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15 February 2014

Revisiting Atrial Fibrillation: An Herbal, Holistic Approach

I was recently listening to a Internet radio show, February 12, 2014, featuring herbalists Susun Weed and Robin Rose Bennett. They discussed heart health and the circulatory system.  Here is a link to the podcast.

As some of you may know, I began my herbal studies as a live-out apprentice of Susun Weed many years ago, so I'm always happy and interested to hear her voice. I consider myself someone who follows the philosophy she describes as the Wise Woman tradition; I even use her book Healing Wise as a text in my college research classes which address topics in healing and herbal medicine at Brookdale Community College. 

Interestingly, in the radio discussion, the topic of Atrial Fibrillation came up again and again in the question and answer session. 

I wrote a blog post last year discussing my personal experiences with Atrial Fibrillation. Surprisingly, 1172 people downloaded that post and it became my fourth most popular post of all time. I hadn't thought of how many people share this malady.

Inspired by the show, I thought revisiting the topic might be useful for those of you struggling with this rather vexing health issue. 

One woman called the show saying she regularly deals with bouts of the condition that last for many hours, several times a month. I felt deeply for her situation. I really wanted to hug her right through the phone lines. Atrial Fibrillation can be a real drag.

As I understand the Wise Woman tradition, nourishment is one of the key concepts, so before we even look at a specific situation like Atrial Fibrillation, let's look simply at nourishing the heart. 

One thing we should realize is our hearts are very strong and very powerful. Think of how many organs are duplicated in nature, eyes, kidneys, lungs, reproductive glands, for example, but we only have one heart--at the center of everything--an organ that has greater electrical activity than the brain and even though its job is to pump blood, it requires it's own circulatory system as well. We first should have some appreciation for our heart's great accomplishments, an organ that never takes a break for our entire lives!

The electrical conduction system, how nerve impulses travel from the brain to the rest of the body, is also fascinating to me, and Atrial Fibrillation is intimately related to the messages that travel through this incredible system, firing nerve impulses that tell our heart to beat. There is obviously some great disruption or adjustment taking place during an outbreak of this particular irregular and potentially life-threatening rhythm. 

During the days and weeks following my initial episode, I literally felt like my entire nervous system had shorted out, like the circuits had been burned out. My anxiety became intense, and I felt crippled the entire summer of 2012. Heat was especially troubling. I felt waves of heat rising throughout my body, literally burning every cell they touched. I wanted to sleep on a block of ice.

I figured needed to rebuild my circuitry, and I needed to withdraw from the world for a while. To lessen the stimuli, I spent a lot of time in the dark, avoiding man-made light, and a lot of time in bed. I had an old cat named Lady as my constant companion, and I don't think I could have made it though the downtime without her. 

Additionally, I see the heart and any maladies thereof as connected to every other organ and system of the body, again, in this case, the nervous system is of prime importance. 

Herbs and foods that nourish the nervous system and electrical conductivity would be worthy of note--mineral rich foods and herbal infusions like well-cooked vegetable greens and Stinging Nettle infusions come immediately to mind.

I also recommend a good-quality, unadulterated sea salt as key for heart health. Heart patients are often told to avoid salt but that seems crazy to me--salt is vital in this electrical conduction process, and I believe eating processed, denatured salt is really damaging, but high quality sea salt incredibly health promoting. 

What about other ways to nourish the nervous system? 

For me long, slow, contemplative walks in nature and allowing for deeper ways of connecting to people, plants and animals on the level of unconditional love helped to tone down stress and develop inner peace and calm--the opposite of what goes on during an attack of Atrial Fibrillation I might add.

Living with lies will also poison the nervous system. 

We must face truth and find ways of moving away from behaviors, activities, compulsions, addictions, and people that detract from our inner peace and gravitate toward those which increase it. 

A strange and wonderful aspect of my healing has been reconnecting with the faith of my ancestors and of my childhood before I abandoned it many years ago--namely the Catholic Church.  I would have never thought this possible. I stayed away from the church for many decades.

In my time of greatest anxiety, I was intimately drawn to the Blessed Mother; regardless of whatever problems I may have had with the church, this completely transformative experience is something I could have only  found because of my Catholic roots, and I have derived a great deal of comfort resonating with Her energy in prayer and meditation. After all, who better than your Mother to comfort a jittery nervous system?

I have also dropped out of the mainstream, materialistic chase to acquire more and more stuff and to climb the career ladder, seeking now only to nurture my love for Creation and my appreciation for the Grace bestowed upon all of it. My ego melted away with my old nervous system.

This path is one I probably wouldn't have discovered if not for my illness completely disrupting my life and bringing all my dysfunction, which was significant and long-term, to a crashing halt.  I don't know which specific issues you've neglected to confront in your life, but I don't see any dis-ease as happening purely on a physical level. There are so many facets to our human experience and we're barely able to scratch the surface regarding the depth we're capable of knowing until something serious happens--perhaps you'll come to see the hidden gifts in sickness as powerful and essential to growth. I knew my nervous system had been punished by years of stress and worry, but whether I chose to admit it was another story entirely; however my body eventually got my attention in a way I could not ignore. I fought these changes for a while before I eventually embraced surrender.

In addition to prayer, sleep has been one of the best cures I've found to nourish my nervous system, especially morning sleep. Skullcap is a great herb to help promote this kind of sleep. I've used the tincture for a while now before bed. Even if you wake up, Skullcap will help you fall back asleep and keep retuning for more and more rounds of rest. One dose, around 25-50 drops at bedtime, seems to do the trick for me. Just ignore the temptation to get up. Stay in bed and let yourself fall back asleep.

Nourishing kidneys and lungs is also very important. Stinging Nettle infusion is the supreme kidney ally, and Nettle also strengthens the lungs, along with the blood-building herb Red Clover; they are a powerful combination to alternate--one day Red Clover infusion and the next day Stinging Nettle infusion.

Oatstraw infusion is also well-known in herbal lore for helping the heart and nervous system, but personally I have not found it helpful--it seemed only to increase my agitation, not lessen it. Just my experience and a strange one at that, but I haven't used much Oatstraw in this particular healing journey.

On the other hand, I have found Hawthorne tincture, another legendary heart healer, to be nothing short of miraculous, and I take it every day now. I like it with some dark chocolate or right in my Red Clover infusion. Hawthorne has a fruity taste and goes well with both.

Motherwort tincture (made from fresh flowering plant tops) is yet another herb I have used in abundance during these times. I used it more when I was actually experiencing symptoms and have since switched mostly to Hawthorne, but Motherwort is always close by should I feel something strange begin to echo from the chambers of my heart. Motherwort can actually help your heart find a healthy rhythm in the midst of an episode. You may need a dose of about 20 drops and you may need to repeat it after about 15 to 30 minutes if you don't feel any relief and keep repeating it until you notice a change. I can tell you, even if Motherwort isn't strong enough to get your heart back into normal rhythm, it will make your heart the best it can be even within an abnormal rhythm and that could save your life on the way to the emergency room!

Atrial Fibrillation is a complex and common issue. But I think if you give yourself time and really listen to what your body is telling you, you can make great progress toward healing and wholeness while maybe even learning something you needed to grasp in the process. My best advice is to use the experience for transformation, not debilitation, expansion rather than entropy, connecting to something far greater and more powerful rather than shrinking into fear and anxiety.

Note: If these words resonate, you may want to check out another recent post I wrote on heart health.

Here is an additional link on Seven Effects of Atrial Fibrillation sent to me by Healthline of San Francisco, California.

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