The heart is a muscular pump that consists of two types of muscle cells. One contracts, pushing blood into the chambers of the heart through the veins then out again via the arteries. The other type conducts electrical impulses, which co-ordinate the contractions.
Our heartbeat is, in fact, the rhythmic contracting of the heart muscles. Palpitations are when this happens too fast. Normally the heart beats 70 to 80 times a minute, rising during exercise, sexual arousal, anxiety or panic, before returning to normal. But if it races beyond 100 beats a minute – in other words, palpitates – without any apparent reason, your heart is in a state of panic. Palpitaions feel uncomfortable because the heart pounds uncontrollably. If the rate rises beyond 200 beats a minute, the pump action fails because the blood cannot fill up the chambers of the heart before it is pushed out again. This may cause a blackout as the blood can’t reach the brain.
Although our hears beat automatically, the rate of contraction is influenced by what we’re doing and feeling. The heart’s electrical coordinating system is affected directly by our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates body functions including heartbeat and intestinal movement. The ANS has two branches – the parasympathetic, which slows down the heart for rest, and the sympathetic. Which speeds it up for action.
Palpitations are triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. This responds to hormones produced by the body, including adrenalin, the ‘fight or flight’ hormone that is released by the adrenal glands when we’re in stressful situations. Thyroid hormones have a similar effect which is why people with overactive thyroids often suffer from palpitations. I’m sure your doctors have checked your wife’s thyroid, but it would be wise to make sure.
Palpitations can also be triggered by a rise in body temperature or by external heat, dehydration (loss of fluids through sweating diarrhoea not drinking enough water), low blood pressure or low blood sugar, sudden blood loss (a wound or piles, for example). Stimuli such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine also increase the heart rate. Anaemia may also be implicated as the heart pumps faster to compensate for reduced blood supply to the brain – so, again, this is something to discuss with the doctors.
My suggestions for helping your wife are as follows:
- When a palpitation occurs, take valerian tincture, 10 to 15 drops in half a cup of water.
- Generally, avoid stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, excess chillies or hot spices, including ginger, and additives such as monosodium glutamate. Also be careful not to exceed the recommended dose of supplements such as ginkgo, guarana, ginseng or any herbal aphrodisiacs.
- Drink at least eight large glasses of still water daily between meals.
- Acupuncture may help. For a qualified local practitioner, contact the British Acupuncture Council, 63 Jeddo Road, London Wl2, tel:020 8735 0400, www.acupuncture.org.uk.
- Pranayama (the art of breathing) is the best natural way of regulating the heartbeat Of all the subconscious functions of the body (heartbeat digestion, temperature control, and so on), breathing is the only one you can control by will. Learning to control your breathing helps to increase control over all subconscious functions, including the heart rate. Retention breathing is a good way to start breathe in deeply for three seconds, hold your breath for three to six seconds, then exhale slowly for six. Practise this for ten minutes at bedtime for one month. Then use it when the palpitations start.
- Specific breathing techniques: there are effective but more complicated exercises, for which you need detailed instructions. If you would like these, write to therapeautic yoga instructor Jiwan Brar at the Integrated Medical Centre, 43 New Cavendish Street, London WIG 9th, Describe when you get palpitations, how long they last, if you have dizziness, headaches or nausea with them, and what medications you take.