As a Black man I’ve learned that the ‘Heart’ is critically important to life, unfortunately due to the stress of racism – white supremacy too many Black men die prematurely of heart disease and strokes.
Heart disease is the number one killer of Black men in America and we lead this nation in heart related deaths. Black men are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than white men; Black men account for over 100,000 more heart disease deaths than white men. According to 2013 data from the American Heart Association 44% of Black males age 20 and older have heart disease.
A 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that one in 100 Black men and women between 18 and 30 develops heart failure before age 50, a rate that is 20 times higher than whites in the same age group. The American Journal of Human Biology contains details of two studies that contend that poor nutrition and stress stemming back to the days of slavery could help explain Black-white differences in cardiovascular health in the United States.
In one study, researchers from Northwestern University explain how nutrients and hormones present in the womb can profoundly shape a fetus's development, in part by silencing certain genes. These influences, say the research team, can persist into later life to impact adult health, a process known as 'fetal programming'. The researchers argue that such inter-generational impacts of environmental factors could help explain racial health differences.
Christopher Kuzawa and Elizabeth Sweet who co-authored the research article says a pregnant African American mother's experience of well documented stressors including social forces such as discrimination and racism could have lingering effects on diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and heart attacks in her children.
By synthesizing this new evidence, they argue that social forces, rather than genes, may underlie the problem of racial inequity in heart attacks and strokes. Indeed the social force strain of racist socioeconomic deprivation and stress wreaks havoc on the minds and bodies of Black men that causes greater emotional distress, heart disease, and negatively impacts diabetes. Tupac Shakur once rapped that every day too many Black men “got to try to make a dollar out of 15 cents.”
A research team led by Carnegie Mellon University's Sheldon Cohen has found that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research shows for the first time that the effects of psychological stress on the body's ability to regulate inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease.
Cohen argued that prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone. Specifically, immune cells become insensitive to cortisol's regulatory effect. In turn, runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases.
Another study provides a better understanding of why chronic stress leads to high levels of inflammation in the body. Researchers found that chronic stress changes gene activity of immune cells before they enter the bloodstream so that they're ready to fight infection or trauma even when there is no infection or trauma to fight. This then leads to increased inflammation.
The University of California, Los Angeles researchers looked at blood samples from both the stressed mice, as well as humans who came from differing socioeconomic statuses. Just like in the mouse part of the experiment, 387 genes were identified that had differences in activity between the people who came from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who came from high socioeconomic backgrounds.
And just like in the mice, the up-regulated genes in those who came from low socioeconomic backgrounds were pro-inflammatory.
Stress and Diabetes
Stress has a negative impact on the disproportionate number of Black men who have diabetes. Black men with type 2 diabetes who experience high levels of stress have a spike in blood sugar levels; stress increases the body’s demand for energy. To get that energy their bodies releases hormones that raise their blood sugar; having type 2 diabetes their insulin can't keep up with the high blood sugar levels.
Effects of Negative Emotions on the Heart
As Black men we’ve been under the emotional distress of racial oppression in America since 1619 – almost 400 years. The emotional distress of 'Post-Traumatic Slavery Disorder' whether in the form of stress, worry, depression, or anger increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, a growing body of research studies have found.
In 2007, Jesse Stewart, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, led a three-year research study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry that has linked negative emotions - depression, anxiety, hostility, anger - with atherosclerosis, or thickening of the inside walls of the coronary arteries. Thickening of these walls can slow or block the flow of blood to the heart and brain, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
"The current evidence suggests that there is a link between negative emotions and risk for heart disease" - the leading cause of death in the United States, says Dr. Stewart. "In these observational studies, the strength of the connection is comparable to other well-known cardiovascular risk factors. It's not a weak correlation."
"Depression can be considered an emerging risk factor for heart disease," Dr. Stewart adds. "It can be thought of as much the same way as cholesterol or high blood pressure or smoking, although the evidence base is not the highest available."
Negative Emotions and the Heart
There are two primary reasons why negative emotions can have such an impact on the heart, says clinical psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., a spokesman for the American Heart Association (AHA).
First, emotions such as stress and depression can have a behavioral effect, that lead individuals to do a terrible job taking care of themselves, and participate in unhealthy activities.
