This article is based on episode #23 of A Bridge To Wholeness podcast. You can listen to the episode on iTunes, Stitcher, and on our website.
Jennifer Crisp: I am really excited and honored to have Linda Penkala, a licensed massage therapist of Optimum Health for Life and she is here to talk to us today about a really great subject and that is women’s heart health. And I love Linda’s story. She’s actually publishing a book right now which we’re going to let her talk about and she also has created nine pillars to prevent heart disease so we have a lot to talk about today. Welcome Linda. Thank you for being on the episode.
Linda Penkala: Hi, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jennifer Crisp: And Linda, so I was reading about you and you know it’s really interesting because you’re a massage therapist and I’m thinking, “Well, she’s a massage therapist so why emphasis on the heart?” And when I started reading the first chapter of your soon to be published book, which it’s called The Pause to Relax, Ladies for Robust Heart Health. When I started reading your story then I started really understanding the picture but it is unusual to have a licensed massage therapist talking to us, especially women, about heart disease. But I’m so grateful that you’re doing this because what is it about heart disease that most women don’t know?
Linda Penkala: Well, the most important part is that heart disease is the number one killer of women now, not just men. But we superseded men back in 2013. And so I don’t think a lot of women know that which is what was the main reason for me to write my book.
Jennifer Crisp: Yeah, and that’s so interesting because heart disease has been the number one killer of men and women for very, very long, long time but as you said, in 2013 we superseded men in heart … wow.
Linda Penkala: Isn’t that hard just to hear?
Jennifer Crisp: Yeah, it really is. It really is. And I always tell people that heart disease is the number one killer of people because a lot of people don’t think it is. They think it’s cancer. And they’re always really still surprised when you say, “No, it’s heart disease.” But I did not know that women had superseded men in heart disease in 2013. That is news to me. Tell me a little bit about what happened? What led you to this and really emphasizing heart health for women inside your practice?
Linda Penkala: Well, about four or five years ago I had Afib for the very first time, which is Atrial Fibrillation and that’s your heart beat beating erratically, which I didn’t really know what it was at the time. But I knew I had to go to the ER so my husband Joe and I went to the ER that night and they did blood tests and they of course did a lot of testing and all. And it ended up that they wanted to admit me. It’s all kind of scary because you just don’t know what’s going on.
Jennifer Crisp: What symptoms did you have?
Linda Penkala: Just an erratic heartbeat. It would go like this, “Bum bum. Bum bum bum bum. Bum”, and then, “Bum bum.” It’s very erratic.
Jennifer Crisp: You could feel it?
Linda Penkala: I could feel it but I have clients that have Afib that don’t feel it so it’s not always the fact that a person can feel that they have Afib. Some people don’t.
But I definitely did and so upon bringing me up to my room at 2:00 in the morning, giving me medication in my arm, an IV and they were hoping that worked. And if it didn’t it would be Cardioversion which was the paddles to the chest.
Which in my book I wrote about and how that scared me a lot because I just thought that possibly I could die from that. Because it’s a pretty intense amount of electrical pressure going into your heart.
Jennifer Crisp: Basically what they want to try to do then is to shock the heart back into a regular rhythm. If medication doesn’t work to change Atrial Fibrillation back to a normal heart rhythm then yes, then they like to do the shock. And yes, it’s … And it really is a shock. I worked on a cardiac unit and I watched a few of those and it’s a shock. I mean people do jump a little bit off the table when they do it. And it does work for some and for some it doesn’t and so there’s a step further than that and that’s usually they take a little medication and then sometimes maybe a pacemaker. What happened with you? Did the medication work?
Linda Penkala: Well I chose to pray Jennifer. I said, “Okay Lord, I really have to get out of here.” Because the only other times I was in a hospital was when I was a jockey. I used to ride racehorses and I had many many injuries but I went to a hospital in an ambulance when I dislocated a shoulder or broke a wrist or whatever and that was just a known cause of showing up in the hospital. Or having my two children.
