A Cardiomyopathy (kahr-dee-oh-my-op-uh-thee) is a condition that affects the heart muscle, or the myocardium. When cardiomyopathy develops, the healthy muscle in the heart may stiffen, become enlarged, thicken, thin out, or fill up abnormally with bodily fluids. This leads to the inability of the heart to deliver oxygenated blood to the body and remove carbon dioxide and other waste products.
The heart is a highly specialized muscular pump designed to beat non-stop for the lifetime of its owner. For some perspective, a human heart beating at 70 beats per minute will beat approximately 2.5 billion times during a 70 year lifespan.
Many signs and symptoms accompany cardiomyopathy, and if left untreated it can lead to the backup of blood into the lungs or the rest of the body, and in the worst case scenario, to heart failure. According to the CDC, 1 in 500 Americans have some form of cardiomyopathy, or roughly 600,000 people.
Types and Causes of Cardiomyopathy
"Cardiomyopathy" really is the umbrella term for a spectrum of several distinct but related subtypes. Classification is still an ongoing debate due to many nuanced and related heart conditions, but most agree on the following principal types of cardiomyopathy.
Dilated cardiomyopathy. The most common type. The left ventricle (the heart's main pumping chamber), becomes enlarged (dilated) and loses its pumping power. This type mostly commonly affects middle-aged men and is the most common form found in children. Some causes include family history (likely genetic), or coronary heart disease, infection, chemotherapy, or drug and alcohol use. The cause may also be unknown, or idiopathic.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This type involves the abnormal thickening (hypertrophy) of the heart muscle. Like in dilated cardiomyopathy, the left ventricle is weakened and thus its pumping power diminished. This type is mostly due to genetic mutations and a family history, and most often presents in childhood or early adulthood, where it may cause sudden death in adolescents and young adult athletes.
Restrictive cardiomyopathy. In this form the heart muscle stiffens, becoming rigid and less elastic. As a result, the heart loses the ability to expand and fill with blood between heartbeats. While it can occur at any age, restrictive cardiomyopathy generally tends to affect older folks. This condition may be caused by diseases elsewhere in the body that affect the heart, such as hemochromatosis (iron buildup in the body), amyloidosis (abnormal buildup of proteins), sarcoidosis (abnormal cell growth and inflammation in the heart and other organs), eosinophilic heart disease (abnormal blood cells which damage the heart), and connective tissue disorders.
Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia. This form of cardiomyopathy is very rare. The muscle in the right ventricle (lower right heart chamber) gets replaced by scar tissue. This causes arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats. It is often inherited and most commonly affects males.
Symptoms of Cardiomyopathy
The most dangerous aspect of cardiomyopathy may be that people in the early stages may not present any indication of the condition, allowing the condition to advance unchecked. Some signs and symptoms include:
Dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting
Breathlessness with activity, or even at rest
Arrthymias, including rapid, pounding, or fluttering heartbeats
Swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet
Risk Factors for Cardiomyopathy
The following factors can increase your risk of developing cardiomyopathy. Taking preventative steps such as knowing yours and your family's medical history and avoiding or abandoning destructive habits and lifestyles can go a long way in keeping your heart healthy.
Family History: Many cases of cardiomyopathy are due to inherited genetic conditions. If your family has a history with cardiomyopathy, or heart failure in general, your likelihood of developing the condition is higher.
Heart Conditions and Heart Diseases: If you've survived a heart attack or coronary artery disease, viral infections of the heart, or other conditions affecting the heart, such as amyloidosis, hemochromatosis, sarcoidosis, heart valve problems, or connective tissue disorders, you may be at a greater risk for cardiomyopathy.
Metabolic Disorders, such as obesity, diabetes, and thyroid disease.
Drugs and Alcohol: Alcohol abuse is hard on the heart. The risk for cardiomyopathy increases significantly after more than five years of seven to eight drinks daily. Stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines and other substances like anabolic steroids can strain the heart and increase risk.
Chemotherapy: Some of the drugs and radiation used in chemo can increase your risk for cardiomyopathy
Fortunately, there are treatments for cardiomyopathy. The types of treatment depend on the type and severity of your cardiomyopathy. Your doctor may prescribe medications that balance electrolytes, regulate heart rate, lower blood pressure, remove excess fluid buildup and reduce inflammation.
Your doctor may also recommend implanted devices such as a pacemaker, LVAD, (Left Ventricle Assist Device), CRT (Cardiac Resynchronization Device) or ICD (Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator) to correct arrthymias, assist the pumping mechanism in your heart, coordinate contractions between the left and right ventricles, or regulate heart rate.
Open heart surgery is another option for younger patients whose medications are not sufficiently effective. A surgeon removes part of the damaged heart muscle to improve blood flow through the heart and out into the body. She may also repair or replace damaged valves if needed.
