Traditional Chinese Medicine for Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a medical condition that develops when plaque builds up on the inner lining of the coronary arteries. Coronary artery disease is also called arteriosclerosis, from two terms that mean “hardening” (-sclerosis) and “arteries” (arterio-). The American Heart Association estimates that more than 13 million Americans are afflicted with arteriosclerosis. In addition to a variety of treatments available from allopathic physicians, coronary artery disease can be treated by acupuncture, herbal medicines, and other therapies available from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

How Can Traditional Chinese Medicine Be Used to Treat Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognizes coronary artery disease as being symptomatic of a condition known as heart blood stasis, characterized by sharp pains in the chest, palpitations, an irregular heart rhythm and a darkened tongue. The condition is caused by stagnation of blood in the heart or a deficiency of heart yang, heart blood and/or heart fire. It can be complicated by an accumulation of phlegm, the name given to congealed dampness in the body, which can combine with other conditions to produce lumps and masses. For example, an accumulation of plaque, a sticky, semisolid material consisting of cholesterol, calcium, fatty materials and other substances, as part of arteriosclerosis would be considered phlegm. This condition leads to an insufficient flow of blood and qi, the life energy that circulates through the body,into and through the heart, leading to the symptoms associated with arteriosclerosis.

Acupuncture for Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Heart blood stasis, the oriental medicine diagnosis of CAD, can be treated by acupuncture, herbal remedies or other procedures from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The aim of acupuncture is to stimulate meridians in the body through which qi and blood flow, relieving imbalances in the coronary arteries. When providing acupuncture treatment, the locations of the therapeutic acupuncture points are often not located anatomically near the area of the symptom; in the case of coronary artery disease and arteriosclerosis, the acupuncturist would rarely select points actually near the heart. The meridians (energy pathways) that correspond to the heart and pericardium are primarily located along the arms. By needling specific points along these meridians, the functioning of the heart can be adjusted. Several points along the inside of the wrist are most commonly used, including Heart 7 (at the wrist crease, in line with the little finger), Heart 5 (one finger breath behind Heart 7), Pericardium 6 (three finger breaths behind in the wrist crease, inline with the middle finger), and Pericardium 4 (four finger breaths behind Pericardium 7, almost at the midpoint of the forearm). Additional points are commonly selection on the upper back, including Urinary Bladder 14 and 15. These two points are only needled to a shallow depth, but are able to energetically affect the Heart and Pericardium organs that are anatomically nearby. Acupuncture treatment is able to rapidly affect the functioning of the organs and was traditionally used in a many cardiac emergency situations. Today, acupuncture treatment is primarily used to improve the functioning of the heart with weekly treatments to normalize heart rate, arrhythmias, and other cardiac complications.

Chinese Herbal Medicine for Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Chinese Herbal Medicine uses a variety of single herbs and herbal formulas (combinations of herbs) to treat coronary artery disease.

The following herbs can be used to treat one or more aspects of heart blood stasis:

  • Chi shao yao (red peony root; Paeonia spp.), eliminates heart stasis and invigorates blood
  • Dan shen (red sage; Salvia militorrhiza), long popular as a tonic for the blood that improves movement of blood through the heart
  • Dang gui (angelica; Archangelica spp.), invigorates and harmonizes the blood, tonifies (strengthens) blood, and dispels cold
  • Niu xi (Achyranthes root), eliminates blood stasis and invigorates blood
  • Zhi ke (bitter orange; Citrus aurantium), improves the flow of qi through the heart and body

As is often the case in Chinese herbal medicine, patients with arteriosclerosis are treated with combinations of herbs that offer a variety of benefits. For example, a traditional preparation known as Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang (Stasis in the Mansion of Blood Decoction) consisting of 11 herbs has been used to treat coronary heart disease and angina pectoris (chest pain associated with coronary artery disease). One small study observed a comparison of this formula to standard pharmaceutical care in 30 patients over 28 days; the study found the herbal medicine was highly effective for angina pectoris and ECG improvement, and slightly outperforming the pharmaceutical control group.

Chinese herbal medicine is most effective when given in customized prescriptions by an experienced practitioner. Herbal medicine can interact with prescription medicines, so it is advisable to always inform your practitioner of any medications you may be taking.

Chinese Medicine Nutrition for Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Chinese medicine also emphasizes the importance of proper diet in treating any type of health disorder. In the case of arteriosclerosis, for example, practitioners would recommend certain foods that are especially beneficial to heart function.

These foods include:

  • Corn, to strengthen the heart
  • Dates, to control palpitations and improve the flow of blood and qi in the heart
  • Hawthorne fruit (Shan Zha), to prevent the formation of phlegm that can lead to blood clotting in the coronary arteries
  • Honey, shown to be helpful in preventing many forms of heart disease
  • Tea, which can reduce swellings that often accompany coronary disease

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is based on the theory that the human body and mind function through the flow of certain forces (yin and yang) and a “vital energy” (qi). The production and circulation of yin, yang and qi are controlled by systems consisting of complementary organs, such as the liver and gallbladder, lung and large intestine, and spleen and stomach. Each organ system is associated with one of the five essential elements that make up the human body: wood, metal, earth, fire and water. Disease develops when sufficient amounts of the basic forces and/or qi are not produced, or when those elements are not properly distributed throughout the body. The goal of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatments is to stimulate the appropriate organs and the meridians through which qi, yin and yang flow to achieve proper movement of adequate amounts of these elements.

What is Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)?

The coronary arteries are the blood vessels that supply the heart muscle with the oxygen needed to function properly. Coronary artery disease (CAD) develops when a combination of cholesterol, fatty materials, calcium, and other substances (plaque) collects on the inner lining of the coronary arteries, reducing the flow of blood through those blood vessels. The constriction of these arteries can result in chest pain, a condition known as angina pectoris, often the first sign of a heart attack. As the flow of blood through coronary arteries is reduced, the heart muscle no longer receives the oxygen it needs to function normally and may begin to die. This condition may result in a disturbance in the heart’s normal rhythm (cardiac arrest) or in the complete blockage of blood flow to the heart muscles, resulting in a heart attack. In some cases, plaque may break loose from a coronary artery and travel through the bloodstream and into the brain, causing a stroke (a cerebral embolism).

Additional Resources

Alternative Medicine Foundation. “Traditional Chinese Medicine.”

Kit, Wong Kiew. The Complete Book of Chinese Medicine: A Holistic Approach to Physical, Emotional and Mental Health. Brooklyn, NY: Cosmos Publishing, 2002.

Williams, Tom. Complete Illustrated Guide to Chinese Medicine: Using Traditional Chinese Medicine for Harmony of Mind and Body. New York: Thorsons, 2003.

Geng Jun, et al. Clinical observation on Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang's treatment for coronary heart disease. Journal of Pharmacology and Clinical Application of TCM. 1999;15(2):43-44.

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