Sunday, September 4, 2011

Keeping a Healthy Heart and Circulation

Based on a talk given to a consulting group in Chennai, India on Sept 1, 2011

Hydrocarbons such as oil are very important for keeping the engines of any economy going. In 2009, the average daily consumption of oil for a large country such as India was about 2.9 million barrels. Just as crucial as uninterrupted supply of oil is to the world economy today, a healthy and normal blood circulation is important to the human body. Keeping this in perspective, an average human heart would have pumped approximately 1.1 million barrels of blood during the entire lifespan of a person living to the age of 80. This is quite remarkable considering the that the heart is approximately the size of one’s fist. 

Circulating blood has to go through a slow maturation process that starts in a gelatinous substance within the bones called the bone marrow. Just as oil is extracted from great depths below the earth’s surface and has to undergo a refining process before it is usable as fuel, cells in the circulating bloodstream have to go through a process that turns precursor stem cells sourced from bone marrow into usable constituent cells of the blood stream. The major cell groups in the blood stream are the red cells, white cells and platelets. The red cells transport oxygen and carbon dioxide, the white cells are involved with the immune system and help ward off infections, and the platelets help form a plug that helps stop bleeding.

Red cells are the most abundant cells in the blood stream and the red color of blood comes from a iron containing substance in the red cells called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is responsible for transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide. Think of hemoglobin as a car that can carry four passengers. When blood circulates through the lung picking up oxygen molecules from inhaled air, four oxygen molecules travel in the blood stream as passengers attached to one hemoglobin particle. Before picking up oxygen, hemoglobin also drops off carbon dioxide to the lungs and this is sent out in exhaled air. Just as oil in a barrel serves no purpose unless it is burned as fuel, red cells are not of much use unless they are able to transport oxygen to the final destination in various bodily tissues. This is relevant in a situation such as a heart attack, where a blockage in the blood vessel prevents oxygen carrying red blood cells from getting to the heart muscle downstream from the blocked blood vessel.

Blood circulates continuously from birth to death at an average speed of about 2 miles an hour. This pace may seem rather pedestrian, but considering the fact that the network of blood vessels runs tens of thousands of miles, and blood flow cannot stop in any of these blood vessels even for a few seconds, it is amazing how the human heart, with each heart beat,  is able to so uniformly distribute with interruption, an amount of blood that is approximately the volume of one’s fist to every organ and cell of the body.

If this was not hard enough, the blood stream has to also accommodate and help transport other particles that may potentially be harmful for the body such as cholesterol from diet and nicotine from cigarettes. The same efficient network of blood vessels that distribute life giving oxygen has to unfortunately also transport substances that are harmful to life. When oil is extracted from the earth and transported through a vast network of pipelines, utmost care is taken to prevent contaminants from entering this system. However, when it comes to our own network of pipelines that carry life-giving blood, we don’t really pay too much attention to its upkeep. We cause damage to it by bad food habits, smoking, stress etc. Despite all this, the heart and the network of blood vessels carries on doing its function. Unfortunately, many individuals only realize the importance of a healthy heart and circulation only after heart disease has already taken root and has sprouted symptoms that call attention to it. In some cases, it may be too late as it only takes a few minutes after a heart stops for life to evaporate.

The human heart is pretty hardy and is capable of putting out hundreds of millions of heart beats in its lifespan. Just like a large airplane has to depend on a relatively tiny wheel to take off and land, the relatively small human heart takes a heavy workload to keep the comparatively larger human body alive and well. Most of the bodily organs get some downtime except the heart. For example, the brain and the digestive organs get some rest during sleep, but the heart has to continuously beat. Life and death play a very delicate dance in between every heart beat, favoring life when we pursue a healthy lifestyle and favoring the dark side of disease and death with an unwholesome lifestyle.

The food we eat and the exercise we get is one aspect of lifestyle. Another aspect, which perhaps influences everything else is our mental makeup. Our thoughts may influence our lifestyle choices. Just as the blood stream transports both beneficial and potentially harmful particles, the human mind carries both good and bad thoughts which underlie hidden motivations behind all our actions. The human mind works on an effort-reward principle. Short and long-term health and happiness depends on where we set the gauge on this effort-reward spectrum. Most people would like a quick reward for minimal effort and only a few put in efforts without paying attention to the reward. Let’s apply this principle to food and exercise. We all know how easy it is to eat unhealthy food. There is often a sense of immediate gratification when one eats food rich in sugar and fat. A doughnut is a good example of this. The mind likes the little effort it takes to achieve this sense of immediate reward and dislikes the effort it takes to avoid it. Conversely, it takes a lot of effort to maintain the disciple to exercise regularly without seeing tangible rewards in the short haul. The satisfaction that one gets in the short term by eating unhealthy food is experienced in the mind, the ill effects however manifest in the body down the road. What is good for the mind may not necessarily be good for the body. Humans have a small mouth compared to the size of the brain compared to many animals that have a large mouth relative to the size of their brains. Animals eat to live, we generally live to eat. Instead if we eat to live and make sensible food choices rather than putting food in our mouths just to experience pleasure in our minds, we can earn long term happiness in the form of a healthy body.

