Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease

“My goal is not only to help you live longer but also feel better.”
– Dr. Dean Ornish, MD

Given the frequency with which I’ve encountered references to Dr. Dean Ornish in my research, I decided that it was high time that I read his book. Its subtitle lays claim to being “the only system scientifically proven to reverse heart disease without drugs or surgery.”

While medical advances produced an astonishing array of procedures and medications to treat heart disease, Dr. Ornish focused his attention on the underlying causes. Clearly, preventing heart disease has benefits for the affected individuals as well as our rapidly escalating healthcare costs. Dr. Ornish also noted that prevailing treatment protocols have serious flaws:

  • A daily dose of aspirin reduces the risk of a heart attack but increases the risk of a hemorrhagic stroke.
  • Cholesterol lowering drugs are expensive and have unpleasant side effects.
  • Blood pressure medication is expensive and may not help people live longer.
  • One-third of arteries dilated by angioplasty clog up in 4-6 months.
  • Open heart surgery is very expensive and provides temporary relief. Absent lifestyle changes, the disease will continue to progress.

In societies that consume whole foods plant based diets, serum cholesterol lies well below 150 mg/dL, and heart disease is virtually non-existent. By mirroring their eating habits, we can substantially lower our risk of heart disease and reduce or eliminate some or all of the medication we take.

Dr. Ornish also examined the relationship between stress and coronary disease. For example, chronically stressed monkeys had significantly more arterial blockage than their more mellow counterparts, all other things being equal. Elevated stress also increased the permeability of artery walls to cholesterol. Even the muscle fibers within the heart wall “feel” the pain of stress. They contract so vigorously in response to stress that their fundamental architecture gets disrupted.

We may think of stress in terms of the “fight or flight” response induced by unexpected life circumstances. Or we may conjure up images of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange where traders work at a frenetic pace to maximize their daily profit. But even a sense of isolation engenders a powerful stress response. Heartbreaking life circumstances quite literally break the heart.

Armed with the best research available, Dr. Ornish devised a program with the following elements:

  • dean ornish heart healthy programA “Reversal Diet” with whole foods and no animal products except egg whites and nonfat dairy
  • Cessation of smoking for those with that habit
  • A daily stress management practice consisting of 20 minutes of stretches, 15 minutes of progressive relaxation techniques, 5 minutes of deep breathing, 15 minutes of meditation, and 5 minutes of directed or receptive imagery
  • 30 minutes of daily exercise, or 1-hour workouts 3 times per week
  • Psychosocial support

In working with thousands of patients, Dr. Ornish and his team saw a direct correlation between adherence to the program and the degree of improvement in the patient’s health. Among the physiological benefits cited:

  • Reduced cholesterol due to elimination of animal products and fats from the diet
  • Elevated HDL which removes excess LDL from the bloodstream
  • Reduced LDL through diet and stress management
  • Reduced salt in the bloodstream which lowers blood pressure (or rather doesn’t increase it artificially)
  • Weight loss due to the decrease in caloric density of plant based versus animal based foods and the precipitous drop in fat consumption
  • Elevated feelings of well-being

Admittedly, Dr. Ornish’s program takes a nontrivial investment in time and effort. It requires internal motivation to make the adjustment and stay the course. But if the pot at the end of that rainbow is a healthier, more fulfilling life, it’s certainly worth the quest, isn’t it?