Can Chiropractic Play a Role in Achieving Heart Health?
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
My medical education is a Chiropractic one. Most people don’t really know what that means, so let’s first spend a little time discussing it. Before going to get a 4-year Chiropractic education, one must have a 4-year undergraduate degree. The first two years of a Chiropractic education are very similar to the medical education of any health care professional whether they are a Medical Doctor, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine. In the first two years the curriculum if filled with extensive courses in anatomy, physiology, neuroanatomy, histology, cell biology, genetics, pathology, microbiology, embryology, and radiology.
I know this because where I went to Chiropractic school, in Portland, OR, there was a school for each of the types of medical professionals. The was Oregon Health Sciences University, the National College of Natural Medicine, Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, and my school, the University of Western States. I was part of a group of students from each of the schools that met each semester. It was very interesting to discuss the similarities and differences in our educations.
After those first two years the educations between the difference schools got a little different. We each used the baseline education we had learned and started to apply it in different ways. The traditional medical students began focusing on pharmacology, the naturopathic and oriental medicine students began learning many natural and herbal remedies, and we Chiropractors started focusing heavily on neuromusculoskeletal diagnosis and treatment. After all, Chiropractors are what I like to call conservative orthopedists. Meaning chiropractors treat orthopedic conditions without drugs or surgery.
However, the education I received as a Chiropractor gave me the baseline medical knowledge I needed to branch out into many different aspects of health. After my Chiropractic degree I also attained a master’s degree in human nutrition and functional medicine. As much as I enjoy Chiropractic, I had other health passions I needed to follow. Luckily, for me Chiropractic can be more than just the conservative treatment of neuromusculoskeletal conditions.
It is well documented in the research that Chiropractic is a very safe and effective treatment for neck pain, back pain, and headaches. (1,2,3) But I think Chiropractic is good for much more than these things. People think that chiropractic is treating their pain, but Chiropractic is actually treating the nervous system. Due to the intricate connection of the spine and the nervous system, when the normal motion of the spine, full spine or segmentally, is restored it also restores proper function to the nervous system. By treating the nervous system Chiropractic does have an effect on pain, but it also affects many other things.
If you follow my blog you know that I have argued that a large percentage of heart attacks do not have a blockage and instead are caused by three imbalances in the body. Those imbalances are not being fat adapted, or not having the ability to readily burn fat for fuel, having a high amount of oxidative stress in the body, and having an imbalance in our Autonomic Nervous System. For the full explanation of how these imbalances can cause a heart attack, revisit this previous blog. Let’s discuss how chiropractic can affect these three imbalances.
First, let’s talk about metabolism. It has been documented that the excessive burning of glucose for fuel in our bodies can cause issues. Most notably higher oxidative stress (4,5), but heavily relying on glucose for fuel will eventually lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. What we want is to be fatty acid and ketone burners, or at least have the ability to be metabolically flexible and readily burn those things once we restrict carbohydrates. How to do this is discussed here. But according to some research, Chiropractic treatment can help us in this regard. One study found that Chiropractic spinal manipulation caused a decrease in glucose utilization in certain regions of the brain due to the decrease in sympathetic activity after treatment (6). Another study found that after spinal manipulation a decrease of glucose utilization was observed in skeletal muscle (7). It seems that if we are trying to get the body to more optimal metabolism that spinal manipulation can help us get glucose out of the way and paved the way for fatty acids and ketones.
Next let’s talk about oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is when our body accumulates too many damaging free radicals. These are made in excess when we rely on glucose for fuel, as well as when we are exposed to too many toxins in our environment. These free radicals would be produced under normal conditions, but we have an internal system of antioxidants that are supposed to take care of them. If those antioxidants get overwhelmed because too many free radicals are produced, that’s when bad things start to happen. One study showed that spinal manipulation two times a week for 5 weeks resulted in increased Superoxide Dismutase and Glutathione Peroxidase, two of our heavy hitting internal antioxidants (8). This stimulation of antioxidants would help us reduce our oxidative stress.
When I was researching this topic, I did not expect to discover that spinal manipulation would have an effect on the first two imbalances and was impressed when I did. But the effect of Chiropractic on the last imbalance, of the Autonomic Nervous System, was not as surprising to me. As we have discussed, Chiropractic has an effect on many things because of its effects on the nervous system.
Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the system in our body that allows us to interpret our environment and determine if it is a safe or threatening one so that we have the appropriate physiologic response. In our modern stressed out world we can get stuck in a physiologic stress state and create an imbalance. As previously discussed in other blogs, this imbalance can be the trigger for a heart attack if the other two imbalances are in place as well. There are many things that help to create balance in our ANS and I have discussed them in previous blog posts. However, there are many studies showing the effects of Chiropractic manipulation on Heart Rate Variability, the best measure of balance in our ANS. (9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17) These effects are more pronounced when certain areas of the spine are treated, this is because anatomical aspects of the calm state ANS are located in areas of the neck and lower back and anatomical aspects of the stress state nervous system are located in the middle back.
In the end, Chiropractic is much more than just the treatment of back pain. It can have profound effects on your physiology and even play a role in the prevention of heart attacks. Chiropractic is effective for pain only because of these other effects and the direct effect on the nervous system. While I know I can help the people who do walk into my office with their goal of getting out of pain, my favorite patients are the ones who come in looking to achieve optimal health. Chiropractic may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a powerful tool to help people achieve optimal health and should be used as such.
Stay healthy out there!