If you’re thinking, “Why should I worry about heart health?” here’s a reality check: A third of Americans already have some form of the condition. Even if you don’t have a family history of cardiovascular problems, you should take steps to protect your ticker. Why? Because your heart rules the health of every other system in your body.
“Every disease is connected to heart health, including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, diabetes, and breast cancer,” says Mark Moyad, MD, director of preventative and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. “When you protect the heart, you protect the body from head to toe.” Safeguarding your heart means doing simple things such as exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and keeping tabs on your cholesterol and blood pressure. But you could be doing more.
The following tips represent the latest research on the foods, supplements, and mind-body techniques you need now to keep your cardiovascular system strong in the years to come. What you read may save your life.
Eat the Right Foods
“Beyond a doubt, of all the foods out there, fruits and vegetables [which are high in fiber, antioxidants, and compounds that block absorption of bad LDL cholesterol] have the most evidence of being heart protective,” says Ryan Bradley, ND, assistant professor at the Bastyr University School of Naturopathic Medicine in Kenmore, Washington. Pile your plate with produce, and work these nutrients and foods into your diet to shield and nourish your heart.
Not only do high-fiber foods, such as beans, legumes, nuts, and whole grains, help keep off excess pounds by making you feel full, but fiber also binds to excess cholesterol in the digestive tract, helping to usher it out of the body via elimination, Moyad says. More importantly, a 2004 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who ate 10 to 25 grams of soluble fiber daily had low blood levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of how much inflammation is in the body. Inflammation is a top risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease because it triggers the production of immune cells, which can create plaque that blocks arteries and reduces blood flow to the heart.
Beans and legumes also contain glutamic acid, an amino acid linked to lower blood pressure by a recent study. Aim to eat one to two 1/2-cup servings of a variety of fiber-rich foods each day. Lentils, walnuts, navy beans, oatmeal, almonds, barley, brown rice, quinoa, and air-popped popcorn are excellent choices, Moyad says.
2. Cold-water fish
In addition to being anti-inflammatory, omega-3 fatty acids—the polyunsaturated fats found in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds—protect against dangerous variations in heart rate and reduce the blood’s clotting ability, making potentially life-threatening blockages in the arteries less likely.
The most potent omega-3 forms, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found only in algae and fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon, halibut, Pacific cod, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. The American Heart Association recommends eating 6 ounces of omega-3-rich fish twice a week. (For the Environmental Defense Fund’s list of mercury-free and sustainably harvested fish, visit edf.org.) If cardiovascular disease runs in your family, you’re diabetic, or you struggle with high cholesterol or blood pressure, consider supplementing with 1 gram additional omega-3 from fish or algae sources. Stephen Sinatra, MD, author of Reverse Heart Disease Now (Wiley, 2007), says DHA tends to be more anti-inflammatory than EPA.
Potent antioxidants found in intensely colored plant-based foods, polyphenols help stave off atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, by preventing LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and building up. Studies also suggest that polyphenols protect blood-vessel cells, improving blood flow. Foods saturated with polyphenols tend to be high in flavor—think pomegranates, red wine, grape juice, dark chocolate, green tea, cinnamon, turmeric, and ginger. Aim to eat one or two of these foods every day. And add a tablespoon of polyphenol-packed spices that come from bark (cinnamon), seeds (anise or coriander), or roots (turmeric and ginger) to your meals a couple times a week.
More grocery-store basics, such as chips, spreads, and cereals, are incorporating fiber and omega-3-rich seeds like chia into their ingredient lists—and for good reason. A 2007 study found that people with type 2 diabetes who consumed 2.6 tablespoons of fiber plus chia seeds each day experienced significantly reduced blood pressure and C-reactive-protein levels. Stir up to 2 tablespoons of these tiny, mild-tasting seeds, eaten for centuries in Mexico, into yogurt or oatmeal, or sprinkle them on salads. Flaxseeds are nuttier and coarser than chia, but they offer the same heart benefits. Because the body can’t digest flaxseeds whole, grind them in a coffee grinder before eating, or buy flaxseed meal. Hempseeds are another good option.
