His & Hers: Matters of the Heart

by Catherine Haug, February 14, 2011

Clip art, right, from Webweaver’s Clip art (11)

On this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to draw your attention to the differences between men and women when it comes to matters of the heart.

I had a mild heart attack on December 23, 2010 and spent the holiday weekend in the hospital. Until the results of the enzyme test came back, the doc didn’t think I’d had a heart attack, believing instead it was heartburn. Especially since my EKG was normal. My enzymes, however, told a different story. They were slightly elevated indicating I’d truly had a lapse of oxygen to my heart. I was checked into the hospital for the holiday weekend, for tests.

The results of those tests were good news: Echogram indicated normal size heart with no loss of muscle; Angiogram indicated no plaque in my arteries with no blockages and no need for stents. But what, then, caused the heart attack? And why did I recover so quickly?

It turns out that the hearts of men and women are different, and the cause for attacks in women can be entirely different from that in men. Because of this difference, women’s attacks are routinely dismissed as heartburn, pulled muscle, overwork, etc.. In short, women are not being diagnosed and treated for a problem that could kill them.

So, then, what are the differences?

Symptoms, men vs women

The classic heart attack symptoms, which are most typically seen in men, usually after exertion or stress, are:

  • Tingling or soreness in left arm;
  • Stabbing or crushing sensation in chest.

Women, on the other hand are more prone to a problem that occurs at rest, with no apparent provocation, and their symptoms can be quite different: (1, 2, 7)

  • Intermittent achiness and weakness, not necessarily in the chest;
  • Weakness in the arms;
  • Back pain
  • Flu-like symptoms;
  • Indigestion;
  • Sleep disturbances.

For more, see How To Detect A Heart Attack (7), which has excellent diagrams, and Men vs. Women: Confusion Over Heart Symptoms (8).

Why these differences?

“[Women] are not just smaller versions of men. A wave of newer studies reveals that women’s unique chemical makeup combined with anatomical differences (such as smaller arteries and veins) affect how heart disease develops in us, how accurate diagnostic tests are, and how well we respond to certain medications.” (1)

Arterial plaque (atherosclerosis)

Women’s arteries may appear clear of plaque and blockages on an angiogram because only the larger arteries are viewed on this test. The smaller arteries and capillaries near the heart may be blocked or otherwise compromised, a condition known as microvascular disease (3). An exercise stress test or an MRI are better at detecting this problem.

Statins are routinely prescribed in both men and women when blood cholesterol is elevated, to prevent heart attacks from clogged arteries. While very few women have been included in the testing of these drugs, a review of statistics between men and women in 2009 discovered (1):

  • For women, these drugs only significantly lower the risk of heart attack or death for women who already have heart disease. Statins do little to prevent heart disease in women.
  • Healthy men, on the other hand, do see a preventative benefit with statins.
  • Women have a greater risk than men of developing type 2 diabetes while on statins.

Neuromuscular problems

Not all heart attacks are caused by blood clots and arterial blockages from plaque buildup. Women over 50 are more prone than men to a condition known as vasospastic angina: the arteries go into temporary spasm, which can cause a momentary decrease in available oxygen. (4, 5)

“Estrogen affects how blood vessels narrow and widen and how they respond to injury, so changes in estrogen levels mean changes in the behavior of the blood vessels. Women’s vessels may be ‘programmed’ for more changes than men’s vessels, which could increase the risk of having problems in the lining of the arteries (endothelium) and the smooth muscles in the walls of the arteries.”(12)

There is significant evidence that a magnesium deficiency could be the underlying cause of this heart problem( 6), and is the mostly likely cause of my own heart attack.

Conventional medicine treats this problem with calcium channel blockers, which have severe side effects. Hormone therapy is another option (12).

Emotional Stress

Stress is a known factor in heart attacks, for both men and women, as it increases blood pressure. Women experience greater levels of acute and chronic stress, and are at higher risk for depression than men, potentially putting women at greater risk from stress-induced heart attack than men.

Blood Clotting & Aspirin

The recommendation to take aspirin daily to reduce blood clotting and prevent a heart attack was based on studies of men. Now researchers are finding that this recommendation is ineffective for women under 65. (10) Other studies indicate the aspirin regimen is more effective at preventing stroke in women vs men; and at preventing heart attack in men vs women.