But this was totally different and in my book I mention this because it’s an unknown and I had no idea what was going on. Thank God, my heart rate returned and then at 4:00, 5:00 in the morning I was so grateful that I am back in action and beating normally and about 7:00 or 8:00 when the cardiologist was doing his rounds, he’s my same cardiologist now, and I asked him, “How does this happen if all of my blood work is normal?” He said, “Linda, everything’s great. You’re doing good. I just really want you to go and have a stress test and a sonogram recovery stress test.” They watch my heart recover. And I said, “Well, how does this happen if everything is normal?” And you know what he said to me? “You know, sometimes we just don’t know.”
Jennifer Crisp: And oh, that’s a great answer. I love it when doctors admit that sometimes they just don’t know.
Linda Penkala: That was the beginning of my mission I think but I didn’t quite know it at the time. But it kind of A, pissed me off and B, I don’t like that that they don’t know. I need to have an answer. That’s why I went on my, kind of like medical hunt, and I love research as a writer. I’ve been writing articles for years. And I kind of went into the research mode of, “Well, how did this happen and why did this happen and what did I do wrong?” We always want to know what we could have done better. And so from that and in the following years I realized I wasn’t doing some things right.
Dealing with stress and certain lifestyle changes that I had to make. I wasn’t getting massages regularly like I should have, going to the chiropractor regularly like I tell people to. I was kind of falling off the bandwagon myself. My book is about journeying through my life of Afib and what I had to change in my life to pay attention. And the whole-
Jennifer Crisp: I got to read the first chapter and I love the way you do this because as you said, you were a former jockey and you’ve worked a lot with horses and so she, you know you kind of used that metaphor to say, “Okay, this is the horse and this is the human,” and it really makes it so … It’s easy to read and it’s like, “Wow, this is really amazing,” because you really do go into some detail about the stress and not taking care of yourself. And you’ve been a massage therapist for how many years?
Linda Penkala: About 32 years now.
Jennifer Crisp: About 32 years. And so here we are. And you know we find this sometimes among healthcare practitioners and massage therapists and all these, we do all that caregiving for other people but sometimes we don’t do it for ourselves and that’s what, actually that’s what my other organization is about, A Bridge to Wholeness, to address healthcare practitioners and their own self-care and to share information between each other. Because it’s a tough field to be in when you’re caregiving for people all the time and 32 years and you had a family.
Linda Penkala: Right. Right. And then I blended a family when I married Joe. And we have wonderful children and six grandchildren and it’s a beautiful life but I had to learn the lessons along the way. And part of my lessons along the way of dealing with stress is realizing that so much of it is lifestyle Jennifer. And so the genesis of my nine pillars of heart disease prevention was, “Okay Linda, so what did you do wrong and what can you continue doing right and what needs to be tweaked?”
That’s when I came up with my nine pillars and that’s what I started teaching and when I started teaching this and I asked women in general, “How many people know by raise of hand that heart disease is the number one killer of women,” and you know, only half would raise their hands. That was when I started to say to myself, “You know, I really should write a book because a book would get to a lot of hearts quicker than speaking to people one on-“
Jennifer Crisp: I love that. A book would get to a lot of hearts. Yeah well, yeah, you said it right there. And I’m really interested in what women think of this because this is coming from a different modality talking about heart disease because usually we just hear it from our physicians. We don’t hear it from anybody else. And so what type of questions do you get and responses do you get? Because I know you do some workshops too.
Linda Penkala: Yeah, well what we as massage therapists feel on a day to day basis is the results of stress in people’s bodies, minds, souls and spirits. And we know that emotions can take refuge in soft tissue and muscles so the archeology of your entire past, if you’re 50 or 60 on back, your car accidents, your traumas, your falls off of horses, everything is held into soft tissue in your muscles and joints. And so what I feel as a massage therapist, all these holding patterns. And it’s important for my client and myself to be aware of when we are within that muscle group that it’s not just a physical muscle, that there’s a lot more behind that.
What the result is of the buildup of stress is that it’s all about the increase of cortisol. You know that cortisol is a really, an important hormone in our body but too much of cortisol is the stress hormone, keeps our body from being balanced. And so main modalities, yoga and massage help raise the oxytocin, which is the happy hormone and that’s the goal is for me to have conversations with women about knowing that there are other avenues to raise your oxytocin. Gathering with women, sitting on the ground out in nature, going to a hot tub or just being one on one with a pet. There’s wonderful research.