Health and happiness are closely interrelated. The question of whether happy people are healthier or healthy people are happier may be successfully argued both ways. Research has shown that happiness is closely related to productivity at work. This enhanced productivity may not only improve your bottom line as well as the company you work for, but society as a whole benefits. Just as the appearance of an expensive carpet depends on the individual threads, the health of each organ depends on its constituent cells, the health of the body is related to the proper functioning of the different organs. The health of a company, nation and indeed the world depends on a healthy and productive workforce.

Going through life from start to finish can be thought of as completing one revolution on a treadmill. As you complete your life cycle you may come back to the same place that you started from. When you are really young you are a child and when you are really old you become like one. In between, you have the choice of how fast you want that treadmill to go. Going slow and enjoying every step will give you the time to reflect and look back in satisfaction at your life. At this point, what matters is the efforts you may have put in and more importantly the motivations behind them and not necessarily the rewards that you may or may not have accrued. If you go through life too fast, the treadmill of life will come back a full circle before you realize it.

Stress speeds up the heart and relaxation slows it down. If you look at an individual lifespan as tens and millions of individual heart beats and breaths strung together, then each breath and heart beat has its own individual life cycle. With each breath, a healthy human lung is able to extract all the required oxygen for the bodily needs and expel waste in the form of carbon dioxide. Each heart beat facilitates the transport of oxygen and carbon dioxide from and to the lungs respectively. A lot of complex cellular mechanisms take place in between to get ready for the next breath and the next heart beat. Taking life one step at a time may also be thought of a taking it one breath and heart beat at a time. Slow deep breathing in fact has an effect on slowing the heart down. This gives more time for the metabolic processes in the body to equilibrate, thereby preserving and prolonging life, starting at the cellular level.

Here is a simple breathing exercise to illustrate this point and this takes only a few minutes a day and may be practiced anywhere. Close your eyes and listen to your breath. You may hear sounds produced by the friction of air travelling through the nasal and air passages into the lungs and you breathe in and out. Observe this sound without changing the rate, pattern or depth of breathing. After a few minutes, try to soften the noise of the breath going in and out. This may be achieved by gradually slowing the speed of the breath going in and out. When the breath becomes barely perceptible, mentally start counting 1,2,3 etc with each inhalation and 1,2,3 etc with each exhalation. After a while, try to maintain a 1:1 ratio of the number of counts during inhalation to the number of counts during exhalation. Why is counting important? As you slow the breathing down making it a more subtle process, two things are likely to happen. Initially thoughts coursing through the mind amplify, and as the the breathing gets slower, sleepiness may set in. Keeping your attention on counting keeps part of the mind engaged and focused thereby allowing the background thoughts to eventually fade away. Moreover, with counting the mind stays more alert preventing you from drifting off to sleep.

With eyes closed, this process of trying to focus one’s attention on counting while thoughts are crowding the mental space can be compared to trying to find a dark corner in a bright area or a bright corner in a dark area. Initially when one closes both eyes and tries to concentrate, the mind appears to light up with all manner of thoughts that seemingly appear from nowhere. In the midst of this confusing array of thoughts, it may be hard to find a quiet dark corner in the mind to focus on the breath by counting. However with persistence and patience, random thoughts become less prominent and it becomes easier to count the breaths and this serves as a buoy to tie your attention to while you wait for the storm of thoughts to settle down to a placid state.

There are some similarities between the breathing process and the extraction and utilization of hydrocarbons such as oil. Decomposed organic matter such as plants and animals mix with soil and this sediment migrates to the deeper layers of the earth where heat and pressure create solid, liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons such as coal, oil and natural gas. As these resources are extracted and utilized, trapped carbon is released into the atmosphere, creating the “greenhouse gas” effect. The human body, processes organic matter in the form of food, uses it for cellular activity and the waste material from this process is converted predominantly to carbon. Each inhalation provides fuel in the form of oxygen for breaking down and utilizing organic matter, and each exhalation provides an outlet for releasing trapped carbon dioxide from the body. Just as hydrocarbons from the earth’s crust may be released in solid, liquid and gaseous forms, waste matter from the human body is also released in the form of these three states of matter.

The number of metabolic cycles cells go through may be reduced by slowing the breathing down, eating fresh and easily digestible food in great moderation and not adding other toxic substances such as that found in cigarette smoke etc. Human cells have a limited number of times that cells can turn over before their life span is over. This is called the Hayflick limit, beyond which cells enter a senescence phase and this correlates with aging. In the human body, which is a collection of trillions of cells, it is likely that no two cells are in exact same phase of their lifespan at any given time and individual cells differ in where they are in terms of reaching the Hayflick limit. Collectively over time, as the majority of the cells proceed towards this limit, the ageing process gradually moves on. By making the body “greener” i.e., generating less carbon, cellular longevity increases and by extension of this, the lifespan also increases.