Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Can you die of a broken heart? Surprisingly perhaps, the answer is yes.

Anyone who has had their heart broken wouldn’t even have to think about the answer to this. “Yes” they would say, or at least that is what it feels like. Heartbreak is like walking around with tiny shards of glass in your chest. You feel a crushing sense of sadness, and you are miserable. I suspect that most of us have had our hearts broken at least once, and it feels awful. Sometimes it is so bad that you literally feel like you want to die. But did you know that you can actually die of a broken heart? Yes, that’s right. You CAN. And the medical name for it is Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy.

In Western medicine the condition has several different names; transient apical ballooning syndrome, apical ballooning cardiomyopathy, stress-induced cardiomyopathy, stress cardiomyopathy and Gebrochenes-Herz-syndrom. The syndrome is characterized by a sudden weakening of the myocardium, or heart muscle. Broken heart syndrome is a well recognized cause of acute heart failure, and the interesting thing is that there are often no structural problems in or around the heart which is why, at least to Western medicine, its cause is a bit mysterious. Broken heart syndrome symptoms mimic those of a heart attack so people report symptoms like chest pains and shortness of breath. A heart attack results from a near or almost complete blockage of a heart artery. In broken heart syndrome, there is no such blockage.

Broken Heart Syndrome : Chinese Medicine Living

Broken heart syndrome has been well documented. If the sufferer survives the initial attack (which most do), all the symptoms often resolve completely in a couple of months. But perhaps the most significant thing about broken heart syndrome is that it is usually preceded by an intense emotional event, either a sudden shock, like the death of a loved one, or an ongoing emotional stressor like the breakup of a relationship. It can also be brought about by a constant state of anxiety – for example, living in a war torn country where you have watched your family die and have been torn from your home. This kind of ongoing stress and anxiety puts a huge load on the heart, both physically, spiritually and emotionally.

Interestingly, broken heart syndrome was first documented in Japan in the 1990’s, and it gets its name – Tako-tsubo – from the Japanese literally meaning “octopus pot”. It gets this name because of the shape of the heart when the syndrome is present – apical ballooning, a reversible abnormality characteristic of takotsubo cardiomyopathy. During systole (when the heart contracts) the midsection and tip (apex) of the left ventricle balloon out, while the area above, called the base, contracts normally. The shape is similar to the tako-tsubo – a round bottomed vessel with a narrow neck used to catch octopuses in Japan. The syndrome also seems to occur in much higher instances in women than in men, and most reported cases are of women from ages 58-75.

The Heart in Chinese Medicine

In Chinese medicine, the heart is at the centre of the body and its activities. The heart is said to govern and be responsible for all of the bodies functions via the other organs. The heart is also the residence of a very subtle but profoundly important energy, called the Shen. The Shen has been loosely translated as “spirit”, but this does not encapsulate the entirety of what Shen means. It is a difficult concept to explain, but many mental illnesses are described in Chinese medicine as disturbances of the Shen. When you look into someones eyes and they are clear and bright and full of intelligence, this is someone with healthy Shen. When you look into the eyes of someone who is depressed, deeply sad, or is going through something very difficult in their lives that is, at least at that moment, getting the better of them, their eyes have a cloudy, unfocused appearance. This points to a disturbance of the Shen. Our Shen is our ability to be in the world, deal with problems effectively, be emotionally balanced and be clear and focused in our thoughts, feelings and ability to handle life and everything is throws at us. So, having a healthy Shen is of supreme importance, and its residence is the heart.

Broken Heart Syndrome : Chinese Medicine Living

To anyone who practices Chinese medicine, dying of a broken heart isn’t such a bizarre thought. A sudden shock, or prolonged emotions like worry, sadness, anger and guilt (which is a uniquely Western emotion) weaken the heart and its energies. As we know, Chinese medicine takes the emotions very seriously and they are one of the main causes of disease. Now, for those of you who this is new to, let me clarify – it is not HAVING emotions that can cause disease, emotions are a natural part of being human. But emotions that are repressed, unexpressed or experienced intensely for extended periods of time without being resolved can certainly be a cause of disease.

In Chinese medicine, the body is like a garden, and everything must be working in harmony for the garden to flourish and grow. This means that the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of a person must all be in harmony for ultimate health to be achieved. So, take care of your heart. If you are dealing with something difficult in your life, acknowledging it and either dealing with it or seeking out help to get you through it is my best advice to keep your heart, and your Shen happy and balanced for many years to come.  And if you are having symptoms of a heart attack, even if you have no prior history of heart problems, take them seriously. Especially if they occur after an intense emotional event or sudden shock. Broken heart syndrome is real, and arming yourself with information is the best way to avoid problems in the present and the future.

Broken Heart Syndrome : Chinese Medicine Living

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Can You Die of a Broken Heart? : Chinese Medicine Living