I try to bring the research component in my second chapter, the Hard Heart Truth, is kind of weave some of these facts in and it is hard to realize and maybe to stomach a little bit for women but I just hopefully did it in a kind, caring, loving way that they could read it and take action in the end. And that’s the last chapter called-
Jennifer Crisp: I think it’s really interesting that when I was doing some of this reading that you really do talk about the fact that we, especially as women, are doing so much more over the last several decades. We are … I don’t think we’re out of the Superwomen Syndrome at all. I think it’s actually increased. There’s a lot of going on in the women’s movement right now but I really feel as you do that having the tools in the toolbox to address the stress issues that we as women face is paramount for our heart health and our emotional and our spiritual health. And so, I do wish that women could realize how strong they are and how vulnerable at the same time. Do you agree with that?
Linda Penkala: Absolutely. And it takes all of us to support each other and that hopefully is a takeaway when you finish reading the book because my third chapter is The Wonder Women Effect. And it’s exactly what you just said Jennifer is that we all wear so many hats and we either are caretakers of our parents or caretakers of our children or grandchildren and even though that is our God given gift to encourage, empower and to relationally communicate with people, sometimes it’s overkill if we do too much and then we end up getting no sleep or get headaches or choose to say, “Oh, I have no more time to exercise,” and not take care of ourselves. That is the third chapter and it’s an important conversation to have because we know very many women, I call it Mock 10 Overdrive, and they just never stop. I have to catch myself sometimes, which is why I call the book The Pause because I think that word pause means that we just have to pause temporarily and get our bearings and then go back in to walking and to moving.
Jennifer Crisp: With that, and I know myself that I actually do take pauses. I have to. I have to take pauses. I don’t function well if I do not. And even though I’m very aware of it, sometimes if I am going for a particular length of time or there’s just more going on, sometimes I’ll get that little ding where I’m really tired and like the other day I showed up for a dentist appointment on the wrong day. And then when I went to check to see the calender on my phone, I realized I’d left my phone at home so it was like, “Hmmm, okay, what is this telling me?”
I used to get really upset and go, “Oh, I can’t believe I did that,” and “Dud-d-duh, and I should …” but now I actually don’t do that. I actually do pause and say, “Okay, what is my body trying to tell me,” and it’s kind of knocking on the door and it’s giving me that little, that little push to say, “Pause,” and I did. I came home and I went, “Oh, okay. This is what … I need to just come down.” Because I had just finished doing a bit of traveling, I had the grand opening for my business, I was preparing for that, I had the grandkids for two days. You know, the whole thing, right?
And it is a gift I think to ourselves when we recognize that, “Oops, I think I need to pause.” Give us some suggestions maybe that women can maybe recognize that need to pause and say, “It’s actually okay to pause.” It’s actually healthy to pause.
Linda Penkala: Right. If you’re moving too fast and you’re tripping, you’re falling or you’re talking too fast, like I can talk too fast sometimes, or you’re dropping things a lot or you’re causing harm in conversation to other people because you’re not being aware of your words coming out, during those times I always suggest people to breath. And so in my book I have three, five, eight breathing and so you inhale for three, hold for five and you exhale through your teeth, like that, to 8. Now it takes some practice to get to eight that way but if you do that about three to five times, and you could be driving down the road, it clears your mind, it oxygenizes your brain and your entire blood and then you feel better by oxygenizing your blood and brain. That’s a good … Breathing is really good.
Another good one is to just get out and walk. Just for a few minutes. Even if you could at lunch time, wherever you work, just walk. Shoot for 10 minutes and then maybe in a couple of weeks 20 minutes. Walking. Movement helps move your emphatic system, moves your blood, move a lot of your circulatory system so that you could A, think better and B, function better because you went out, came back in and now you’re a little bit fresher. And I think we just keep going, going, going like an Energizer Bunny and we need to remind each other it’s okay.
