25 March 2024

Take care of your heart

Okaż serce swemu sercu - zdrowie psychiczne pracowników, wellbeing w firmie, opieka psychologiczna pracowników

In the human body, it is one of the most important organs, supplying oxygen to all cells, thereby ensuring our daily functioning. As long as it beats, it signifies life and existence. When it stops working, we see death, emptiness, annihilation. We say that cruel, cold-hearted, and unfeeling people are devoid of it or have it made of stone. Its symbol is associated with love, passion, sensitivity, tenderness, and enthusiasm. Its name, used metaphorically, denotes the central and crucial part of a space, such as a city.

What and why beats inside? 

Not only in anatomical terms, but also in cultural, artistic, psychological, or religious realms, the heart is attributed a significant role, impossible to overestimate. We have known since time immemorial that this organ is mainly responsible for our vitality, strength, and energy, for our fitness and resilience. Even when our ancestors did not yet understand the structure of the heart or the principles of its functioning. Although the primitive homo sapiens dwelling in caves had no knowledge of atria, ventricles, and valves, they were aware that the palpable, rhythmic beats in the chest determined their existence.

Evidence of this can be found in the cave paintings discovered in El Pindal Cave in Spain, depicting a mammoth with a clearly marked heart. In the painting, dated to the last ice age (around 15,000 years BCE), it is the only visible organ. The ancient hunters knew perfectly well that by inflicting wounds in this part of the body, they could quickly bring down even the largest animal. Over the following millennia, knowledge about the functioning of the heart steadily increased. The Sumerians were already aware that blood flows in the veins and heart. The ancient Egyptians believed, on the other hand, that blood vessels emanate from this organ, distributing oxygen throughout the body.

Until modern times, not the brain but the heart was considered the most important human organ. In Egyptian mythology, it was believed that after a person's death, their heart is weighed during a special trial. If it was heavier than an ostrich feather, then its owner – burdened with evil deeds – was destroyed by a monster. If it was lighter – it meant that the soul was free from sins and could enter the realm of happiness. Aztec warriors, on the other hand, would rip out the still-beating hearts of their enemies, which was not only an act of courage but also a sign of respect for the defeated, and then offered them to the gods as sacrifices. Even in the civilized world, the heart was attributed mystical functions. Polish and French kings were buried without this organ. Their hearts rested in separate places, most often in temples.

The „heart-way” from Earth to the Moon 

Today, our knowledge about this organ is no longer based on superstitions and beliefs but on scientific facts. From biology lessons, we remember about the right and the left chambers as well as atria. We understand that the heart pumps blood, thus delivering oxygen to each of the 75 trillion cells in the body. However, are we truly aware of the enormous work it does every day?

It is the first organ to form in the human body – on average, already three weeks after conception, and also the last one functioning just before death. Throughout a person's life, the heart beats about two and a half billion times and pumps a total of 170 million liters of blood, which is as much as would fit in 200 railway containers. Every day, it generates as much energy as a several-ton truck needs to travel about 30 kilometers. If we were to accumulate this energy throughout a person's entire life, it would be enough to travel from Earth to the Moon.

All this is thanks to an organ that is relatively small. While in the largest animals, the weight of the heart can reach up to 700 kilograms, our human heart weighs only between 230 grams in women to 380 grams in men. It can be compared to a microprocessor in a computer, surrounded by components and much larger elements. Although we cannot see it, it does not change the fact that it is the most important part of any machine. However, the effort exerted by the heart is impressive not only because of its small size. We are talking about an organ that rests only for fractions of a second between the contraction and relaxation phases. The heart cannot afford more relaxation because during just one minute, it pumps 5–6 liters of blood into our bodies.

The heart requires daily care

The human heart has its own electrical impulse, so it can continue to beat even after being disconnected from the body. Provided it has access to oxygen. Therefore, theoretically, the heart can manage without the person, but unfortunately, the person cannot manage without the heart. This is why its daily care is so important, something we often forget. When the heart beats too slowly, too quickly, or irregularly, we know that we should visit a doctor. However, we should also surround our heart with equal care when its function is normal. Remember that it is a muscle whose functionality decreases with age, and it largely depends on us in what condition this crucial "pump" will be in a few, a dozen, or several dozen years.

It is said that we love someone or something with all our heart, yet we often show too little love to our hearts. Especially in situations where we routinely reach for substances, we don’t move as such as we should, or subject our bodies to constant stress. Smoking, lack of physical activity, overweight and obesity, irregular and unhealthy diet, excessive cholesterol – all of these diminish the tremendous effort our heart makes every day. How? The harmful effects are most evident in the case of supplying nicotine to the body. Cigarette smoke contains up to 7,000 toxic chemicals that bind to hemoglobin faster than oxygen. Smoking not only raises blood pressure but also accelerates the heartbeat, because heart must keep up with oxygenating the entire body. This is very difficult because nicotine and other toxic substances cause constriction of blood vessels. In simple terms: they pollute and narrow them. Similarly, saturated fats, salt, sugar, and cholesterol also hinder blood transport in the body. Their excess can lead to atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases.

