Many of the requests for health advice I get from my patients involve taking care of their heart – what can they do to prevent or improve heart ailments? I’m always pleased when a patient wants to take a pro-active role in their heart health as it is one of the most important things you can do.
Heart disease in the United States is rampant. One out of 4 Americans have some type of heart-related issue. It is, unfortunately, the number one killer of Americans, with the highest numbers amongst men, with women catching up to those numbers more and more.
What’s Causing Our Heart Disease?
There are many heart conditions that are structurally related. For instance some people are born with defective valves or thickening/enlargement of heart muscles that can have several origins. Heart disorders can also be caused by infections from bacteria or viruses. Irregular heartbeat or a heart that beats too fast or too slow is also a common condition.
However, as I tell my patients, poor lifestyle behaviors account for the majority of heart disease in the United States. These behaviors include the following:
• Low nutrient, high saturated fat diets – from too much bad fats and low vitamins.
• Lack of exercise – makes us fatter and our hearts weaker.
• Smoking – the worst heart (and lung) offender.
• Heavy alcohol use – causes increased triglyceride levels, irregular heart rhythms.
• Drug abuse/overuse – weakens heart muscles and causes irregular rhythms.
• Hectic schedules, lack of sleep, too much caffeine – stresses the heart and adrenals.
What To Ask Your Doctor
For a lot of people, the first time they find out they have heart disease is in the emergency room with chest pain, or worse, a heart attack! Rather than wait for the worst case scenario to occur, learn to be heart-health savvy now. You might want to talk to your doctor about some of the blood tests available to provide you with a clearer picture of your current heart health.
I recommend getting a baseline level of these heart-health markers before you start any heart-health improvement program to see what areas you need to improve.
• Homocysteine – Can damage arterial walls and cause dangerous blood clots.
• C-reactive protein, cardiac (CRP) – Elevated CRP raises risk of heart attack threefold.
• HDL cholesterol – “good” cholesterol. Optimal level should be higher than 60.
• LDL cholesterol – “bad” cholesterol. Optimal level should aim at 100 or less.
• Total cholesterol – Level should be around 200. Too low cholesterol can cause hormone-building problems for both men (testosterone) and women (estrogen).
Heal and Protect Your Heart Naturally
The good news is that you can improve your heart health naturally. As I explained above, the biggest offenders to a healthy heart are behaviors you may be engaging in every day. By modifying some of these behaviors, and getting rid of others, you can gain better heart health.
Here are the beneficial heart-healthy changes that I recommend to my patients:
• Eat less saturated fat – cut red meat to twice a week, the size of a deck of cards, or the palm of your hand. Limit total SF’s to 7% of total calories. Read labels.
• Limit trans fats – these can raise LDL (bad) and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. French fries and donuts are loaded with trans fats. Limit to 1% of total fat a day. Read labels.
• Add legumes, other plant proteins – all types of beans, peas, nuts, are excellent sources of 0 cholesterol, low fat, and high B vitamin plant proteins.
• Add heart-healthy nutrients – Omega-3 fish oil and Omega-6 oils like olive and safflower oil; Co-Q10, resveratrol, folic acid, B vitamins, especially B3, B6 and B12, magnesium, Vitamin E, potassium, calcium. Add through food sources or supplements.
• Eat more fruits and vegetables – Aim at 6-8 servings a day for necessary food-source vitamins and fiber. Supplemental vegetable drinks can also help you meet this goal.
Exercise: You don’t have to become an athlete to reap heart benefits from exercise. A simple 30 minute walk outside or on a treadmill, a bicycle ride (have to pedal, not just cruise) at least 3 times a week can help your heart stay strong, reduce inflammation, and raise HDL levels. Exercise also helps you de-stress, it brightens your mood, and helps you sleep better!
Smoking: Sorry, but I really can’t offer any modifying changes for you here. Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health. It severely damages your heart and lungs which work together to keep you alive. If you smoke, quit, the heart/lung benefit is immediate.
Alcohol: Heavy alcohol consumption of hard liquor causes increased triglycerides, weakens pumping capacity of the heart and decreases your oxygen capacity. A glass of red wine or beer a day, however, actually can be beneficial to your heart as they contain antioxidants and phytonutrients that help your heart.
Drugs: Both recreational and prescription drugs have side effects that can be heart damaging. Talk to your doctor about the possible side effects of your prescription drugs to your heart. If you engage in recreational drugs, like smoking, no modifications will lessen the effects of these.
I hope I’ve been able to show you how making some simple, natural lifestyle changes can keep your heart functioning in great condition. Start by adding one of the above mentioned changes every couple of weeks and by the end of three months, I guarantee your heart will be on the way to optimal health!
Happy Valentines Day! Indulge in some sugar-free-dark chocolate; it contains powerful antioxidants and minerals that are actually good for your heart!