, foods which are red in colour are said to nourish heart functioning, which would include adzuki beans, red peppers, red dates, hawthorn berries, and strawberries.
According to Western medicine, foods which are high in anti-oxidants can prevent oxidative stress from free radicals, and thereby decrease the stress placed on the tissues of the heart. Common foods which are high in anti-oxidants include foods such as blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, as well as dark green vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach or kale. Leafy green vegetables also have the advantage of being very high in magnesium, without which all muscles in the body, including the heart, cannot function properly. Whole grain oatmeal is another good food for the heart because its fibre is known to reduce cholesterol. The health-promoting properties of garlic should also not be over-looked when speaking of the heart, since garlic is known to decrease both blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Finally, and most importantly, we can also strengthen our hearts and improve our shen by being grateful for, and taking comfort in, the loved ones by our sides during this cold, harsh month. Even with their sometimes frustrating habits, our friends and family members buffer us from the harsh realities of our lives. We know that with them to help shoulder our loads, and encourage us to see the humor in life, we are rich indeed.
About the author
: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.