The heart also doesn’t like Mondays

Today, more people worldwide die for cardiovascular diseases than for all cancers combined. In Poland, in 2023, cardiovascular diseases were responsible for 37 percent of deaths. Therefore, last year, one in three people in our country died because their heart could no longer cope with the burdens, which – excluding congenital and hidden defects of this organ – we ourselves impose on it. Elevated cholesterol affects almost 20 million Poles. Even 13 million struggle with hypertension. According to the Polish Cardiac Society (PTK), cardiovascular diseases pose the greatest threat to the lives of Poles. If the situation does not improve, scientists predict that by 2100, the population of our country will decrease to 27 million people solely because of this.

Heart and circulatory diseases consequently lead to strokes and heart attacks. Women are most susceptible to them, although in recent years, the difference between genders has been increasingly blurred. Similarly, the age range of people at risk is also changing. Today, more and more 40-year-olds, 30-year-olds, and even 20-year-olds die for heart attacks. Statistically, heart attacks most often occur on Monday mornings when the amount of stress in our bodies sharply increases after the weekend. This is most often related to work. This only confirms the fact that nowadays, stress disrupts the functioning of the heart to the same extent as nicotine, obesity, or providing the body with unhealthy food.

150 minutes for the heart

The future, even if painted in dark colors, largely depends on us. Preventing heart disease does not require complicated actions, as it mainly relies on consistency, regularity, and proper motivation. This applies, for example, to the increased need for physical activity. Specialists recommend at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week, enough to make you slightly breathless. Running, cycling, aerobics, swimming (as well as walking) improve the efficiency of the heart, meaning it can pump more blood in a shorter time, using significantly less energy than usual. Regular exercise also increases lung capacity, which in turn promotes better oxygenation of the blood. Moreover, systematic training lowers blood pressure and consequently reduces the risk of heart disease by up to 14 percent.

Of course, the health benefits of exercise will appear when we adjust our activity to our age, weight, body predispositions, and fitness level. Pushing ourselves too hard during various activities can lead to muscle strain and even strain on the heart itself. Therefore, it's worth adjusting our plans to our capabilities and preferably consulting them with a doctor. This way, we can be sure that increased movement and physical effort will truly benefit our hearts.

The heart of the Tsimane people

Efficiency in exercise is achieved through regularity and repeatability. The same principles apply to introducing healthy foods into our diet. You don't need to delve into medical data to conclude that an excess of high-fat foods, red meat, sweets, and alcohol weakens the efficiency of the heart and contributes to the accumulation of problems related to the functioning of the entire circulatory system. Our heart "favors" easily accessible and uncomplicated products. The residents of the Maniqui River region in Bolivia know this very well. This South American tribe was proclaimed the healthiest in the world several years ago. The members of the Tsimane tribe were considered to have the strongest hearts. Scientists visited 85 villages inhabited by this community. They measured blood pressure, sugar levels, and cholesterol concentrations in the Tsimane people. Several hundred individuals even underwent computer tomography and had their blood vessels scanned.

All the studies confirmed the initial hypothesis: the Tsimane tribe members have the best cardiovascular health indicators in the world. What is the reason for such excellent condition of this people? Mainly their diet. The Tsimane people primarily eat rice, maize, potatoes, nuts, and various fruits and vegetables. Meat constitutes only about 17 percent of their daily menu. Of course, each of the products they consume is grown in natural conditions without artificial fertilizers.

Also, the Tsimane people are very active. The inhabitants of this part of Bolivia take an average of 16,000 steps per day. Even individuals over the age of 60 exceed the 15,000-step threshold every day. It's no wonder that in the oldest group of Tsimane people, as many as 75 percent show no signs of atherosclerosis. Most tribe members also do not experience problems with hypertension, high cholesterol, or elevated blood sugar.

Heart on the couch

While no studies on satisfaction and life contentment have been conducted among the Tsimane people, it can be assumed that members of this South American tribe would fare quite well in those statistics as well. And indeed, good mental health – in addition to abstaining from substances, adopting a proper diet, and increasing physical activity – has a positive impact on heart function. Experienced happiness reduces stress, thereby normalizing the cardiovascular system's function. Conversely, a lack of life joy, as well as a lack of understanding and acceptance, disturbed sense of security, various fears, and worries act inversely – further burdening not only the nervous system but also the organs responsible for proper blood circulation.

Diminished mood, such as in individuals with depression, does not promote health-promoting behaviors, intensifying smoking, low physical activity, or an unhealthy diet. As Dr Jerzy Piwoński from the National Institute of Cardiology in Warsaw states: "the factor linking depression with cardiovascular diseases is the influence of serotonin stimulating aggregation, the clumping of blood platelets and constriction of blood vessels, which can lead to the formation of a clot in the vessel (also in a coronary vessel) and contribute to the occurrence of a heart attack." It has been scientifically proven that experiencing at least one episode of depression increases the risk of a heart attack by up to four times. At the same time, it has been demonstrated that 20 percent of people with coronary artery disease also have severe depression. The presence of its symptoms can also worsen the prognosis during a heart attack to the same extent as smoking or a previous heart attack. As you can see, mental health is inherently linked to the functioning of the organ that has been perceived by humanity as the most important for many centuries.

