Cardiomyopathy, a condition that commonly results in an enlarged heart and reduced blood flow, affects as many as 1 in 500 adults living in developed nations like the U.S. (1) What can you do to help lower the chances you’ll experience cardiomyopathy and give yourself the best chance of fully recovering?
Not all cases of cardiomyopathy seem to be preventable, but still, making lifestyle and diet changes — such as exercising, treating existing health conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, and limiting alcohol/drug use — can reduce your risk for developing an enlarged heart, heart disease and many other cardiovascular problems.
What Is Cardiomyopathy?
The definition of cardiomyopathy is a group of diseases of the heart muscle that enlarge the heart and/or make it thicker and more rigid than normal. (2) Is cardiomyopathy serious? It can be, depending on the type that someone has.
Because this condition can lead to an enlarged heart, irregular heartbeats (called arrhythmias) and less elastic blood vessels, it makes it harder for your heart to pump enough blood to the rest of your body. Cardiomyopathy increases the risk for complications like blood clots, heart valve problems, a heart attack and heart failure.
There are several main types of cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy types include: (3)
- Dilated cardiomyopathy, when the left ventricle of the heart becomes enlarged and can’t pump blood normally out of the heart.
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, when the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, becomes abnormally thick. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is thought to be the most common inherited or genetic heart disease and can affect people of all ages, including children and young adults.
- Restrictive cardiomyopathy, when the heart muscle becomes rigid, less elastic, and can’t fill with blood normally between heartbeats.
- Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, a rare type that affects the lower right heart chamber of the heart (the right ventricle) and occurs when healthy tissue is replaced by scar tissue.
- Unclassified cardiomyopathy, which includes other types of cardiomyopathy that don’t fall into the above categories.
- Stress-induced cardiomyopathy (also known as “broken heart syndrome”), which is tied to traumatic and stressful events that cause a surge in stress hormones that affect the heart’s rhythms. Examples of emotionally stressful events include death of a loved, a divorce, breakup or physical separation, betrayal or romantic rejection. (4)
Cardiomyopathy Symptoms and Signs
When someone first develops cardiomyopathy they are unlikely to notice any signs or symptoms. Symptoms usually appear as the condition progresses. Sometimes cardiomyopathy progresses slowly, while in other cases it worsens quickly and requires treatment right away.
When they do occur, the most common cardiomyopathy symptoms include: (5)
- Trouble breathing and breathlessness
- Shortness of breath even when resting
- Edema, or swelling and fluid buildup in the legs, ankles and feet
- Abdominal/stomach bloating
- Irregular heartbeat, such as rapid, pounding or fluttering heartbeats
- Heart murmurs, or unusual sounds associated with heartbeats
- Coughing, especially while lying down
- Chest pains and pressure
- Weakness and fatigue
- Dizziness, lightheadedness and fainting (also called syncope, the medical term for fainting or briefly passing out)
- In some cases, sleep apnea and trouble sleeping
Is cardiomyopathy life threatening? If left untreated, the condition can sometimes become very serious, cause a number of complications, and even potentially be fatal. Usually cardiomyopathy needs to be treated to prevent symptoms from worsening. Complications that can sometimes occur due to cardiomyopathy include:
- Heart failure, which can be life-threatening
- Blood clots, sometimes which enter the bloodstream and travel to other organs, including the brain or lungs
- Valve problems, which can lead to a backward flow of blood
- Cardiac arrest and sudden death, usually due to abnormal heart rhythms
Cardiomyopathy Causes and Risk Factors
What is the main cause of cardiomyopathy? In most cases, there is no known cause of cardiomyopathy that can be identified (in other words, it’s “idiopathic”). However, some people with cardiomyopathy do have known risk factors or existing health conditions that can lead their heart to become enlarged or damaged. Cardiomyopathy can be “acquired” (it develops because of another disease) or “inherited” (it’s caused by a gene passed on from a parent).
There are different risk factors for the different types of cardiomyopathy — for example, dilated cardiomyopathy most often affects middle-aged people, especially men, while hypertrophic cardiomyopathy most often affects people who have a family history of the disease and certain genetic mutations. Restrictive cardiomyopathy usually affects older people and is sometimes linked to diseases that occur elsewhere in the body.
