What Leonardo Taught Us About the Heart

Human Heart Health

Story at-a-glance -

  • Throughout his life, Leonardo da Vinci filled extensive notebooks with scientific theories, inventions, and drawings of the human skull, skeleton, muscles, and organs; more than 4,000 pages have been discovered so far
  • Leonardo is credited with the first known description of coronary artery disease as well as detailing accurate descriptions of how the human heart works
  • It’s thought that, had Leonardo’s insights been recognized earlier, it may have changed early treatment for heart disease (and many other health conditions)
  • To this day, much of the heart’s workings remain a mystery, and heart disease is the leading cause of death in US men and women
  • At least a quarter of the 800,000 annual heart disease deaths in the US—or about 200,000—could be prevented through simple lifestyle changes

By Dr. Mercola

Leonardo da Vinci is known as one of the world’s greatest artists, counting such famous paintings as the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” among his many accomplishments. But Leonardo was much more than a painter.

By day, he was an artist, an architect, and an engineer, but his hobby was science. Throughout his life, Leonardo filled extensive notebooks with scientific theories, inventions, and drawings of the human skull, skeleton, muscles, and organs. More than 4,000 pages have been discovered so far.

With little formal education, and a “day job” as an artist, Leonardo’s drawings were never published and stayed largely undiscovered until more than 250 years after his death.

Cardiothoracic surgeon Francis Wells has spent years studying Leonardo’s extensive anatomical drawings, especially of the human heart, and even published a book on the topic titled The Heart of Leonardo.

According to Dr. Wells, Leonardo’s insights are “quite astonishing” and describe inner workings of the heart that even modern-day cardiologists often get wrong.1

Leonardo da Vinci’s Early Insights Into the Human Heart

While many of Leonardo’s drawings are based on animal hearts, he did carry out dissections on human hearts as well, including one in which he described the “first known description of coronary artery disease.” Many of his drawings and writings on the heart turned out to be spot on, and he is credited with:2

Accurate descriptions of how the arterial valves close and open (a topic that is now researched using MRI technology) Recognizing that currents in blood flow, created in the aorta artery, help heart valves close
Suggesting that arteries create a health risk if they “fur up” Realizing that the blood is in a circulation system (which may have influenced William Harvey’s 1616 discovery that the heart pumps blood around the body)
Showing that the heart is a muscle that does not warm the blood Being the first anatomist to correctly note the number and root structure of human teeth

It’s thought that, had Leonardo’s insights been recognized earlier, it may have changed early treatment for heart disease (and many other health conditions). To this day, much of the heart’s workings remain a mystery, which only adds to the wonderment of Leonardo’s early drawings (another interesting tidbit: Leonardo wrote backwards, from right to left).

Perhaps most of all, what we can learn from Leonardo da Vinci – a man with an insatiable curiosity and love of learning -- is to continue questioning, exploring, and discovering, even among topics that are assumed to be well established. BBC News reported:3

According to Mr. Wells, Leonardo's legacy is that we should follow the Renaissance Man's example and continue to challenge, question and enquire rather than listen to accepted wisdom.”

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Top Heart Myths That Might Surprise You

In keeping with Leonardo’s example, I want to share some information about heart health that may surprise you…

Saturated Fat Does Not Promote Heart Disease

As of 2010, recommendations from the US Department of Agriculture4 (USDA) call for reducing your saturated fat intake to a mere 10 percent of your total calories or less. It's virtually impossible to estimate how many people have been prematurely killed by the persistent promulgation of this myth that lowering naturally occurring saturated fat intake is good for your heart.

Grown from a flawed study published over half a century ago that has since been soundly debunked by many decades of research, it’s now known that the avoidance of saturated fat actually promotes poor health in a number of ways.

Recently an editorial in the British Medical Journal titled "From the Heart, Saturated Fat is Not the Major Issue," firmly busted this pervasive myth.5 As stated by the author, Aseem Malhotra, an interventional cardiology specialist registrar at Croydon University Hospital in London:

"The mantra that saturated fat must be removed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease has dominated dietary advice and guidelines for almost four decades. Yet scientific evidence shows that this advice has, paradoxically, increased our cardiovascular risks...

The aspect of dietary saturated fat that is believed to have the greatest influence on cardiovascular risk is elevated concentrations of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

Yet the reduction in LDL cholesterol from reducing saturated fat intake seems to be specific to large, buoyant (type A) LDL particles, when in fact it is the small, dense (type B) particles (responsive to carbohydrate intake) that are implicated in cardiovascular disease.