Jester or a „brain’s horologist”? 

Already in antiquity, it was believed that not the brain, but the heart, that was responsible for experiencing positive and negative emotions. It was this organ that was associated with the spiritual realm of the human being, and it was attributed commanding functions in the human body. Ancient Egyptians, when mummifying deceased pharaohs, would remove their brains from their bodies, leaving the heart intact. Over the centuries, however, the role of the brain became much more significant than that of the heart. Often, both organs were contrasted with each other. In a popular series of Polish advertisements some years ago, Reason was depicted as a rational, balanced, and sensible "stiff", while Heart was portrayed as a spontaneous, emotional, and smiling enthusiast. Is the heart truly serving the brain today? Or perhaps there exists some understanding between these two crucial organs for our functioning? Since a carefree mind can positively influence heart function, can a healthy heart improve our mental well-being?

For contemporary scientists, the relationship between these two organs is rather obvious. Over three decades ago, Dr John Andrew Armour, in his book Neurocardiology, argued that the heart has its own complex nervous system consisting of 40,000 cells. This theory was confirmed at Harvard in 1995 when Dr Ming He-Huang specified that the cells in the heart are identical to those that exist in the brain. Today's medicine has partly proven what was believed centuries ago – that the heart can indeed harbour emotions and is part of a bidirectional connection with the brain. According to some researchers, the heart directs the brain as much as the brain controls the heart's function. Vincent M. Figueredo, in his book The Curious History of the Human Heart, explains this as follows: "When encountering a cougar while hiking in the woods, the brain activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a sharp reaction that prepares the body for fight or flight. The brain commands the heart to beat faster and harder, pumping oxygenated blood to the muscles to prepare them for movement. Conversely, the brain is the first to receive signals from the heart. For example, if not for this communication, we could faint when we stand up suddenly. To counteract this, the heart, along with powerful blood vessels, warns the brain that blood volume and pressure are dropping, and the brain responds by causing blood vessels to constrict to prevent blood from pooling in the legs."

Dr Gary E. Schwartz and Dr Linda G. Russek from the Human Energy Systems Laboratory reached similar conclusions, arguing that with every heartbeat, the heart not only pumps blood but also sends electromagnetic information to the brain. Even more surprising discoveries were made by researchers at Cornell University in New York, who dubbed the heart the "brain's horologist". By monitoring the heart rates of 45 individuals, they showed that time seems to pass more slowly when the interval between heartbeats is extended. Further fascinating observations stem from research on the possibility of inheriting certain behavioral traits from heart donors. In Figueredo's book, he describes the case of Claire Sylvia, who received a heart from Tim Lamirande, who died in a motorcycle accident. After the transplant, Sylvia's friends noticed that she started moving like a man. Additionally, she developed a taste for beer and nuggets, which she previously couldn't stand. The 18-year-old heart donor loved them. In light of these fascinating observations and studies, does the heart still seem like just an ordinary pump and the carefree "jester" immortalized in advertisements and scolded by Reason?

‘Cold eye, look in your heart’

One might get the impression that most of us do not appreciate, or at least are not fully aware of, the role the heart plays in our bodies. Its beating is so natural and obvious to us that we often fail to recognize the immense work it tirelessly performs for us behind those rhythmic pulses. Adam Mickiewicz, the famous Polish poet, wrote, ‘cold eye, look in your heart’. These words, also a manifesto of Romanticism, appeal to ‘feeling and faith’. They encourage us not to rely solely on reason in our assessment of reality and emotions. This beautiful, metaphorical message refers to the symbolism of the heart as the center of our emotions. However, let us also take this verse more literally. Let looking into the heart also mean caring for this most precious organ that determines life.During the annual Heart Week celebrated every April, we focus on preventing cardiovascular diseases. During this time, specialists strongly advocate for regular blood pressure monitoring, cholesterol level checks, sugar level tests, ECG examinations, and deepening our knowledge of a healthy diet and active lifestyle. This is undoubtedly a necessary and valuable initiative but let us remember that a week is not enough to properly care for our hearts. Since it works continuously, we should also take care of it continuously—for its better condition

About the author

Tomasz Zacharczuk

Tomasz Zacharczuk

Content Creation Specialist at ICAS Poland. A graduate in journalism and social communication from the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn. With over 10 years of experience as a radio and online journalist, I leverage this expertise to engage with experts and present the concepts and benefits of the ICAS EAP program. Condensed knowledge, engaging presentation and clear communication are foundation of the interaction between companies and customers. Efficient interaction allows for a better understanding of the needs and requirements of both sides. Only a partnership based on trust and transparency enables the establishment of lasting and positive relationships, not only in business but, above all, in life.