I always envision I’m teaching women and having them turn to each other and say, “I give you permission to stop and pause,” and then you say to yourself, “I give myself permission to stop and pause.” Sometimes we fail to give ourselves permission for that and we’re constantly serving others that we just forget to do that. And that’s a kind, gentle thing you could do for yourself.
Jennifer Crisp: And I really like that idea, especially for busy moms, because I know when my boys were small we’d just go, go, go all day because they go, go, go all day. They really are little Energizer Bunnies. But I know that when I hit my 30’s I really did have to pause because I was so worn out. The moms now, I stayed home and took care of my children because I’m almost 60 so I was a stay at home mom but there’s so many women now in the workforce and they have good careers and they want to maintain a family and so pausing isn’t, shouldn’t, I don’t even think pausing should be an option. I think it should just be a part of the daily living because if we don’t pause, sooner or later we will get knocked down with an illness.
Linda Penkala: Exactly. And at the end I always say to women, “My goal is to allow you not to end up in a hospital and wonder, ‘How did I get here?’ Have control of your life now Jennifer so that you do make wise choices and that’s why my whole program is called Wise Heart Health Choices for Women because you want to be wise about this. Because we can all be foolish, we have been foolish, but as we Baby Boomers that are listening to this and Millennials, this is good for them to learn about is that as you enter into your last 50, 60 years of your life you really want to be sure you’re pretty darn wise because if not, you come down with a lot of disease processes and end up flat on your back in the hospital. Which is the last place I ever want to be.
Jennifer Crisp: Exactly. Exactly. It’s so interesting, I have my oldest son is a new doctor and when I turned 50 I remember having the conversation with him, and it really sounds crazy but it’s true, I said to him, I don’t remember what we were discussing. He was in medical school at the time and he said to me, something about aging, and I said, “Matthew, you have to understand, once you hit 50 you’re looking at the other side.” It’s like you’ve hit the top of the mountain and now you’re like, “How long am I going to stay on the top of the mountain?” But I said, “But your main goal is to stay alive and do it well.”
And he just looked at me. He just looked at me and it was such a shock to him because he was probably 30, 28, 30 years old, something like that. Actually a little younger. And I just said, “That’s what happens. It’s like your whole, I don’t know, everything just shifts.” And so what we want to do and what you do is you say to these younger women, “Hey, just because you hit this age or this point in your life, you can still maintain good health, optimal health, and be active and hopefully stay out of the hospital.”
You’re right, these women that are really running around and trying to be all that Wonder Woman, it does catch up with you. You can’t help it. It catches up.
Linda Penkala: Yean, and my goal is to always remind women to, you want to thrive, not merely survive. You and I, our goal is to encourage women to thrive. And it takes work. It takes choice to … Choices that we make daily that be able to thrive and we could regain and maintain health by the choices that we make. And so for the Millennials to watch, even when they hit 30, that might be a big deal for them but that’s also a moment where you could say to yourself, “Wow, let me see how I could improve this or I could change this to have healthier boundaries and to find good balance in my day to day.” Not to do everything in Mock 10 Overdrive on the weekends, Saturday and Sunday to where by the time you come into Monday you say, “Oh wow, I never did relax Saturday and Sunday.” You have to put it in.
Jennifer Crisp: You have to schedule that in and I know myself that yeah, you know, I really sometimes have a hard time not working on the weekend because I’m an entrepreneur so I always have work to catch up on but honestly I make the effort not to do it because I understand so well that the body, the mind, all of our cells, our organs, our tissues need that downtime to regenerate. And if we don’t give ourselves that rest time and that enjoyment time, we don’t come back into the next week being fresh and really being able to handle whatever it is that we are going to be doing during the week.
That’s a really big one to be able to step away, right, from the computer. Step away. Get outside. Get outside and really do that. In your workshops, what do you do in your workshops to teach women and do women come to you who have already had some type of a heart episode or are they coming to you for information to prevent heart disease or do you see both?
Linda Penkala: A little bit of both. A little bit of both. Over the years I had a trio of us teaching locally here in this area. Had Dr. Marcia Levi from Optimal Care Chiropractor and she’s in Laurel and she teaches about the structural integrity of the heart, the anatomy of the heart. Posture, how posture affects the heart. Because we’re all hunched over the computer, hunched over a desk. I’m hunched over a table giving massages all day. And then Abby Dixson from Rocky Gorge Physical Therapy and we all have offices in Laurel. I just moved to Columbia but we all teach about the heart.
