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The Heart Speaks (Are You Listening?)

Loneliness, anger, and grief can break hearts as easily as high blood pressure. To heal the heart, feel the love.

Journey Into the Heart continued...

A sophisticated form of technology called functional MRI has provided deeper insights into the mind-body connection, says Guarneri. Through functional MRI, scientists can see in real time what has seemed so elusive -- that the thought-emotion centers of the brain are inextricably linked with the rest of the body, including the heart.

"This is one of the truly fascinating arenas of medicine," she tells WebMD. "We knew it intuitively, that mind and body were talking but now we are getting the science behind these things. We're just getting the medical technology to really understand it."

Guarneri cites 140 medical studies and other writings -- a fraction of what's out there, she says -- shedding light on what she calls the "whole heart," which doctors and researchers must address to better serve their patients.

"They are the layers that don't appear on a stress test or electrocardiogram, that are not taught in medical school: the mental heart, affected by hostility, stress, and depression … the emotional heart, able to be crushed by loss and grief … the intelligent heart, with a nervous system all its own … the spiritual heart, which yearns for a higher purpose … and the universal heart, which communicates with others," she writes.

What Is the Heart, Really?

The ancient Greeks and Chinese believed the spirit resided in the heart. To the Egyptians, the heart was an inner book, storing a person's entire life - emotions, ideas, and memories. In the past century, scientists stripped the heart of its poetry; it was a mechanical pump, requiring extraordinary measures to fix.

Like those before her, Guarneri learned in medical school to block her emotions and treat the heart as a broken machine.

However, several memorable patients -- Russ, Paul, and Jean, whose stories are

told in the book -- opened her eyes to the value of looking deeper. She saw their vulnerability in the face of heart disease. "They didn't walk into my office on their own volition but were ushered in, ashen and terrified, having had a sobering glimpse of their own mortality," Guarneri writes.

 

She saw the effects of overwork, bad diet, loneliness -- the tensed faces, clenched fists, desperation, and anger. It was the beginning of her journey into mind-body medicine, the science that investigates the mind as an essential element in health and well-being.

"Behind every human being there's a life, a family, a history, and environment," Guarneri tells WebMD. "We're not just microbes on a plate; not everything can be fixed with Lipitor or a diuretic. It's not to say that those things aren't important. But in health care, we have lost the concept that we're dealing with human beings."

She also learned that patients were trying things like acupuncture to relieve stress. They asked questions she couldn't answer: How can I sleep without sleeping pills? How can I manage stress without sedatives? How can I lower blood pressure without taking medications that make me impotent?

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