Cardiomyopathy causes and risk factors include:
- A family history of cardiomyopathy, heart failure or sudden cardiac arrest
- Having high blood pressure, especially long-term that is uncontrolled
- Having had coronary artery disease, a heart attack or heart tissue damage in the past
- Having chronic rapid heart rate (tachycardia) or irregular heartbeats
- Having a genetic/inherited trait that is passed on from a parent that affects the heart
- Heart valve problems
- Metabolic disorders, such as obesity, thyroid disease or diabetes
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Use of cocaine, amphetamines or anabolic steroids
- Having had chemotherapy or radiation to treat cancer
- Nutritional deficiencies, such as thiamine/vitamin B1 deficiency
- Complications due to pregnancy complications
- A history of an infections that can damage the heart
- Iron buildup in the heart muscle (hemochromatosis)
- Sarcoidosis, which causes inflammation and lumps of cells to grow in the heart
- Amyloidosis, which causes the buildup of abnormal proteins
- Connective tissue disorders or autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Muscle conditions, such as muscular dystrophy
A cardiologist or pediatric cardiologist (doctors who specialize in heart diseases) can make a cardiomyopathy diagnosis based on a patient’s symptoms, medical history, family history, a physical exam and diagnostic test results. (6)
Tests that doctors can use to diagnose cardiomyopathy include:
- Stethoscope reading to listen to the heart and lungs for sounds that may suggest cardiomyopathy
- Physical exam to look for swelling of the ankles, feet, legs, abdomen or bulging veins in the neck
- Blood tests
- Chest X-ray to look inside your chest for an enlarged heart
- Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to record the heart’s electrical activity and rhythm
- Holter and event monitors to monitor the heart’s electrical activity during your normal daily activities
- Echocardiogram (Echo), which uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the heart’s size and shape
- Stress test to check how hard the heart is working, including during exercise or times of exertion
- Cardiac catheterization the check the pressure and blood flow in the heart’s chambers
- Myocardial biopsy to check if changes in cells have occurred inside the heart
- Genetic testing to look for signs of cardiomyopathy in the patient’s parents or siblings
Is cardiomyopathy curable? Most of the time cardiomyopathy can be treated so that symptoms don’t become life-threatening. The Cardiomyopathy Association says that
When you are first diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, you may feel overwhelmed by worry and uncertainty … However, there are good treatments for the condition. Ongoing medical care together with positive lifestyle changes can help people affected by cardiomyopathy to manage the disease and lead long and fulfilling lives. (7)
What do we know about cardiomyopathy prognosis? Cardiomyopathy prognosis varies widely and depends on the specific time, cause, and someone’s overall health. Dilated cardiomyopathy is said to have “a poor prognosis,” with about 50 percent of patients typically dying within two years and 25 percent of patients surviving longer than 5 years.
The two most common causes of death are progressive cardiac failure and arrhythmia. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy leads to sudden death is about 3–5 percent in adults and at 6 percent in children and young adults. Restrictive cardiomyopathy also has a poor diagnosis and can be life-threatening within one year. (8)
According to the American Heart Association, the goal of cardiomyopathy treatments include: stopping the disease from progressing, managing any conditions that contribute to the disease, reducing the risk complications (especially sudden cardiac arrest), and controlling symptoms to improve quality of life. (9)
Cardiomyopathy treatment depends on which type of cardiomyopathy someone has, how severe their condition is and their overall health. Treatment typically involves:
- Medications to help control contributing conditions and reduce symptoms. Examples of medications that may be prescribed include: ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, beta blockers and calcium channel blockers to help control blood pressure and slow a rapid heart rate; antiarrhythmics help prevent arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats); electrolytes to help maintain fluid levels; diuretics to remove excess fluid and sodium from the body and prevent swelling; anticoagulants (PDF) or “blood thinners” to help prevent blood clots; and corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.
- Surgically implanted devices, such as a pacemaker that sends electrical pulses to prompt the heart to beat normally, cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) device that coordinates contractions between the heart’s left and right ventricles, left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that helps the heart pump blood, or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) that helps maintain normal heartbeats.
- Surgery, such as procedures to remove diseased heart muscle tissue or scar tissue. For people with obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and severe symptoms, septal myectomy can be performed to remove the thickened septum that’s bulging into the left ventricle.
- Alcohol septal ablation, a nonsurgical procedure that helps to kill abnormal cells and shrink thickened tissue back to normal size.
- In severe cases, a heart transplant.
- Lifestyle and diet changes to help to manage any condition that’s causing or contributing to cardiomyopathy.
Prevention and 6 Natural Remedies for Cardiomyopathy Symptoms
1. Anti-Inflammatory, Heart-Healthy Diet
You can help reduce your chance of cardiomyopathy and other types of heart disease by making healthy dietary choices.