And then Abby would teach about stretching, about exercises. Just sitting down stretching or standing up stretching for the heart and the importance of all of that. And then I would go over my Nine Pillars of Heart Disease Prevention. And so what we found over the years is that some women would love to hear it but I think in other women are kind of in denial about it. Like a lot of women wanted to come and they just didn’t take the time to Jennifer because maybe it really in the end wasn’t that important for them. And to me that was sad. A lot of people would say yes and come and then there were fewer than you want to join us, to share this information.
That’s why I decided to write my book because you can only teach one on one or one to 20, one to 100, whatever so much. And it’s very time consuming. It takes a lot of effort.
Jennifer Crisp: It takes a lot of time.
Linda Penkala: But at least you do it, you put it out there, you market it, and then I’ll speak about it and I’ll have my website and I’ll have my links and all for women to continue the conversation. Because I think it takes a lot of us to support each other and I don’t want women to just lay in bed and read this book and say, “Oh yeah, I’ll do those nine pillars someday.” And I have a very systematic way to go about it is you take one month, 30 days, to address one of the pillars.
Say one of the pillars is slow down, relax. [inaudible 00:24:55] quiet time, by choosing meditation, prayer, yoga or to go get a massage. Spend 30 days saying, “Okay, I’m going to try to go to a [yellow 00:25:04] class sometime this month, or, “I’m going to start learning how to breathe differently.” And then maybe another one is, I’m really about water as a massage therapist so eat and drink heart healthy is number five and so staying hydrated. Being sure that you have enough water in your body. Dehydration is really key for people from Alzheimer’s to migraines to a lot of medical problems.
Jennifer Crisp: Yes. Absolutely. And as we age we tend not to drink as much water.
Linda Penkala: Absolutely. And there’s a lot of research about that Jennifer with Afib and so that’s why you have Holiday Heart. As a nurse you know that. Holiday Heart in the ER is from people drinking too much alcohol. Going in the ER around Christmas and into New Year’s Eve.
Jennifer Crisp: Because I know when I worked on the cardiac floor I would dread, not the holiday itself. I didn’t dread the holiday. I dreaded coming in a day to three days after the holiday because I knew exactly, you are so right, that’s when we would get all the people coming in because they had partied and it’s like, I mean I’m sorry but I would say to people, “You’re not 20 anymore.”
“You’re 50 or your 60. Your body isn’t moving as quickly. You don’t process those things as well or as quickly as you used to.” And most people would look at me and say, “I know but I thought just this once I could do it.” I’m like, “Now you’re here.” And it really was true. You are absolutely right. Water is very, very essential.
Linda Penkala: And the other component of research is traveling. For those people that travel a lot to international travel, are on a 10, 12, 15, 20 hour flight, hydration is so important there because we all know you could get blood clots if you don’t get up and move. But by the time you get off that flight you could be in severe dehydration if you didn’t mindfully not drink alcohol and drink lots of water so that you keep your blood thin and not thick and able to handle the stress of travel. That’s huge in the research as well.
Jennifer Crisp: Absolutely. And it really is true too because when you’re traveling, that’s why they always serve drinks. Even if it’s a two hour flight, a two or three hour flight, they always serve drinks because that’s … You need to stay hydrated. Of course, I’m going to say on top of that you shouldn’t be drinking the soda and all that other stuff but I always bring a bottle on the airplane with me. A big, big bottle of water and that’s usually what I do but a lot of times people, they love the soda, and I would suggest just drink the water and have a cup of tea. But yes, absolutely, and when you come off an airplane have you ever noticed how thirsty you are? It’s like, oh my gosh, you’re just so thirsty, so flying really does dehydrate you. Absolutely. It’s just part of the game and that’s what it is.
It’s really curious. I know you do a lot of research and you’ve done a lot of research into Atrial Fibrillation and can you give me just a couple things that they found over the years that might contribute to Afib or do they not know at all?
