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Week 8: Give Your Heart A Rest

A natural born klutz, when I was in my late 20s, I tripped down the stairs in my apartment building and broke my three middle toes. Not the pinky toe, not the big toe, the middle toes. I decided it took some real talent to do that. I scheduled a doctor's appointment and had my foot examined. My regular doctor wasn't in, so I went to see another doctor in the practice. I had worked for this group practice previously, so the physicians were well known to me, as I was to them. This physician examined me, looked at me, and said, "Huh. Your blood pressure is a little high. Let's keep an eye on it. It might just be because of your broken toe."

I went on my merry way back to my go to school full-time during the day in a traditional university program and work full-time at night plus overtime life. I felt like I had to maintain an active social life, volunteer, have some semblance of a relationship with someone, My mantra at the time was "Rest when you are old. Sleep when you die." Sleep was a luxury. I would try to catch up on sleep on the weekends, and the rest of the week I would power through on sheer will. I became gifted at the power nap, sleeping where ever and whenever I could...including the very uncomfortable cement benches on campus.

One day, as I was walking home from my organic chemistry lab, I felt a very strange sensation. I felt like I could literally feel the blood rushing through my body. It was very strange. I considered walking the rest of the way home. I lived across the street from campus after all, or I could stop by Student Health, which was on my way. I chose to stop by Student Health, since I simply felt weird.

As it turned out, my blood pressure was elevated to a dangerous level. I was told by the Student Health nurse that I either needed to go see a doctor or go to the emergency room right away. I convinced myself it wasn't anything that serious. Within a few hours, I was prescribed blood pressure medication at the ripe young age of 28.
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The year before, I had a family member who had a heart attack, so naturally I was concerned. I decided I was going to start being healthier. I already exercised every day, but I added strength training to my walking and also a more intense cardiovascular workout. I started following the Dr. Dean Ornish diet. This was back in the day when ground meatless tasted like ground dirt and the vegan and vegetarian diet industry was really getting its start. And, in case you have never followed a heart healthy diet like the one Dr. Ornish recommends, it is very expensive. Pretty expensive for a young single woman going to college and working as a medical transcriptionist at the local hospital. Still, I pursued the diet. Aside from the tasteless vegetarian dishes, I found I really craved protein by the end of the week. I had a personal rule (I'm a big believer in making rules for yourself) that I could only have meat and sweets on the weekends, from Friday at sunset to Sunday at sunset. It worked. I lost weight (although I was not overweight to begin with), and my lab tests were good. Still, I had high blood pressure, so I had to continue on the medication.

The following year, I went to graduate school. Now, if you have never taken blood pressure medication, one of the things that happens is that it does not allow you to go, go, go. Instead, you can go and go, and then you....stop. You hit a wall. For me, I hit the wall at 10:30 p.m. There was no choice once I hit the wall to actually go to sleep until I was well rested. Somewhere along the line, I came across a study that suggested that my high blood pressure could have been caused by sleep deprivation. Could my go-go-go, rest-when-I'm-old lifestyle be the cause of my high blood pressure, I wondered?

After some blood draw mishaps coupled with having  to meet my graduate program alumni (aka potential future employers) with needle marks on my arms, I decided to stop taking the blood pressure medication in graduate school. I still was checking my blood pressure every day, though, and I decided it would be a good time to try out my theory that sleep deprivation was, in fact, the cause of my high blood pressure.  I created another rule for myself. I told myself I had to stay in bed and lay down and rest for at least 6 hours a night. For most people, that wouldn't be too difficult. For me, it was almost painful. The first couple of months, I tossed and turned thinking of all the work I could be getting done, all the chapters I could be reading, or how I could be getting ahead. Interestingly, within a few months, my blood pressure miraculously began to drop. It still wasn't perfect, but it was getting a lot closer to the normal range.

I'm sure you can guess that as time went on that my blood pressure went down with exercising, relaxing and getting plenty of rest. I may not have graduated at the top of my class. However, I did earn my masters degree from a tier 1 university...and I didn't give myself a heart attack in the process.