- Eat a variety of fruits, and vegetables, especially high-antioxidant types like oranges, kale and other leafy greens, kiwi, strawberries, grapefruit, red peppers, green peppers, guava, broccoli and other cruciferous veggies.
- Limit or avoid refined grains, focusing instead on 100 percent whole or ancient grain products.
- Choose foods that are low in saturated and trans-fats and made without processed/refined vegetables oils (like sunflower, safflower, canola or corn oil). Have healthy fats and oils instead like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.
- Eat clean proteins including grass-fed meat, pastured-raised poultry, wild-caught fish, eggs and organic dairy products.
- Avoid high sodium/salt foods, especially if you have high blood pressure. Consider following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet (DASH) which has been shown to help lower blood pressure.
- Avoid foods with added sugar and sweetened beverages.
- Consume probiotic foods, such as fermented veggies, yogurt or kefir, etc.
- Try to increase your intake of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are found in some fish (such as mackerel and salmon), as well as nuts (such as flax seeds and walnuts).
- Drink bone broth, which contains minerals in forms that your body can easily absorb. It’s a good source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur, chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, which can help to reduce inflammation,
- Most people with heart issues should also limit caffeine, since it can cause arrhythmias, act as a stimulant and increase release of adrenaline. Limiting the amount of tea and coffee, energy drinks, sweetened coffee drinks, and high cocoa/chocolate products you consume.
if you experience loss of appetite or nausea, such as due to stomach bloating and pains, then try eating smaller meals spread throughout the day. Avoid having very large, heavy, oily or creamy meals that might make stomach pains worse.
You might also need to limit aggravating foods like FODMAPs (found in many carbohydrates) that can make bloating worse.
2. Control Contributing Conditions (Like High Blood Pressure, High Cholesterol and Diabetes)
Eating a nutrient-dense diet is the No. 1 thing you can do to lose excess weight and help prevent obesity or certain metabolic conditions like diabetes. You should also take steps to quit smoking, lower your alcohol intake, manage stress and get more exercise.
Make sure to get regular checkups from your doctor and to understand the pros and cons of taking any medications. Monitor your symptoms so you can discuss changing meds or other lifestyle habits if necessary if they are causing you side effects.
3. Stay Active and Maintain a Healthy Weight
Regular, moderate exercise is considered to be very important for people with most types of cardiomyopathy (depending on their symptoms). Get clearance from your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine, especially if you are taking medications, have ongoing heart problems, or are experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath or dizziness. Some people with cardiomyopathy may need to avoid intensive or competitive sports or exercise that involves sudden bursts of exertion (such as fast weight lifting, sprinting, etc.). (10)
Exercise is beneficial for people with cardiomyopathy because it can help: control body weight, reduce inflammation, prevent and improve many health conditions such as stroke and type 2 diabetes, help to improve mental well-being by reducing stress and depression, help to build stamina, increase the heart’s ability to pump oxygen to the muscles, improve blood circulation, strengthen the heart muscle, reduces risks of heart disease and high blood pressure, and potentially help prevent heart failure.
Aim to do both strength-building and aerobic exercises regularly, including walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and low-impact aerobics or weight-lifting. To get the most benefits, do at least 30 minutes of exercise, 4 to 5 times a week.
Cardiac rehabilitation is recommended for some people with cardiomyopathy because it combines monitored exercise with tests to see how the patient’s heart copes with different types of exercise, helping to determine what exercise is suitable and safest.
4. Get Enough Sleep and Manage Stress
Sleep and rest are important for balancing hormones, including stress hormones, and helping the heart to repair any damage. If you’re having trouble sleeping for more than 7–9 hours most night due to problems like stress, sleep apnea or trouble breathing, lifestyle changes that address some of the risk factors above may help.
- Maintain a healthy weight to lower your risk for sleep apnea.
- Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine which can disturb sleep cycles, especially when consumed close to bed time.
- Sleep in a dark, cool room. Remove any artificial lights and consider getting a white noise/sound machine.
- Establish a relaxing routine at night that helps you feel sleepy and calm.
- Avoid using electronics (your computer, tablet, phone, TV, etc.) close to bed time. Try reading, stretching or journaling instead.
- Talk to your doctor about CPAP devices that can help with maintaining continuous positive airway pressure and stop your airways from collapsing during sleep. Mandibular advancement devices (like a dental gum shield) can also help to maintain a position of the tongue and jaw so that the airway is opened.
Chronic emotional stress or anger can also make the heart work harder, raise blood pressure and increase cortisol levels, stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and cause irregular heartbeats. Relieve stress with relaxation therapy, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, exercise, napping, spending time outdoors, prayer, and anything else you find comforting or calming.