Linda Penkala: I think part of my Afib too was my dental health because I had a tooth that was infected and I made a dentist change that you’ll read about in my book because the dentist wanted to drill and do a root canal into a tooth that was already cracked, infected and half gone. And so it didn’t make sense to me to do that and so I chose to switch doctors. Now I go to a holistic dentist, a biological dentist and she took the tooth out. But in my research now I’m finding that dental health really plays an impact on inflammation.
Inflammation is really, really the precursor to heart diseases. Not just cholesterol. It’s really not. And Dr. Paul Rosch from the American Institute of Stress, he has a whole huge PowerPoint that he presented years ago on stress, not cholesterol, is the cause of heart disease.
Jennifer Crisp: Because stress causes inflammation.
Linda Penkala: Inflammation, exactly. And why is that? Because of the cortisol. If you don’t choose to relax and if you don’t have a motive calming down or really good way to do that over time then that cortisol builds up and builds up and builds up in your body.
Jennifer Crisp: And it doesn’t have a chance to shut off. You know, cortisol if we think about it, for people who might not understand, just think about adrenaline. I think that’s a good way to think about this. Think about an adrenaline rush and how you feel when that adrenaline is pumping. Well, our bodies don’t always know the difference between maybe being chased by a bear and I have a hard week at work. Or the kids are really driving me crazy.
Linda Penkala: It’s just a reaction.
Jennifer Crisp: The cortisol levels, they stay elevated. Instead of the nice cycle that we should, okay, we’re in a fight, flight situation or high stress, now it’s over. It’s over, it’s done, and those cortisol levels are able to come back to normal. Our culture basically keeps us at a very high cortisol level just because we’re so inundated all the time so like you’re saying, having those tools, taking a minute to breathe and just allowing it. And you know what, I think this is a great idea and I may do this. Well, I already do it but I’m going to suggest that we have a heart buddy. Maybe we women should have a heart buddy.
Linda Penkala: Yep. That’s what I mention in my last chapter is to find a wise heart health women who’s read the book. Not just anyone. It has to be someone that read the book, who’s onboard. And if you say to me you want to be my heart buddy, “Linda I need you to support me in this.” I can’t do it alone. And for each of us to say, “I can’t do it alone,” to have a community of women work together either on Facebook or Instagram or whatever, but also face to face. We are creatures of relationships. We need to hug, we need to touch and we need to know that we are there for each other. Women are totally different than men. We’re built differently. And so when we come together collectively, a whole group of women, it’s a totally different energy than if there was men in the room.
Jennifer Crisp: Well Linda, we could go on and on about this conversation because it’s so important but tell us about your book. And I know it’s getting ready to be published. Do you know when that will be?
Linda Penkala: It’ll probably be around July, end of July. It takes about 10 to 12 weeks and the manuscript’s going in about now, the end of this week. And so the pictures are going in. I have a lot of horsey pictures, pictures of me being a jockey, just kind of break it up and just to show the readers a little bit of fun. Even though it is a heavy topic I tried to make the book fun and light and easy and just a happy kind of a book. It’s called The Pause to Relax Ladies, For Wise Heart Health.
Jennifer Crisp: I love that one. I just love that title. I love The Pause. Right there. If I walk into a bookstore and see a book called The Pause, I’m going to actually pause just to look at the title. I think you head that one right on. And that’s a really good one.
Where can we get in touch with you Linda? Now Linda is located in Columbia, Maryland.
Linda Penkala: Sure, I’m at the Howard County Holistic Center. I’m one of many, many practitioners there where I have my massage therapy practice and I work from Tuesday through Friday there. And I also am on Facebook. Optimum Health for Life on Facebook and also Linda Penkala on LinkedIn.
Jennifer Crisp: Okay, so that is a great … Even though you’re in Maryland, if people want to reach out and get more information about hearth health or just contact you, that’s a great thing to do. I just want to thank you so much for your time today because this is a conversation that needs to happen a lot and for those of you out here, out there who need a heart buddy, ask one of your women friends to be your accountability heart buddy for you and check in on each other. And really support each other. Linda, thank you so much.
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