The Route to Long-Term Cardiovascular Health
Even if heart disease runs in your family, you can protect yourself against heart disease and beat the odds if you start now. Though cardiovascular disease remains the number-one killer in the United States, there are numerous ways to reduce the risk factors for heart attacks and strokes.
Lifestyle is the leading cause of cardiovascular disease. Many Americans neglect exercise, skimp on sleep, and consume excessive amounts of processed food, sugar, salt, and hydrogenated fat. Many more smoke daily and drink too much alcohol.
Stress, inactivity, and poor food choices generate chronic inflammation, which is the real killer. Large-scale studies have demonstrated that blood tests for inflammatory compounds such as CRP, homocysteine, and galectin-3 (the worst of the bunch), offer a clearer picture of a person’s cardiovascular risks than testing for LDL cholesterol.
Excess stress produces inflammatory hormones and other compounds that can turn normal cholesterol into oxidized cholesterol, a key factor in the formation of arterial plaque. Chronic inflammation also leads to fibrosis, uncontrolled scar tissue buildup which hardens arteries and permanently damages organs and tissues, especially the heart.
These risk factors also contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure), which increases the chances of heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and other problems. Controlling hypertension—preferably without medication—should be a top priority for protecting long-term heart health.
FIGHTING HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
Blood flows through veins and arteries much the same way that water flows through a garden hose. Just as too much pressure can damage a hose, hypertension can take a lasting toll on blood vessels and the organs they’re connected to.
For most people, healthy blood pressure should be less than 120/80. The first number (120) is the pressure when the heart is actively beating; the second (80), is the pressure when the heart is at rest. If these numbers go much higher and stay elevated over time, we dramatically increase our chances of cardiovascular disease.
Of all the risk factors for heart disease, high blood pressure may be the trickiest to control. While dietary changes can have a significant and lasting effect on inflammation, circulation, and cholesterol, reducing blood pressure often requires a more holistic effort. That’s because hypertension has a variety of origins, including family history, weight, inactivity, smoking, diet, and stress, among others. To bring blood pressure down, we have to make a number of changes.
REWIRING OUR CIRCUITRY
If losing weight were simple to do in our culture, most people would be thin. Still, we do recognize what it takes to drop pounds. We have to eat less (particularly less sugars and simple carbohydrates) and increase activity. It sounds easy in theory but it’s the practical applications that trip us up.
Above all, we need to exercise our persistence, willpower, and patience. We want to rewire the brain to accept long-term health rewards and reject the temptation of instant gratification. An excellent way to do this, which is also proven to support cardiovascular health, is with meditation.
Healthy lifestyle changes are usually best sustained step-by-step. If we try making dramatic, sweeping health changes all at once, we typically fail. Drastic measures like crash diets don’t encourage permanent, realistic dietary changes—they are simply food vacations. Soon enough life reverts to normal and cravings return with a vengeance.
Rather than making intense and sudden changes, it’s best to work out smaller adjustments over a longer period of time that can be incorporated into daily practice. Soon these small habits will add up to a healthy lifestyle that we can sustain long term.
FOOD SMARTS: THE TRUTH ABOUT ANTIOXIDANTS AND FATS
Let’s start with the basics. We want to decrease our reliance on processed food, white flour-based products, sugar, salt, and partially hydrogenated fats like margarine, vegetable shortening, and so on. We want to increase lean protein and emphasize colorful fruits and vegetables. We also need good sources of healthy fats. Fats in general are not the enemy—it just depends on which kind. Good fats reduce inflammation, support better circulation, and help control weight among many other benefits. Hydrogenated trans fats, on the other hand, damage cells and contribute to inflammation and arterial plaque.
There is debate now over whether supplementing with essential omega-3 oils improves cardiovascular health. Though we have long believed that omega-3s are critical for a healthy heart, a large study in 2012 found no link between omega-3 supplements and improved cardiovascular outcomes. These findings are controversial and more research is needed.