According to Dr. Jacobs, there is growing evidence regarding the biological effects of psychological stress. "For example, there's mounting research that when people get stressed out, their hormonal system produces more cortisol," a hormone released by the adrenal gland, says Dr. Jacobs. "This has been associated with heart disease and diabetes," he says. Continuous stress also affects the circulatory system. "The arteries tend to narrow when people are in situations of very high stress," Dr. Jacobs says. "That causes increased blood pressure."
Second, depression can also have a negative effect on the heart. "Depression has been linked with increased inflammation, as measured by markers in the blood," Dr. Stewart says. "These markers have been shown to predict future heart attacks. Depression also has an effect on the immune system, which then affects cardiopulmonary health."
Heart of the Matter
In ancient African Egyptian spirituality the heart was the seat of emotion, thought, will, and intention; it was equivalent with the mind. In ancient Egypt when death occurred it was the deceased heart that was morally weighed for judgment. The heart was mummified with the body and the brain was siphoned out of the body and thrown away; it was no longer needed to catalog and choreograph the movements of the body that had passed into the realm of death.
The purely intellectual construction exemplified by the brain was a detriment in the realm of souls since the mind misconstrues information, twists, and distorts facts. The heart was kept in the body because true feelings and emotions are maintained in the heart.
Sufism, a spirituality derived from ancient African Egyptian spirituality continued on with the understanding that the human heart was more than just a critical physical pump; that the heart was the seat of spiritual intellect. In Sufism the ‘Heart’ signifies the biological heart’s spiritual aspect as being the center of all emotions and (intellectual and spiritual) faculties, such as perception, consciousness, sensation, reasoning, and willpower.
Research in the past few decades substantiates ancient African Egyptian spirituality and Sufism’s insights that the heart was far more than just a 'blood-pump'. The Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California studies the heart and has gained insight into the various brain-like attributes that it has been found to possess. These attributes form the 'little brain' in the heart, and this theory opens the door to the new and exciting topic of heart intelligence.
In the past, researchers have primarily focused on how the heart responds to brain commands. However, research now reveals that the heart has very significant effects on the brain that have been overlooked previously. This is the field of 'neurocardiology', which studies how the heart and the brain collaborate.
John and Beatrice Lacey pioneered this field of research in the 1970s; they discovered that, in contrast to preexisting theories, there is two-way communication between the heart and the brain.
Much of this research reveals new information about the heart, proving that even scientifically, the heart is a special and unique organ rather than merely a pump following the commands of the brain. The little brain in the heart is the heart’s own intrinsic nervous system - a network of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins, and support cells that are very similar to those that exist in the brain, but act independently of the brain.
This information processing system can control the brain, the hormonal system, and other pathways. By using this system, the heart seems to have its own logic that functions separately from the autonomic nervous system. In fact, at times, brain “rhythms” neural oscillations or repetitive neural activity naturally synchronize to heart electromagnetic rhythms and heartbeat. These findings have shed light on scientific explanations to feelings such as intuition, coherence, and harmony.
The following recent scientific findings have shed light on the attributes of the heart:
*The human heart has approximately 40,000 neural cells. This means the heart has its own nervous system, which actually sends more information to the brain, than the brain sends to the heart!
*From a biophysical perspective, every heart contraction creates a wave that pushes blood through the veins and arteries providing the energetic signal that helps synchronize all the cells of the body, including the brain.
*From a hormonal perspective, the heart is a hormone-producing endocrine gland, producing ANF to control blood- pressure, adrenaline, dopamine, and oxytocin (the love hormone). Oxytocin reduces fear, increases eye-contact, and increases trust and generosity.
*From an electromagnetic perspective, the heart’s electromagnetic field is 5,000 times more powerful than the brain’s! Our heart’s electromagnetic field expands and touches those within 8 – 25 feet of where we are positioned!
As Black men we got to get to the ‘heart of the matter’, the core, the main reasoning for our main health problem. It's just like our heart is the main essence of what keeps us living; the heart of our matter is racist-stress, emotional-distress, and heart-disease.
Thus we have to become 'heart centered' – heart focused; being 'heartful' means to become 'heart-intelligent' and engaged in self-love 'taking care of ourselves holisitically'; listening to our heart’s mind which means moving beyond a sole reliance on reason and embracing the subtle, generally unused and underdeveloped heart faculties of intuition; attending to our moods, stressors, and 'heart-felt' wounds; eating a 'heart-smart' diet and practicing daily stress management.