Indeed, recent prospective cohort studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk. Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective." [Emphasis mine]

Natural Salt Is Essential for Your Health

Salt is another oft-vilified food for the heart, and it’s true that overindulgence in the typically used commercially processed table salt can lead to fluid retention, high blood pressure, swelling of your limbs, and shortness of breath. In the long term, it is thought to contribute to high blood pressure, kidney and heart disease, heart attacks, and heart failure.

However, salt provides two elements – sodium and chloride – that are essential for life. Your body cannot make these elements on its own, so you must get them from your diet.

Compelling evidence suggests that while processed salt can indeed cause fluid retention and related health problems, numerous studies have, overall, refuted the salt-heart disease connection.

For example, a 2011 meta-analysis of seven studies involving more than 6,000 people found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes, or death.6 In fact, salt restriction actually increased the risk of death in those with heart failure.

Similarly, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that same year revealed that the less sodium excreted in your urine (a marker of salt consumption), the greater the risk of dying from heart disease.7

That said, it’s clear that many are consuming far too much processed table salt and not enough natural salt. Natural salt contains 84 percent sodium chloride, and 16 percent naturally occurring trace minerals, including silicon, phosphorus, and vanadium.

Processed (table) salt, on the other hand, contains 97.5 percent sodium chloride and the rest is man-made chemicals, such as moisture absorbents and flow agents. If you’re interested in the role of salt in your heart health, consider, too, that potassium deficiency may be more responsible for hypertension than excess sodium, and too much sodium along with too little potassium has been found to more than double your risk of death from a heart attack, compared to eating about equal amounts of both nutrients.8

Shunning the Sun May Harm Your Heart

Do you avoid regular sun exposure, or slather on sunscreen every time you go outdoors? These behaviors are linked with vitamin D deficiency, which is detrimental to your heart. Even if you're considered generally "healthy," if you're deficient in vitamin D, your arteries are likely stiffer than they should be, and your blood pressure may run higher than recommended due to your blood vessels being unable to relax.

Recent research also confirmed that postmenopausal women with higher vitamin D levels had higher HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.9 Further, cholesterol, sulfur, and vitamin D from sun exposure are all interrelated, and the status of each promotes or prevents the disease process known as cardiovascular disease.

Too Much Exercise Can Backfire for Your Heart Health

Several recent scientific studies indicate that endurance exercises, such as marathon and triathlon training, pose significant risks to your heart, some of which may be irreversible and life threatening. Long-distance running, for instance, can lead to acute volume overload, inflammation, thickening and stiffening of the heart muscle and arteries, coronary artery calcification, arrhythmias, and sudden cardiac arrest. A safer and more effective exercise is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which consists of short bursts of intense exertion. HIIT maximizes the benefits for your heart, while optimizing your human growth hormone (HGH) and insulin levels.

Heart Disease Is One of the Leading Causes of Death in the US

About 800,000 people die of heart disease in the US each year. At one in every three deaths, this makes heart disease ostensibly the leading cause of death for both men and women.10 In addition, 720,000 Americans have a heart attack every year, the majority of which (515,000) are a first heart attack.11 Bear in mind that, contrary to the conventional ideology, your total cholesterol level—which includes HDL, LDL, triglycerides, and Lp(a)—is just about worthless in determining your risk for heart disease, unless it is above 300.

However, many have argued that the flawed medical paradigm is actually the leader, killing far more including many of those that die from heart disease. Still, high total cholesterol can in some instances indicate a problem, provided it's your LDL and triglycerides that are elevated and you have a low HDL. I have seen a number of people with total cholesterol levels over 250 who actually were at low heart disease risk due to their high HDL levels. Conversely, I have seen even more who had cholesterol levels under 200 that were at a very high risk of heart disease based on the following additional tests:

  • HDL/Cholesterol ratio. This is a very potent heart disease risk factor. Just divide your HDL level by your cholesterol. That ratio should ideally be above 24 percent
  • Triglyceride/HDL ratio. Here, you divide your triglyceride level by your HDL. This ratio should ideally be below 2

That said, these are still simply guidelines, and there's a lot more that goes into your risk of heart disease than any one of these numbers. In fact, it was only after word got out that total cholesterol is a poor predictor of heart disease that HDL and LDL cholesterol were brought into the picture. They give you a closer idea of what's going on, but they still do not show you everything. Additional risk factors for heart disease include:

