Heart Disease in Women

Dr. Samantha Gray, ND, RAc


The face of heart disease has changed. Once considered “a man’s disease,” the number of deaths from heart disease and stroke are now virtually the same for men and women in Canada. Heart disease and stroke is a leading cause of death for women in Canada as opposed to breast cancer as may be assumed. In addition, women are more likely than men to die of a heart attack or stroke.

Different symptoms:

Women may experience a similar set of heart attack symptoms as men do, but women don’t respond in the same ways. Women often describe their symptoms differently than men and they are less likely to believe they are having a heart attack. As a result they are more likely to put off seeking treatment which can have dire consequences. Women tend to experience symptoms that are less definite, such as chest discomfort rather than pain. In addition, chest discomfort may not be the first sign of heart trouble for a woman. Instead, women have reported experiencing unusual tiredness, trouble sleeping, problems breathing, indigestion, and anxiety up to a month or so before the heart attack. Women are more likely to feel a vague chest discomfort rather than a sharp pain or tightness, but the milder symptoms don’t mean that a woman’s heart attack is any less severe than a man’s heart attack. Any symptoms of a heart attack should be taken seriously.

Signs of Heart Attack in Women:

  • Chest discomfort (uncomfortable chest pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain, burning or heaviness)
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body (neck, jaw, shoulder, arms, back)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness

Unique Risk factors:

Although the presence of the hormone estrogen in a woman’s body is protective, this protection is reducing during perimenopuse and almost eliminated after menopause. Taking synthetic hormone replacement therapy has been found ineffective in moderating this risk and may in fact increase heart disease risk in women. Given this, after menopause, risk factors for women become the same as for men. Women have a few additional risks including the use of birth control pills. Risk factors also affect women differently than men. For example, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease in women more than in men. With diabetes on the rise, heart disease in women has also risen. Risk factors for women include:

  • smoking
  • birth control pill use
  • diabetes
  • elevated cholesterol
  • inflammation
  • abdominal weight gain

How your naturopath can help:

The good news is that you can control many heart disease risk factors. Most of these risk factors are conditions or habits that can be reduced or eliminated with lifestyle modifications and expertly chosen natural remedies. Your naturopath can help you to thoroughly assess your risk for heart disease and stroke by checking blood pressure, reviewing your cholesterol and the deeper causes of elevated cholesterol including inflammation, assessing your BMI and blood sugar regulation and thus insulin resistance or diabetes risk.

In addition to these more conventional assessments, your naturopath considers your adrenal health that may impact the health of your heart muscle. Women are more prone to Coronary Microvascular Disease (CMD) that results from damage to the tiny arteries that feed the heart muscle itself. Although research is ongoing with respect to this condition, one theory suggests that adrenal imbalance due to both internal and external stressors on the body can affect production of protective cardiotonics by the adrenal glands. (Please see my previous article on this topic for a more in-depth discussion). In addition, after menopause a healthy adrenal gland will maintain small amounts of protective estrogen circulating in the body, however this is not so if the adrenal gland is weak or depleted.

At Sage Clinic we now also have a new, non-invasive assessment tool called the HeartForce test for evaluating the health of the heart muscle. Recently approved by Health Canada, the affordable HeartForce test is recommended as a preventative test to measure the impact various risk factors are having on your heart. Women aged 40-60 are encouraged to assess the function of their heart, particularly those with elevated risk factors.

Assess your risk for heart disease by taking this quiz:

Your naturopath can help you moderate or eliminate other risk factors by helping you to quit smoking, support you in creating an attainable movement and physical activity regime, create a heart-healthy nutrition plan and most importantly reduce overall inflammation in the body and particularly in the arteries.