One of the things I frequently hear from patients is, “Dr. Blankstein, what can I do to prevent a heart attack?” They often have the wrong idea that protecting their heart involves having to learn a lot of complicated nutritional information, follow a low-fat, tasteless, boring diet, perform exhausting exercise and make impractical lifestyle changes. But, you know, they’re pleasantly surprised when I tell them that protecting their heart really only boils down to a few key principles – many of which they’re already doing. So, I’ve assembled these here so you can get the same recommendations my regular patients do.
Save Your Heart Using These Key Principles
Now, if you already have heart disease, you may be following a regimen that your doctor designed for your particular circumstances. I don’t want you to change that, and even though these are pretty basic key heart-saving methods, talk them over with your own doctor first.
Saving your heart, protecting yourself from heart attack, really boils down to three things – diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Now, those are big categories in and of themselves, but really the principles within them are pretty simple to remember. We’ll start with the most important aspect – what you feed your heart.
I. Diet. What most of my patients want to know about diet is, “Do I have to give up all the foods I love?” Well, it all depends on what those favorite foods are and how much of them you eat. Now, if you love fast food and have been eating it 3 times a day, I’d have to tell you it’s necessary to give up some of that. That’s right – not all, some. If you eat a heart-healthy diet 90% of the time, 10% of it can include a few favorites like fries, burgers, ice cream, etc, once in a while. I would ask that you limit these to 1-2 times a week, in normal portions. If you follow a heart healthy diet most the time, a once or twice a week diversion won’t undo all your efforts.
Fiber: Get 25 grams a day. Include 1-2 servings of high fiber cereal a day, 2-3 servings of fresh fruit, 5-6 servings of cruciferous vegetables, (broccoli, cauliflower, kale). Fiber helps clean toxins and heavy, bad LDL fats out of your body before it gets used to sticking around in your arteries.
Sugar: A lot of refined, “table” sugar in the diet contributes to the #1 cause of heart problems, inflammation. In fact, it’s more dangerous to your heart than animal fat. It causes high blood sugar levels and creates a caustic, high acid base in your blood that damages blood vessels. Once blood vessels become damaged, fats in your blood begin to stick to arterial walls like Band-Aids trying to repair the damage. This results in the dangerous plaques that can build up and block blood flow, or break off and cause heart attack or stroke. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a sweet treat anymore. There are ways you can minimize refined sugar in your diet and still have a sweet treat. See the Heart-Healthy Sweets and Desserts recipes listed on this site that convert regular sugar recipes into heart-healthier versions using Stevia or honey. Having a piece of regular-sugar containing birthday, or holiday cake, pie, once in a while, or a candy bar or a few cookies here and there, won’t undo all your 90% efforts. Try to stay below 12 grams of sugar per serving on a once-in-a while basis. Read labels.
Fat: As I mentioned above, fat is not as dangerous as refined sugar. It all depends on the type of fats you eat the most. Eating a great piece of grilled, grass fed beef, accompanied with a lot of grilled, olive-oiled vegetables, and a big salad is my idea of a great summer holiday/weekend dinner. The rest of the week I’d stick to high Omega-3 fats in fish, and/or lower fat/cholesterol protein sources such as poultry and legumes. Try switching out your regular cow’s milk for unsweetened refrigerator-type almond milk (it’s thicker than shelf-packaged almond milk). You’ll not only cut down on animal fat but lactose – sugar as well.
Protein: Your heart is a muscle and requires protein, like the rest of your muscles, for structural strength. Be sure to eat 0.7 grams per pound of body weight, re-adjusting it downward if you are losing weight. For example: You weigh 160 lbs. 160 x 0.7 is 112 grams of protein per day. Read labels to learn how much protein is in the foods you eat, or get a good food counter book that lists protein, sugar, carbohydrates.
Now let’s look at the second biggest factor – your activity levels.
II. Exercise/Activity. Your body was designed for movement. Sitting all day at desk jobs on computers, or watching television, reading a book, for a large chunk of time per day tells your body it doesn’t need its strength anymore. What happens? All your muscles become weaker – including your most important muscle – your heart. In addition, your lymph system, which depends on regular movement, stagnates. Toxins contained in your lymph fluids cannot move out of your body and start to build up. Not only can heart disease result but so can cancer.
Many of my patients find continuous, sustained exercise boring. My answer to that is to shake things up. Join a dance exercise class like Zumba, Hip-Hop, Jazzercise, or a “boot camp” type class and put some fun and socializing into your exercise. It’s been proven that people who exercise in a group stick to regular exercise more than going it alone day after day. Another thing you can do is start HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training. It burns fat and re-builds heart muscle in a fraction of the time of 30-40 minutes on the treadmill, stair stepper, or elliptical. You do short (20-30 seconds) of very intense bursts of exercise, rest for 30 seconds, then repeat, for a total of about 10-12 minutes.
Research has proven that HIIT exercise also lowers hemoglobin A1c levels, which is important to diabetics and everyone trying to avoid getting diabetes. Weight training – this is non-negotiable. As you get older, you lose muscle strength with inactivity. Weight training will help re-build it. But you don’t have to trek to the gym 3-4 times a week. Try some Russian kettlebells that are a fun workout and really build muscle fast.
The third most important heart-saving principle is your lifestyle. Let me share with you which aspects I think are key to protecting your heart.
III: Lifestyle. A lot of things go into your lifestyle – work, relationships, sleep, and leisure activities. These are the ones I think are most important to your heart health.
1. Relationships. Research shows that people with strong family/social relationships have much healthier hearts than people who are isolated. Mediterranean and Asian cultures enjoy amazing longevity in their populations. These are very social/family-friend oriented cultures full of extended families and people who spent a lot of time socializing.
2. Sleep. If you’re sleeping less than 6 hours a night, research shows that your body develops a high level of CRP (C-reactive protein), a marker for cardiovascular inflammation (and damage!). This is because your body doesn’t have enough time to repair itself which it does during your sleep. If you have trouble sleeping at least 6 hours a night, take a little melatonin before bedtime, 1-3 mg.
3. Stress. If your work, home life, is full of stress, your adrenal glands are over-producing cortisol on an almost non-stop basis. Too much cortisol causes a lot of inflammation throughout your body and turns off DHEA – a major youth and life-sustaining hormone. Smoking and drinking can aggravate stressful life conditions – both of which contribute to heart and body damage. To save your heart, and possibly your life, you’ll need to re-think, make changes to, whatever is causing chronically elevated stress levels.
There you have it – a few key principles that can help protect your heart from a life-threatening heart attack down the road. You’re already doing at least 2 of these everyday already – eating and sleeping. Tweaking these areas a little more in the direction of better heart health can go a long way to keeping it healthy. As for the others, exercise and stress, you’ll need to make conscious changes that will move you out of just getting by day to day in the present to keeping you living healthier and happier long into your old age.
Ron Blankstein, M.D.
Best Heart Healthy Diets http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-heart-healthy-diets
Seven Ways to a Healthy Heart, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2006/may/27/healthandwellbeing.fitness
The Importance of Relationships on Your Heart, http://cvalleynetwork.org/the-importance-of-relationships-on-your-heart/