  • Your fasting insulin level: Any meal or snack high in carbohydrates like fructose and refined grains generates a rapid rise in blood glucose and then insulin to compensate for the rise in blood sugar. The insulin released from eating too many carbs promotes fat accumulation and makes it more difficult for your body to shed excess weight. Excess fat, particularly around your belly, is one of the major contributors to heart disease, while elevated insulin levels can also lead to insulin resistance, a major risk factor for heart disease
  • Your fasting blood sugar level: Studies have shown that people with a fasting blood sugar level of 100-125 mg/dl had a nearly 300 percent increase higher risk of having coronary heart disease than people with a level below 79 mg/dl
  • Your iron level: Iron can be a very potent cause of oxidative stress, so if you have excess iron levels you can damage your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart disease. Ideally, you should monitor your ferritin levels and make sure they are not much above 80 ng/ml. The simplest way to lower them if they are elevated is to donate your blood. If that is not possible, you can have a therapeutic phlebotomy and that will effectively eliminate the excess iron from your body

Heart Disease Can Be Prevented with Healthy Lifestyle

A quarter of the 800,000 annual heart disease deaths in the US—or about 200,000—could be prevented through simple lifestyle changes, and more than half (6 out of 10) of the preventable heart disease and stroke deaths happen to people under age 65, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).12 In my mind the conventional medical system is largely responsible for many of these deaths, as their dietary recommendations for the prevention of heart disease are diametrically opposed to what you actually need for optimal heart health. For over 60 years, saturated fats have been blamed for heart disease, resulting in the promulgation of a dangerous low-fat, high-sugar diet.

In reality, a diet that promotes health is high in healthy fats and very, very low in sugar and non-vegetable carbohydrates... Research coming out of some of America's most respected institutions now confirms that sugar is actually a primary dietary factor driving chronic disease development. If you’re wondering what a "proper diet" is for heart health, I suggest reviewing my Nutrition Plan, which is designed to guide you through the dietary changes in a step-by-step fashion, moving from beginner to intermediary to advanced. When properly applied, it can improve just about anyone's health, including your heart health. Following is a summary of the basic recommendations:

Limit or eliminate all processed foods
Eliminate all gluten and highly allergenic foods from your diet
Eat organic foods whenever possible to avoid exposure to harmful agricultural chemicals such as glyphosate
Eat at least one-third of your food uncooked (raw), or as much as you can manage
Increase the amount of fresh vegetables in your diet
Avoid artificial sweeteners of all kinds
Swap all synthetic trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine, etc.) for healthy fats like avocado, raw butter, and coconut oil
To rebalance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, take a high-quality omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil, and reduce your consumption of processed omega-6 fats from vegetable oils
Drink plenty of pure water
Optimize your vitamin D levels, either through appropriate sun exposure, a safe tanning bed, or as last resort, an oral vitamin D3 supplement
Limit fructose to less than 25 grams per day, from all sources, including whole fruits. If you have insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease, you'd be well advised to keep your fructose below 15 grams per day

Four More Lifestyle Habits for Heart Health

In addition to avoiding the dietary hazards just mentioned—particularly sugar/fructose, grains, and processed foods of all kinds—here are a few more recommendations that can have a profound impact on reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease.

  1. Optimize your insulin and leptin levels. If your fasting insulin level is above three, consider limiting (max 15 grams of fructose per day) or eliminating your intake of grains and sugars until you optimize your insulin level. Following my nutrition plan will automatically limit your intake of foods that raise insulin levels.
  2. Exercise regularly. One of the primary benefits of exercise is that it helps normalize and maintain a healthy insulin level. A 2011 study published in the Lancet, which included several hundred thousand people, found that a mere 15 minutes of exercise a day can increase your lifespan by three years—even if you have cardiovascular disease risks.13
  3. Regularly walk barefoot to ground with the earth. When you do, free electrons are transferred from the earth into your body, and this grounding effect is one of the most potent antioxidants we know of, and helps alleviate inflammation throughout your body.
  4. Grounding helps thin your blood by improving its zeta potential, which means it improves the negative electrical charge between your red blood cells thus repelling them and keeping your blood less likely to clot.

    In fact, grounding's effect on blood thinning is so profound that if you are taking blood thinners, you must work with your health care provider to lower your dose -- otherwise you may overdose on the medication. Research has demonstrated it takes about 80 minutes for the free electrons from the earth to reach your bloodstream and transform your blood.

  5. Avoid drugs that promote heart disease. Statin drugs and antidepressants are two commonly prescribed types of medications that have been shown to promote heart disease.