February is Heart Health month, which includes Valentine’s Day (the most important day for our hearts!). The Heart and Stroke Foundation and many other organizations are doing their best to raise awareness and empower individuals to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Since heart disease is the number one killer in North America supporting the cardiovascular system can save a lot of lives.

In this month’s column we will cover the most important aspects you need to know about how the cardiovascular system works. Knowing this information can help you keep the entire cardiovascular system healthy and prevent disease.

The cardiovascular system has two main components: the pump (heart) and the tubes (arteries, veins, and lymphatic vessels). The heart has four chambers, four major valves, and a lot of muscle it relies on for pumping blood. The heart drives de-oxygenated blood through the lungs to pick up oxygen and pumps the oxygenated blood to the rest of the body through the arteries to deliver oxygen and many other nutrients. Every artery eventually leads to a capillary, where the oxygenated blood leaves the vascular system and goes to the cells. The de-oxygenated blood then flows into the veins and is carried back to the heart. All of the other waste fluid from the cells and capillaries drains into the lymphatic vessels and travels back to the heart.

Some cardiovascular conditions affect the pump, some affect the tubes, and some affect both. This is very important to know because it helps you and your doctor pick the right treatment or preventative strategy. For example, atherosclerosis is a condition where the arteries stiffen as plaque builds up inside them. The heart muscle is typically not damaged. Therefore, the most important treatments, natural or synthetic, should support the vasculature and treat the causes of the plaque build-up.

Other organs like the liver, kidneys, adrenal glands, thyroid, and nervous system can affect the cardiovascular system. At any one point in time about 25 percent of your blood is in the liver and kidneys. When these organs are running sluggish or affected by disease they can create back pressure in the vasculature, which leads to high blood pressure. Over the course of time, high blood pressure leads to vascular damage and pathological changes in the heart muscle. In these cases, it is important to provide treatment for the liver and/or kidney in order to treat the cause of the hypertension.

Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands are responsible for producing the majority of your stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. We all know that too much stress negatively affects the cardiovascular system and these hormones are a major reason why. Adrenaline increases blood pressure by increasing heart rate and the amount of force the heart pumps with. Cortisol increases blood pressure by tightening the arteries and veins thus making the space inside them narrower.

The Thyroid Gland

The thyroid gland produces hormones that play a major role in your metabolic rate. If the thyroid gland is making too much hormone the heart rate can increase, the rhythm may become sporadic, and blood pressure can rise. This can lead to hypertension and arrhythmias.

The Nervous System

The nervous system has a significant presence inside the heart and controls the heart rate. The sinoatrial node (SA node) and atrioventricular node (AV node) are the heart’s natural pacemaker. These nodes are richly innervated by autonomic nervous system fibers. If the nervous system signals are inappropriate the heart rate will be altered.

Cardiovascular Health Dependencies

As you can see the health of your cardiovascular system depends not only on the heart and vasculature but also depends on the health of several other organs. When I treat people with cardiovascular disease I always examine the health of all these other organs and many other health aspects as well. This is equally important when the goal is prevention of cardiovascular disease. If you have a cardiovascular condition or are focused on prevention I recommend working with a physician who can help you with all the potential causes of cardiovascular disease.