I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that there is a shift in medicine taking place—not only because patients are demanding more natural, preventive approaches, but because a new generation of doctors is leading the way.
No one embodies this new paradigm of medicine more than Suzanne Steinbaum in her incredibly readable book Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life. As an MD, a cardiologist, the Director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red Women campaign—Dr. Steinbaum has the credentials. And because she speaks with the authentic voice of experience about how to live a healthy life—in her book, on her website and blog, as a columnist for Huffington Post, as a featured guest on 20/20, Good Morning America, and major networks, and as the host of her TV show, Focus OnHealth—women are listening.
I sincerely think all women can benefit from reading this book, not only because any woman could be at risk for heart disease, but also for the experience of having a doctor talk to you about your health in a way that lets you know she GETS it. She understands how a woman’s physiology is different from a man’s, how stress and emotions can affect us so deeply, how women are often misdiagnosed, how clinical trials don’t reflect the way women react to treatment because most trials are done on men.
Dr. Steinbaum was first inspired to become a cardiologist when she was a student observing in an ER. “I was the kind of student who wrote down everything the doctor said,” she says. “A relatively young-looking women was wheeled in sweating and vomiting. The doctors diagnosed it as gastroenteritis and left her to wait in the corner. She ended up having a heart attack. I thought, ‘That’s what I am going to do, help women not get heart attacks.’”
Dr. Steinbaum likes to point out that although heart disease is thought to be a men’s disease, it is actually the number one killer of women. And because the symptoms are different in women than in men, many doctors don’t recognize the early signs of heart disease—or even heart attacks—in women.
“There is an increased incidence of heart disease in women less than 55 years old,” she says. “Women need to start early to prevent it, especially if there is a family history.”
Living from Your Heart
Dr. Steinbaum calls her philosophy of preventing heart disease “living from your heart.” When she speaks, her belief in her patients’ ability to transform their lives is palpable.
“Doing what is best for you, eating what feels best for you, exercising, living with passion, living with purpose—that is what living from the heart is all about,” she says. “And ultimately that is the way to be the most heart healthy.”
She advises her patients, “Live from your heart and everything else will be fine.”
To help her patients become more aware of who they are and what they need to feel healthy, Dr. Steinbaum leads them in an exercise called “journaling their lives.”
“When people get caught in a minutia of their own existence, it’s unhealthy, so I try to get people to step outside of themselves and to understand what they are living for,” she says. “For instance, a woman might feel motivated to lose weight so she can enjoy playing with her grandchildren.”
Later on, feeling good itself is enough motivation to eat heart-healthy foods, Dr. Steinbaum explains. But in the beginning, it’s easier for people to tie their goal to something larger than themselves.
“‘I want to lose weight to look thinner’ is usually not enough motivation,” she says.
Preventing Stress from Turning Into A Heart Attack
When I ask her to name the three most important things women can do for their hearts, Dr. Steinbaum says, “I used to say ‘stop smoking’ but now most people are on that bandwagon. Now I’d say eating a really healthy diet, and exercising, which by far is the best medication. And having a way to reduce stress is essential.”
For reducing stress, Dr. Steinbaum recommends the Transcendental Meditation technique.
“I tell my patients that we have to treat this issue of overwhelming stress in their lives, and this is an evidence-based technique that has been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes by 48 percent,” she says. “The American Heart Association recommends it as the most effective stress management tool for reducing hypertension.”
She says she first recommended TM because she was impressed with the research. “And then I learned it myself, and thought, ‘Oh this is huge! This is a really, really big deal, something that goes far beyond the medical benefits. One of my favorite things to say is that I never thought I could sit still that long, and now I look forward to it. I also say, ‘Trust me on this one, this is going to work.’”
As a working mother of an eight-year-old, Dr. Steinbaum herself is no stranger to the stress of modern life. “Every day I have about 25 million things to do, and before I did TM it sometimes was an overwhelming, daunting task,” she says. “Now that I do TM, it doesn’t mean I have less to do, it just means that it’s easier and calmer. There’s a lack of chaotic thought, and it’s almost like everything falls into place.”
TM offers a way out of the vicious cycle of stress, notes Dr. Steinbaum. “If you can meditate regularly and slow your breathing, slow your heart rate, dilate your arteries and decrease your blood pressure, it’s done!”
But just like exercise or changing your diet, you have to do it regularly to create the change in the physiology. “We know that the change is persistent if you make a regular, routine practice of it,” she says.
Dr. Steinbaum has clearly poured her heart into her mission of educating women and preventing heart disease, and it’s her biggest reward when she sees a patient living from her heart and feeling better.
“I feel lucky to be a part of that transformation,” she says. “It’s amazing. Simply amazing.”