Start a Supplement Regimen
To get the wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants required for your body to function optimally, consider taking a multivitamin. If you’re already doing so, branch out to these heart-health superstars
1. Vitamin C
If you take vitamin C to boost immunity, you may be benefiting your heart as well. This powerful antioxidant reduces free-radical damage throughout the body, lessening overall inflammation and inhibiting the production of C-reactive protein, Moyad says. Studies have shown that vitamin C also plays a role in keeping blood pressure down, in theory because it helps blood-vessel walls dilate, which increases blood flow and reduces blood pressure.
Dose: 500 to 1,000 mg per day
Tips: If you’re prone to heartburn or acid reflux, avoid ascorbic acid—the most common form of supplemental vitamin C—and opt for Ester-C, which consists of pH-neutral calcium ascorbate. High doses of ascorbic acid can also lead to kidney stones.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D protects the heart by blocking a compound called angiotensinogen, released by the liver, that increases blood pressure. In addition, vitamin D regulates the immune system and lowers inflammation throughout the body. “Although vitamin D is important, taking more of it is not better for you,” Moyad cautions.
Dose: 1,000 to 2,000 IUs per day
Tip: Sinatra says vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which the skin produces in response to sun exposure, may be more effective than its sibling vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), found in plant foods.
This mineral aids optimal muscle and nerve function, both critical components of cardiac health. Your heart is the one muscle in your body that never stops working, so it requires a steady stream of electrical impulses to keep it beating, says Dennis Goodman, MD, director of integrative medicine at New York Medical Associates in Manhattan. “Without enough magnesium, you are at risk for developing potentially harmful erratic heartbeats known as arrhythmias.” Studies at the Medical University of South Carolina have found that the less magnesium adults consume, the higher their levels of C-reactive protein.
Dose: 250 to 400 mg per day
Tip: If you experience loose stools, cramping, or high blood pressure, decrease your dose.
4. Coenzyme Q10
Like polyphenols, this fat-soluble antioxidant compound prevents free radicals from corroding LDL cholesterol, so LDL doesn’t adhere to artery walls, Goodman says. Coenzyme Q10 also helps cells manufacture energy, which the heart needs in massive quantities. “A constantly beating heart requires a constant source of energy,” he says.
Dose: 30 to 150 mg per day
Tip: Co-Q10 may cause insomnia and can reduce the efficacy of prescription blood thinners.
5. Red yeast rice extract
The heart-protective qualities of this extract from the yeast grown on red rice result from a compound known as monakolin K, which works very similarly to statin drugs, blocking the enzyme in the liver that manufactures LDL cholesterol. “I’ve seen patients lower their cholesterol levels by as much as 40 points while taking red yeast rice,” Moyad says. A 2008 study found that in addition to making healthy lifestyle changes such as exercising more, taking the extract for 12 weeks in combination with fish-oil supplements resulted in a slightly higher cholesterol reduction and a significant drop in triglycerides—blood fats associated with cardiovascular disease—than taking prescription statins for the same amount of time.
Dose: Consult your healthcare practitioner
Tip: Red yeast rice may increase the risk of bleeding.
Stave Off Stress
Research shows that the stress-inflammation cycle is as detrimental to your heart as a plate full of the cheesiest fettuccine Alfredo. “Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, cause the arteries to constrict, which results in a rise in blood pressure and decrease in blood flow,” Moyad explains. Less blood flow means less oxygen circulating through the body to combat free radicals—unstable cells that can damage healthy tissues. “We know now that bad LDL cholesterol only becomes threatening when levels get so high that it binds with free radicals,” Moyad says. When this happens, LDL changes structure and gets absorbed by the arterial walls’ lining, resulting in plaque buildup, or atherosclerosis. Such tissue damage causes the immune system to go into overdrive, triggering inflammation. Reduce your risk with these effective mind-body therapies.
1. Walk to be fit
Regular physical exertion that forces the heart to work harder strengthens the muscle and helps it function more efficiently even after the exertion is over, Goodman says. A 2002 Harvard study of nearly 74,000 healthy postmenopausal women found walking provided the same substantial
reduction in cardiovascular disease risk as more vigorous exercise. Goodman recommends walking for 30 to 60 minutes a day, moving fast enough to break a light sweat. “You want to keep your heart rate between 70 percent and 85 percent of your maximum capacity, which you can calculate by subtracting your age from 220,” he says. Wear a heart-rate monitor if you’re not sure you’re working at the proper intensity.