In the worst case scenario, a heart transplant is needed when all other treatments have failed.
Decrease your risk for developing this deadly condition with the following remedies and lifestyle modifications.
But, before we start a look at natural approached --- be warned. Cardiomyopathy is not like other heart conditions, and common sense approaches may counter-intuitively make the condition worse. For example, a 2012 study by Dr. KM Jeckel at Colorado State University found that DHA supplementation, the fatty acid commonly prescribed in omega-3 pills for heart health, actually increased left ventricle thickening and diastolic dysfunction.
That said, the following are proven and safe ways to decrease your risk for cardiomyopathy, and, after consultation with your doctor, you may consider them as part of your health regime:
1. Quit Smoking, Drinking, and Getting High
Tobacco, alcohol and stimulant drugs all greatly increase the risk for developing cardiomyopathy. Alcohol is especially damning: a 1998 survey by Dr. CJ McKenna et al., at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Ireland found that patients with dilated cardiomyopathy were much more likely to be alcohol abusers than the control group.
2. Lose Weight to Reduce the Load on Your Heart
Obesity is linked to a whole host of diseases, but it is especially hard on the heart. A 2001 study by Dr. MA Alpert at the University of South Alabama found that "obesity produces an increase in total blood volume and cardiac output because of the high metabolic activity of excessive fat. This leads to left ventricular dilation, increased left ventricular wall stress, hypertrophy and diastolic dysfunction."
These are all the hallmarks of cardiomyopathy.
3. Reduce Stress By All Means
Intense stress can trigger cardiomyopathy. Because stress induced cardiomyopathy was first discovered in Japan, it bears its Japanese name: "takostubo cardiomyopathy".
This type of cardiomyopathy is also commonly known as "broken heart syndrome", and with good reason.
According to a 2011 study by Dr. S. Sharkey of the Minneapolis Heart Institute, 85% of takotsubo cases are triggered by emotional stress, such as grief, fear, or anger, or physical stress such as acute asthma, surgery, chemotherapy, and stroke.
The basic mechanism behind this condition is a deadly surge in adrenaline as a response to emotional or physical stressors.
This overdose of adrenaline damages the heart muscle by essentially putting it into overdrive. This leads then to the scarring, stiffening, or dilating of the myocardial tissue found in cardiomyopathy.
4. Physical Activity?-- Keep It Moderate and Listen to Your Doctor
Moderate to heavy physical activity can be life-threatening for people with cardiomyopathy: a 2005 study led by Dr. PP Dimitrow at the Jagellonian University School of Medicine in Krakow, Poland found that patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy had a greatly increased risk of sudden death due to the abnormal blood pressure response to exercise.
Essentially, too much strain can be placed on their weakened hearts.
However, just the right amount of exercise often improves the condition. Obviously how much is just right will vary from person to person, so consult your doctor about how much exercise you should be getting, based on your gender, weight, age, and other factors.
5. Arjuna Improves Symptoms of Cardiomyopathy
Terminalia arjuna is an evergreen tree native to south and central India. For centuries the bark of the arjuna tree has been used for various medicinal purposes.
Modern medicine has concurred.
A 1995 study by Dr. A. Bharani at the M.G.M. Medical College in Indore India found that arjuna bark extract significantly improved symptoms and signs of heart failure in patients with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy.
How does arjuna improve your heart? Arjuna extract was found to improve heart muscle function and pumping dynamics through the strengthening of coronary arteries, thereby lowering blood pressure and reducing chest pain.
After consulting with your doctor, you may improve heart function by taking 500 mg of concentrated arjuna extract three times a day.
6. Coleus Helps the Heart to Pump Better
Coleus contains a powerful bioactive substance called forskolin, which dilates blood vessels and helps a weak heart to pump more effectively.
A preliminary trial in 1987 by Dr. W. Kramer et al, at the University of Giessen, Germany found that forskolin reduced blood pressure and improved heart function in patients with cardiomyopathy. Most experts recommend 50-100 mg of standardized coleus extract two to three times a day.
But remember, that the only study which has found coleus helpful is only "preliminary" . We will need to see many more studies to come to a firm conclusion about coleus.
7. Dan Shen (Red Sage) Herb Helps Protect Against Cardiomyopathy
Salvia miltiorrhiza, also known as dan shen or red sage, is a perennial mint. In traditional Chinese medicine, dan shen has been used to treat angina and coronary artery disease.
Some studies suggest that dan shen improves the power of heart contractions and coronary circulation, and thus may prevent damage to the heart muscle which leads to cardiomyopathy.
Specifically, a 2012 study at Zhejiang University in China, led by Dr. J. Yu et al., found that salvia miltiorrhiza injection in rats with diabetes protected the heart muscle against developing cardiomyopathy.
Experts in Chinese herbal medicine recommend 1 to 6 grams of dried dan shen root per day.