A myriad of seemingly unrelated symptoms have plagued me since I was a teenager– after years of doctor visits and no answers, I gave up on finding the cause. There were just too many things. Six months ago I was taking a leisurely walk to get some fresh air when I got a crushing pain in my chest. This time, I was certain I experienced a heart attack. I was referred to a cardiologist who ordered a blood panel and conducted a few tests including an echocardiogram, which uses ultrasound that gives a picture of the chambers of the heart. I was diagnosed with Mitral Valve Prolapse and an associated disorder of the Autonomic Nervous System called Dysautonomia. I was already vaguely familiar with MVP because my mother has it. I recalled that she would take prophylactic antibiotics before having dental work done (to prevent contracting endocarditis, an infection of the mitral valve via bacteria in the blood) which the American Heart Association no longer suggests. This diagnosis was the missing puzzle piece that finally helped explain the symptoms I have been experiencing for so many years. I could now educate myself and effectively manage symptoms with holistic methods.
What is Mitral Valve Prolapse?
In a normal heart valve, the flow of blood goes from the left atrium (upper chamber) to the left ventricle (lower chamber). Upon closing, it prevents blood from going back into the left atrium. With MVP the flaps don’t close evenly. One or both flaps collapse backwards, sometimes allowing a small amount of blood to leak through the valve which is called regurgitation. MVP is one of the most common cardiac findings and there is usually no need to be concerned. Progressive mitral regurgitation usually occurs late in life and only in some cases. Other complications such as bacterial endocarditis, stroke, and sudden death are far less common but can occur at younger ages. The vast majority of patients with MVP have an excellent prognosis and need no treatment. For these individuals, routine examinations including echocardiograms are recommended. MVP affects two to five percent of the population. Past estimates were higher due to errors in diagnosis before echocardiograms were used. Women are far more likely than men to be diagnosed with MVP, and oddly, there is even a body type. The typical profile is a slender female with long, tapering fingers. A curvature of the spine is also indicated.
What is MVP Syndrome/Dysautonomia?
About 40 percent of patients with MVP also have an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) called Dysautonomia. The ANS regulates the internal, visceral functions of the body such as respiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature, vision and digestion. When this system is out of balance it can unleash a plethora of unpleasant symptoms.
What are the Symptoms of MVPS/D?
People with MVP have much more volatile and unstable autonomic responses, as if set on hair-trigger, so normal stresses and surprises set off an exaggerated response, flooding their systems with stress hormones called catecholamines; mainly epinephrine and adrenaline. Sometimes, there may not be a specific stressor – autonomic fluxes may occur unpredictably like internal weather changes. In some ways this could be defined as a catecholamine disorder. People with MVP are intermittently and unpredictably awash in their own catecholamines. This leaves them alternately innervated and exhausted. “Wired but tired” is a common feeling.
If the sympathetic nervous system of a person with MVP is aroused, they can suddenly feel crushing chest pain, with heartbeat racing and pounding. They may begin to hyperventilate, feel short of breath, and break out into a cold sweat. Some people with MVP experience this with no apparent warning or immediate threat. There can be sensations of chest pain, a feeling of doom or detachment, a fear of dying, or a desire to flee. If you don’t know why this is happening, the symptoms themselves are scary, and the fear of the unknown can prompt an even greater release of stress hormones, driving you into the kind of meltdown of the ANS that is known as a panic attack. This is an intense, visceral, and scary experience, and the sensations can easily be confused with those of a heart attack. ER physicians see a great number of people who come in believing that they are having a heart attack, when they are actually experiencing a panic attack. Once people experience this, they generally have a persistent fear of having another attack, which puts them on a “hair trigger,” ready to respond to the slightest symptoms by releasing the very stress hormones that induce the panic attacks, thus escalating a new attack.
It may seem odd that all of these symptoms should be somehow related to a heart abnormality. In fact, it’s not that the mitral valve abnormality that causes these other symptoms, but it is a physical trait that is a marker of the underlying condition. Symptoms of MVPS/D include:
- Balance problems, vertigo
- Chemical sensitivities including food additives
- Cold hands and feet
- Cold sweats
- Difficulty concentrating
- Dizzy, spacy feeling
- Extreme fatigue
- Heart palpitations; skipped or irregular heart beat
- Hypersensitive startle reflex
- Hyperventilation; shortness of breath
- Insomnia, sleep disturbances
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Low Blood Pressure
- Migraine headaches
- Numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes
- Panic attacks, with pounding heart beat
- Phantom chest pain with no apparent physiological cause
- Sensitivity to drugs, including alcohol, caffeine, and medications
What are some alternative ways to manage symptoms?
