The heart’s design is complex, and its function is vital to life. Each heartbeat sends life-giving blood throughout the body, with the heart valves playing a crucial role. They guide the blood’s path, much like riverbanks guide the course of water. When these valves falter, like a river overflowing its banks, the balance of life is put at risk.
Millions of people live with malfunctioning valves, commonly known as valvular heart disease. The economic burden is colossal, with hundreds of thousands of new diagnoses yearly. However, the personal cost can be far more devastating.
Understanding heart valves
Think of your heart as a house divided into two floors with two rooms on each level. The two rooms on the top floor are known as the atria, responsible for receiving blood. On the bottom floor, you find the ventricles, the chambers tasked with sending blood out to the body. Together, these four chambers form the core structure of the heart.
Each of these rooms is separated by thin layers of tissue called valves. Like doors that open and close, these one-way valves help regulate blood flow through the heart, ensuring it moves in the right direction. The heart has a total of four valves:
- Tricuspid Valve: Acting as a vigilant gatekeeper within the heart, the tricuspid valve stands between the right atrium and right ventricle. Its vital function is to guide blood flow in a single direction, diligently preventing any backflow.
- Pulmonary Valve: The pulmonary valve is the vital connector between the right ventricle and the pulmonary artery and controls the passage of oxygen-depleted blood into the lungs.
- Mitral Valve: Positioned strategically between the left atrium and left ventricle, the mitral valve manages the flow of oxygen-rich blood, ensuring it’s efficiently delivered to the body while maintaining equilibrium.
- Aortic Valve: Positioned between the left ventricle and the aorta, the aortic valve holds a crucial role in heart function. This valve carefully controls the outflow of oxygen-rich blood into the body’s main artery, the aorta. By ensuring a one-way flow, it plays an essential part in nourishing the body.
What is heart valve disease?
Heart valve disease encompasses a range of conditions impacting the operation of one or more of the heart’s valves. At the heart of these disorders is the incorrect opening or closing of these essential gates, giving rise to challenges in blood circulation, which sustains life. This malfunction typically manifests in two ways:
· Valvular stenosis
Imagine trying to pass through a door that’s barely ajar. That’s the predicament the blood finds itself in during valvular stenosis. The valves become narrow or stiff, obstructing the flow of life-giving, oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the body.
· Valvular insufficiency
Referred to by various names such as regurgitation, prolapse, or the colloquial ‘leaky valve,’ this condition occurs when a heart valve fails to close tightly. Consequently, blood seeps backward into the heart, placing an undue burden on this vital organ. The heart must then labor more strenuously to pump the same volume of blood, a situation that can lead to further complications if left unaddressed.
Common types of heart valve disease
Heart valve disease manifests in a variety of ways. Some of the most common forms of heart valve disease include:
· Aortic Stenosis
Aortic stenosis arises when the aortic valve narrows, restricting the flow of oxygen-rich blood from the heart into the aorta and the rest of the body. It can cause the heart to work harder, leading to fatigue and other symptoms. It’s commonly observed in an aging population but may also be congenital from a bicuspid aortic valve.
· Mitral Regurgitation
Unlike the stenoses, the mitral valve doesn’t close evenly with this condition, causing a part of it to prolapse into the left atrium. Though often mild and requiring little to no intervention, it sometimes demands medical attention to prevent complications from moderate or severe mitral regurgitation.
· Aortic Regurgitation
In this situation, the aortic valve does not close appropriately, thus leading to regurgitation or leakage of blood from the aorta back to the left ventricle. Untreated, the left ventricle can start to enlarge and eventually develop congestive heart failure.
Symptoms of valve disease
The resultant aberrant blood flow often sounds an alarm in the form of a heart murmur. Still, valve disease is a chameleon, often taking on the guise of aging or everyday fatigue, making its detection a challenge. Common symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Rapid heart rate
- Chest pain
- Extreme fatigue
- Swelling in the ankles, feet, or abdomen
- Abnormal blood pressure
Causes of heart valve problems
The causes of heart valve disease are multifactorial and can range from congenital defects to age-related changes. Hypertension, atherosclerosis, infectious diseases, and certain autoimmune conditions also increase the risk of valve disease. However, the lurking culprit is often our own lifestyle.
The fact remains – we’ve departed from the ancestral ways that nurtured our heart health. We’ve replaced nutrient-rich whole foods with processed ones, moved less, stressed more, and turned our backs on nature’s therapeutic gifts.
To counter this, we must retrace our steps towards our roots. We can fortify our heart health by embracing holistic lifestyle modifications – a balanced, organic diet, regular exercise, stress management, and restorative sleep.
Receiving a diagnosis of heart valve disease can be a sobering experience. It often comes with a realization that lifelong medication or even surgery may be necessary to repair the affected valve. While these interventions might be needed for some, it’s essential to note that they only apply to a minority of cases.
Preparing your heart and overall health before these interventions is the most thoughtful approach. Achieving optimal well-being before a procedure can significantly enhance your chances of a successful outcome. It’s not merely about treating the symptoms but engaging with your body’s inherent ability to heal and thrive.
If you face heart valve issues, we’re here to support you. A free 20-minute consultation with one of our expert health coaches could be your first step toward understanding and managing your condition, all aligned with the principles of whole-body wellness and individual empowerment.