Adaptogenic herbs like rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) can also be very helpful when it comes to supporting overall health and helping you deal with physical and mental stress or fatigue.
5. Avoid the Use of Alcohol, Smoking and Illegal Drugs
If you have cardiomyopathy (especially dilated cardiomyopathy), it’s recommended that you avoid drinking alcohol or do strictly in moderation. Alcohol can have several negative effects on your heart, such as contributing to arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), increasing blood pressure, increasing inflammation, contributing to damage to the muscle of the heart, as well as raising the risk for obesity, stroke, liver problems and some cancers. (11)
Alcohol can also interact with some medications, including anticoagulants, and make nutrient deficiencies worse. Men should have one alcoholic drink per day or less, and women should ideally have half to one drink per day at most.
Smoking and drug use, such as cocaine or amphetamines, are major risk factors for heart disease and cardiomyopathy. Smoking and using drugs can negatively impact your heart by causing the release of more adrenaline which increase heart rate and raises blood pressure, damaging the inner lining of some blood vessels (arteries), causing fatty material to build up in the arteries, contributing to blood clots, and narrowing the arteries, making it harder for blood to travel and for enough oxygen to reach the body’s tissues.
6. Natural Remedies for Other Symptoms (Irregular Heartbeat, Coughs, Swelling, etc.)
Vagal maneuvers are natural treatments that may help to control heartbeats. These include bearing down (as if you are having a bowel movement to stimulate the vagus nerve), blowing through a syringe: while lying down, face up, for 15 seconds, emerging your face in cold water or placing an ice pack on the face for about 10 seconds, or carotid massage which is done by applying pressure underneath the angle of the jaw in a gentle, circular motion for about 10 seconds.
If you’re experiencing swelling and fluid retention in your legs, feet, arms, etc. try natural diuretics such as: exercising, stretching, elevating swollen areas, and eating foods that fight fluid retention. Some of the best herbs, drinks and foods include: green tea, parsley, dandelion tea, hibiscus, hawthorn berry, celery, lemon juice, garlic and onions, melon and cucumber, asparagus, ginger, and berries.
Natural remedies for coughs include:
- Drinking plenty of water throughout the day to make it easier to breathe. Try to drink a glass of water about every two to three hours for a total of about eight glasses per day.
- Using a humidifier in your home, especially when you sleep at night. A humidifier can help to loosen mucus and relieve wheezing and limited air flow.
- Trying eucalyptus oil, which contains the constituent called cineole, to reduce shortness of breath while improving respiratory function. Pour a cup of boiling water into a bowl and mixing in 10 drops of the oil. Then place a towel over your head as you lean over the bowl and inhale deeply for five to 10 minutes.
- Taking a magnesium-rich Epsom salt bath to soothe chest pain and muscle soreness.
- Applying warm compresses and heating pads or ice packs to your chest and painful areas, which can be helpful for the temporary relief of aches and inflammation.
- Also consider visiting an acupuncturist or chiropractor for help relieving tightness in your chest and improving breathing.
Essential oils can also help reduce stiffness and muscle pains. Peppermint essential oil can be used topically to improve circulation and reduce muscle tension. Lavender oil is useful for promoting relaxation, easing tension and helping you fall asleep.
Finally, talk to your doctor about supplements that may help your condition. Some that can be beneficial for heart health include: hawthorne berry (Crataegus oxyacantha L) which may be able to reduce angina, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, irregular heart beat and even congestive heart failure, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D3, and a magnesium supplement. (12)
- Cardiomyopathy refers to a group of diseases of the heart muscle, often which cause an enlarged heart, rigidity, stiffness and thickness of heart tissue, and reduced blood flow.
- Symptoms of cardiomyopathy aren’t ways obvious at first, but progress as the condition worsens. Cardiomyopathy symptoms include: shortness of breath, irregular heartbeats, chest pains, edema, abdominal bloating, coughs, fatigue and weakness.
- Cardiomyopathy is often idiopathic (has no known cause) but can be triggered by other health conditions or genetic mutations that affect the heart. Risk factors for cardiomyopathy include: having a family history of the condition, having had a heart attack or heart disease in the past, diabetes, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, autoimmune disorders, and others.
- Six natural remedies for cardiomyopathy symptoms include eating a heart-healthy diet, controlling contributing conditions (like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes), exercising and maintaining a healthy weight, sleep and stress management, avoiding alcohol, smoking and illegal drugs as well as natural remedies for other symptoms (irregular heartbeat, coughs, swelling, etc.).
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