Cognitive therapy. This is the basic ground for the holistic approach to MVP. It’s important to seek out a sympathetic or holistic physician who can clearly explain the variety of possible symptoms, confirm that they are not imaginings or hypochondriasis, and provide a program of treatment. If you understand clearly what is happening, you can learn ways to block the feedback loops that can lead to panic attacks or hyperventilation, and break the cycle.
Exercise. MVP is not at all the sort of “heart condition” that should make anyone apprehensive about engaging in exercise. In fact, exercise is one of the best therapies for deconditioning learned sensitivities and relieving neurological symptoms. Studies have shown that people who engage in regular aerobic exercise report a decline in symptoms of chest pain, fatigue, dizziness and mood swings, and panic attacks.
Meditation. To calm nerves, ease the mind and promote relaxation. Click here to find a mediation practice that works best for you.
Diet. Proper diet is essential to stabilization of MVPS/D symptoms. Avoidance of stimulants, sugar, and artificial flavoring agents like MSG or artificial sweeteners are mandatory. The effects of hypoglycemia must be blunted with frequent small meals and interval snacks; complex carbohydrates may be combined with protein to avoid precipitous rises and falls of blood sugar. Adequate hydration with plenty of liquids maintains blood volume to counteract low blood pressure and “wooziness.” Moderate salt intake is usually encouraged to stimulate adrenal function.
Reiki. Loosely translated as meaning “universal life energy,” is an energy healing method that can help your body release tension and stress. The Reiki practitioner channels this energy through her hands into the client in massage-like strokes, bringing relaxation and peace and the release of stored negative energy.
Positive Mental Attitude. MVP already leaves you feeling drained. It’s important to stay positive – don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t engage in negative thoughts or behaviors.
Sunshine. A few minutes of sunshine a day works wonders.
- Magnesium. Magnesium deficiencies are associated with migraine headaches, and are common in people with epilepsy and MVP. Magnesium seems to affect everything from breathing patterns to reflex muscle tension. I mix one packet of Natural Vitality into a warm glass of water twice a day to restore magnesium levels. Magnesium is also found in green vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
- L-carnitine is an amino acid that acts as a shuttle for fat that is required for cellular metabolism. It can be used as a “cellular equalizer” and also acts to strengthen the heart. Acetyl-l-carnitine is a related nutrient that may be more bio-available. Avocados are a rich source of L-carnitine.
- Co-enzyme Q10 appears to improve disturbed bioenergetic function at the molecular level and enhances pumping action of the heart, output of blood, speed of heart muscle contraction and general cardiac efficiency. It also helps with fatigue. Spinach, walnuts and sesame seeds are good sources of C0-enzyme Q10.
- B Vitamins can help with symptoms of MVP/D and can also reduce high levels of lactic acid in the blood that are associated with anxiety and panic attack. Alcohol, caffeine and sugar all contribute to higher lactic acid levels, and the B vitamins niacin and thiamin can help reduce them. Vitamin B6 can favor the production of higher levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which are relaxing and sedating. Inositol is another B vitamin that acts as a calming agent.
- Kava belongs to the pepper family. Kava has been shown in therapeutic doses to be useful in dampening the symptoms of anxiety, without risk of dampening alertness or of addiction.
- Valerian calms the central nervous system, relaxes muscle tissue, and is effective for insomnia, with no morning after-effects.
- Hops can be helpful in calming nervous excitement, and treating hysteria and insomnia.
- Lemon Balm can be effective in relieving insomnia, anxiety, and quelling a nervous stomach.
- Chinese Herbs:
- Zhu Sha An Shen Wan calms the heart and mind, drains fire, nourishes Yin.
- Zhi Gan Cao Tang tonifies Qi, nouirshed Yin and blood, revives the pulse.
Pregnancy and MVP
Pregnancy has an unusual effect on mitral valve prolapse. While menopause and menstruation are both associated with an increase in symptom severity, it is thought that MVP symptoms are often alleviated by pregnancy due to changes to the heart during pregnancy. Even though pregnancy is not seriously affected by MVP, the condition must still be taken into account. Some women with regurgitation may benefit from prophylactic antibiotics prior to vaginal birth or caesarean section to avoid the risk of post-partum endocarditis. In most cases of normal birth or uncomplicated caesarean section, antibiotics are not required and should be determined by a health care provider.
Managing MVP is mainly about balancing body and mind and managing the stressors in your life. Proper nutrition and coping mechanisms can help keep your symptoms in check.
This information is purely for informational and educational purposes. Numerous herbs and supplements may interact adversely with drugs used to treat mitral valve prolapse. Please consult your health care provider before administering or taking herbal remedies. To locate an experienced herbalist in your area, contact the American Herbalists Guild. To locate a licensed naturopath in your area, contact the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.