Part of the problem may be with the purity and stability of omega-3 supplements. Quality varies significantly between suppliers. I still believe that for those with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, so I encourage my patients to eat fatty fish like wild salmon or sardines packed in olive oil. I also encourage them to eat chia, hemp, and flax seeds, as well as walnuts and walnut oil. These foods are excellent omega-3 sources, and provide much broader support than isolated supplements.
A similar debate is taking place over antioxidants. Because oxidation is believed to be a key mechanism in arterial plaque accumulation, it makes sense that antioxidants could help with heart health. However, a number of studies have suggested that supplementing with isolated antioxidant vitamins—such as A, C, and E—offers no cardiovascular protection. On the other hand, foods high in antioxidants such as brightly colored fruits and vegetables (particularly berries and dark greens) are found to support cardiovascular health.
Many brightly colored fruits and vegetables are high in flavonoids, phytonutrient compounds long prized for their antioxidant abilities. However, recent research has revealed that the true mechanisms of flavonoids’ health benefits don’t come from their antioxidant actions. Rather, it appears that flavonoids exert their benefits by positively altering gene expression and influencing cellular communication pathways that protect against cardiovascular and other diseases.
The take home? As with omega-3 fatty acids, the key to effective protection appears to be choosing the right whole food and botanical ingredients rather than synthetic single nutrients and low-quality supplements.
There are many other natural food-based supplements as well as botanicals that are found to support cardiovascular health:
NATTO is a fermented soybean food popular in Japan. It contains the enzyme nattokinase, which has been shown to reduce clotting and blood viscosity as well as benefiting blood pressure.
CHINESE SALVIA supports blood flow and has been shown to relax blood vessel walls.
HAWTHORN BERRY promotes healthy blood pressure and circulation and reduces cholesterol levels.
CORDYCEPS and other medicinal mushrooms have been shown to improve blood pressure and circulation. Mushrooms are also rich sources of unique therapeutic compounds to support other areas of health including immunity and detoxification.
MODIFIED CITRUS PECTIN, a specialized preparation from citrus peels, controls the inflammatory protein galectin-3 to halt the process of fibrosis in cardiovascular and other diseases.
I also recommend a Tibetan herbal formula with 19 botanicals including Irish moss, neem fruit, and red saunders heartwood. This formula has demonstrated its heart health benefits in dozens of clinical trials spanning over 50 years. A 2006 review showed that the formula improved circulation for peripheral artery disease (PAD) patients, increasing their mobility and reducing pain. Another study conducted in PAD patients showed that the formula lowered blood pressure.
MIND-BODY-HEART: THE BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
One of the reasons blood pressure can be difficult to control is its relationship with our thoughts and emotions. That’s why reducing stress is a proven way to control heart disease.
One of the best ways to work with this mind/body connection is meditation practice. Simply taking a few minutes each day to reflect, focus on deep breathing, and calm the mind can have a remarkable impact on cardiovascular health.
There are many studies confirming meditation’s heart benefits. One study found that people who practiced regular meditation lowered their blood pressure and pulse rates. Another found that students who meditated reduced left ventricle thickness, a key factor in high blood pressure.
Meditation practices are also found to support immune health, reduce inflammation and pain, and boost cognition and mood. Indeed, daily meditation may be the best medicine.
THE PATIENT APPROACH
We know heart disease is a killer, and we know there are many ways to reduce our risks. The trick is to act on our desire for good health and make those necessary changes. While the benefits may be obvious, the transition to a healthy lifestyle can often be difficult.
The key is having a plan and starting slowly. We don’t need to become vegetarians or start training for a marathon on day one. Rather, we change a few items in our diet and slowly increase physical activity. Gradually, we add in meditation, five minutes a day, then 10. Later we incorporate botanical supplements that support the body’s natural balance. By gently weaving in the right dietary and lifestyle changes, we actually begin to crave these healthy habits, deepening our commitment to lifelong cardiovascular health. The difference will be hearty: Greater energy, stronger immunity, better mood, healthier weight, and numerous benefits across all areas of health.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has a MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.