Have you ever wondered whether your heart is a muscle or an organ?
Well, this is kind of a trick question. Your heart is actually a muscular organ.
An organ is a group of tissues that work together to perform a specific function. In the case of your heart, this function is pumping blood throughout your body.
Additionally, the heart is largely made up of a type of muscle tissue called cardiac muscle. This muscle contracts when your heart beats, allowing blood to pump through your body.
Read on to learn more about the structure and function of this vital muscular organ, conditions that can affect it, and how to keep it healthy.
The walls of your heart are made up of three layers. The middle layer, called the myocardium, is largely cardiac muscle. It’s also the thickest of the three layers.
Cardiac muscle is a special type of muscle tissue that’s only found in your heart. Coordinated contractions of cardiac muscle, which are controlled by special cells called pacemaker cells, allow for your heart to pump blood as a single functional unit.
Inside your heart are four chambers. The top two chambers are called atria. The atria receive blood from other parts of your body.
The bottom two chambers are called ventricles. They pump blood to other parts of your body. Because of this, the walls of the ventricles are thicker, containing more cardiac muscle.
The interior of your heart also contains structures called valves. They help keep blood flowing in the correct direction.
Your heart is absolutely essential for your body’s overall health and function.
Without the pumping action of your heart, blood would be unable to move through your circulatory system. The other organs and tissues of your body wouldn’t be able to function properly.
Blood provides the cells and tissues of your body with vital oxygen and nutrients. Additionally, waste products like carbon dioxide are also carried away by blood to be expelled from the body.
Let’s follow your blood as it moves through the heart:
- Oxygen-poor blood from the tissues of your body enters the right atrium of your heart through large veins, the superior and inferior vena cava.
- The blood then moves from the right atrium to the right ventricle. It’s then pumped to the lungs to receive fresh oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide.
- The now oxygen-rich blood reenters your heart from the lungs in the left atrium.
- The blood then moves from the left atrium into the left ventricle, where it’s pumped out of your heart via a large artery called the aorta. The oxygen-rich blood can now travel throughout your body.
There are many conditions that can affect the heart. Let’s explore some of the common ones below.
Coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease happens when the blood supply to the tissues of the heart is disrupted.
It occurs when a waxy substance called plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries supplying blood to your heart, making them narrower or even blocked.
Risk factors include things like:
- high cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- family history
People with coronary heart disease are at risk for other heart conditions like heart attack, heart failure, and arrhythmia.
Symptoms can include angina, which is a sensation of pain, pressure, or tightness that occurs with physical activity. It usually starts in the chest and may spread to other areas, such as the arms, jaw, or back.
Other symptoms may include things like fatigue and nervousness.
Treatment depends on the severity of the condition and may include medications, surgery, and lifestyle changes.
High blood pressure
Blood pressure is the pressure that blood exerts on the walls of the arteries. When blood pressure is too high, it can become dangerous and put you at risk for heart disease or stroke.
Risk factors for high blood pressure can include:
High blood pressure often has no symptoms, so it’s often identified during a routine doctor’s visit. Medications and lifestyle changes can manage it.
Arrhythmias happen when your heart beats too fast, too slow, or irregularly. Many things can cause an arrhythmia, such as:
- damage or scarring of heart tissue
- coronary artery disease
- high blood pressure
Some people with arrhythmia have no symptoms. If symptoms are present, they may include things like a fluttering feeling in your chest, shortness of breath, or chest pain.
Treatment depends on the type of arrhythmia that you have. It can include:
Heart failure is when the heart isn’t pumping blood as well as it should be. Conditions that either overtax or cause damage to the heart can lead to heart failure. Some examples include:
- coronary artery disease
- high blood pressure
Common symptoms of heart failure can include feeling fatigued, being short of breath, and swelling in the lower parts of your body.
Treatment can depend on the type and severity of heart failure. It can include medications, lifestyle changes, and possibly surgery.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Coronary artery disease often causes heart attacks.
Some common warning signs include things like:
- pressure or pain in your chest that may spread to your neck or back
- shortness of breath
- feelings of nausea or indigestion
A heart attack is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention. In the hospital, medications can be used to treat a heart attack. In some cases, surgery may be needed as well.
You can help keep your heart healthy by following the tips below:
- Cut down on sodium. Having a diet that’s too high in sodium can contribute to high blood pressure.
- Eat fruits and veggies. These are a good source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Adjust your protein sources. Select fish, lean cuts of meat, and plant-based protein like soybeans, lentils, and nuts.
- Add foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Examples include fish (salmon and mackerel), walnuts, and flaxseed oil.
- Avoid trans fats. They can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol while lowering HDL (good) cholesterol. Trans fats are often found in things like cookies, cakes, or french fries.
- Carefully read food labels. They can give you valuable information about calories, sodium, and fat content.
- Exercise. Try to do aerobic exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week.
- Stop smoking. Also try to stay away from secondhand smoke.
- Avoid sitting for long periods of time. If you have to sit for long periods during a job or travel, be sure to get up occasionally to stretch and move around.
- Sleep well. Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. People who don’t get enough sleep may be at risk for cardiovascular disease.
Your heart is an organ that’s largely made up of muscle. It has the vital function of working to pump blood to the organs and tissues of your body.
Because of this, it’s very important to take good care of your heart. Remember that it’s never too late to make lifestyle changes that promote heart health.
Exercise, eat a healthy diet, and quit smoking to keep your heart healthy.