Ripening Hawthorn Berries (C. Haug photo)

Natural solutions

Probably the best natural thing you can do for your heart is aerobic exercise, as it causes new arteries & capillaries to be constructed, creating new pathways for blood circulation to the heart muscle. A good brisk walk 3 – 5 days a week, will do the trick. If you are not used to exercise, start with alternating a brisk period with a normal pace during the walk.

The most commonly recommended herbal supplement for strengthening the heart is hawthorn (pictured above), a large shrub that is native to our area. The berries, blossoms and leaves all have positive effect on the health of the heart. See what Veronica Honthas had to say about hawthorn at our July 2010 gathering: Gathering Summary: Herbs and their Traditional Uses.

Another natural substance used by many is red yeast rice, from which statin drugs were first derived. However, be aware that this natural substance may also cause the same side effects and have the same limitations as statins (see above); for example, they may not be as effective for women as for men.

Magnesium (as mag citrate, mag chloride, etc.) can be added supplementally if you suspect you are magnesium deficient. It’s best to take it as a liquid solution. You can try Natural Calm, a powder you mix with water, or purchase magnesium chloride solution from a compounding pharmacist, mixing your dose with a glass of water [Contact Catherine for more information on mag chloride]. See The Miracle of Magnesium, by Dr. Carolyn Dean (16) for more.

See also Treatment of Cardiovascular Diseases with Chinese Herbs; Congestive Heart Failure and Other Cardiovascular Disorders of Aging (17).

Sources & References

  1. Better Homes and Gardens, February 2011: Ladies First, pp 176
  2. US Gov Info: Women’s Heart Attack Symptoms Different from Men’s (usgovinfo.about.com/cs/healthmedical/a/womensami.htm)
  3. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: Coronary Microvascular Disease (www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/cmd/cmd_whatis.html)
  4. eMedicine on Web MD: Coronary Artery Vasospasm (emedicine.medscape.com/article/153943-overview)
  5. Medicine Online: Vasospastic Angina – Coronary Artery Spasm (www.medicineonline.com/articles/v/2/vasospastic-angina/coronary-artery-spasm.html)
  6. Pub Med: Magnesium content of erythrocytes in patients with vasospastic angina (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1888691)
  7. Holistic Online: How To Detect A Heart Attack (www.holisticonline.com/remedies/heart/heart_attack_identifying.htm)
  8. Web MD: Men vs Women; Confusion Over Heart Symptoms (www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20050218/men-vs-women-confusion-over-heart-symptoms)
  9. National Institutes of Health: WISE Study of Women and Heart Disease Yields Important Findings On Frequently Undiagnosed Coronary Syndrome (www.nhlbi.nih.gov/new/press/06-01-31.htm)
  10. Aspirin for Women: Yes or No? (www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20070326/aspirin-for-women-yes-or-no)
  11. Webweaver.nu (www.webweaver.nu/clipart/valentines/hearts3.shtml)
  12. Heart Healthy Women.org: Cardiac Syndrome-X (Vasospastic Angina) (www.hearthealthywomen.org/cardiovascular-disease/cardiac-syndrome-x/cardiac-syndrome-x.html)
  13. Women to Women: Heart disease in women: a new understanding (www.womentowomen.com/heartdiseaseandstroke/default.aspx)
  14. ABC news: Chinese Red Yeast Rice May Prevent Heart Attack (abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/story?id=5071664&page=1)
  15. Associated Content: Red Yeast Rice, Cholesterol and Heart Disease (www.associatedcontent.com/article/2501427/red_yeast_rice_cholesterol_and_heart.html?cat=68)
  16. Mercola: The Miracle of Magnesium, by Dr. Carolyn Dean (articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2004/08/07/miracle-magnesium.aspx) and Magnesium Miracle, by Dr. Carolyn Dean (drcarolyndean.com/magnesium_miracle)
  17. Treatment of Cardiovascular Diseases with Chinese Herbs; Congestive Heart Failure and Other Cardiovascular Disorders of Aging (www.itmonline.org/arts/cardfail.htm)

3 Responses to “His & Hers: Matters of the Heart”

  1. Rachelle says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this pertinent information. Lots to ponder as we navigate our medical world along with being a middle aged female.

  2. Faye says:

    Thanks so much for this very clear and helpful summary of heart issues: men’s vs women’s. I shall pass this along.

  3. Bev Storer says:

    Thank you! This is a terrific article. You are to be commended. It was clear, well-written and provided good resources. Women need to know that their heart attack symptoms may be very different than that of a man. And, those bouts of heartburn may not be heartburn at all.