2. Link mind, body, and breath
“Yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong combine physical exercise with a meditative focus on the breath, which promotes relaxation,” Bradley says. “We know that exercise and stress reduction are both crucial components of protecting heart health, so any time you can combine the two, you do yourself a double service.” Research agrees: Landmark studies by Dean Ornish, MD, a San Francisco–based cardiologist, found that adding a stress-management component—in particular, yoga or meditation—to increased exercise and a low-saturated-fat diet resulted in significant weight loss and reductions in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Good DVDs for newbies: Tai Chi for Beginners With Grandmaster William C.C. Chen (Acacia Media, 2009), Qigong for Stress Relief (Gaiam, 2004), and Yoga for Beginners With Barbara Benagh (Bodywisdom Media, 2006).
3. Banish the blues
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depressed people are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease. The relationship between mental health and heart health is twofold, Moyad says. Part of it is behavioral—depression makes you less inspired to take care of yourself. But some of the relationship is physiological. Depression raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and leads to inflammation.
Treating your depression may mean talking to your doctor about antidepressants, or it could mean making a few key lifestyle changes that help you feel more empowered and energized. “I counsel my patients to look at all aspects of their everyday lives—their commutes, their jobs, their leisure activities—and see what things they do every day that might be negatively impacting their mental heath,” Moyad says. If, for example, your long commute is draining your mental resources and leaving you feeling emotionally frazzled, make a small change: Take public transportation so you have more time to read. “Anything that causes you mental and emotional stress is more of a drain on your health than you realize,” Moyad says.
4. Believe in the power of touch
Massage has been hailed for its ability to reduce tension, and these effects translate into measurable benefits for the heart. A single deep-tissue massage produced noteworthy reductions in blood pressure and heart rate in participants in a recent study. “Reiki [a form of touch therapy] is great for stimulating relaxation, which shifts the body out of stress response and balances the nervous system, reducing strain on the heart,” Cameron says. At least one study found that preterm infants who received a therapy similar to Reiki had heart rates that were better able to adapt to and recover from stress than infants who didn’t receive the therapy. To find a well-trained massage therapist or Reiki practitioner in the area where you live, go to naturalsolutionsmag.com/find-practitioner.
5. Prioritize relaxation
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the heart is the emperor of the body—it feeds all systems and rules the mind. The connection between the mind and the heart is more than just metaphysical: In a 2008 study conducted by researchers at the Medical College of Georgia, adolescents who practiced simple breath-awareness meditation for 20 minutes a day—10 minutes in school and 10 minutes at home—for three months experienced significant reductions in blood pressure and resting heart rate. Laurie Steelsmith, ND, a specialist in TCM and author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005), recommends meditating 20 minutes a day at least four times a week to reap the full benefits of the practice. Or give your heart a mini-vacation by settling in with your favorite soothing CD. Research shows the heart synchronizes its beating to increases and decreases in music tempo. “We often use classical music to help our patients’ heart rate slow to 60 to 70 beats per minute,” says Michelle Cameron, director of healing solutions at the Cleveland Clinic.
Kate Hanley is the author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide (Skirt!, 2008).
3 Foods to Avoid
Some of the most important foods for boosting heart health are not the ones you should eat, but rather the ones you should avoid. Here are the top no-no’s.
Aside from triggering LDL cholesterol to build up in your arteries, a diet high in saturated fat greatly increases obesity risk—a co-indicator of heart disease. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends relegating saturated fat to 10 percent or less of your daily calories.
Easy tweaks: Choose grass-fed beef, which has less saturated fat and more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than grain-raised beef, and opt for skim or low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt.
Although some dietary sodium aids proper nerve and muscle function, too much can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke or heart attack. Keep your sodium levels in check by
consuming no more than 2,300 mg a day, says the NIH. If your blood pressure is already high, cut down to 1,500 mg a day.
Easy tweaks: Shun canned and prepackaged foods, and order baked and broiled—never fried—restaurant options.
Because of sugar’s role in obesity and diabetes—conditions that significantly up heart-disease risk—the American Heart Association advises that women get no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day and men limit their intake to 9 teaspoons a day. The average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of sugar per day.
Easy tweaks: Steer clear of soft drinks, fruit juices, and sugar bombs such as ketchup, sweetened dried fruit, and salad dressings. —Christy Mercer