Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. One person dies from heart disease or stroke every 37 seconds in our country.
Startling and scary statistics but it’s also important to remember that roughly 80% of heart disease can be prevented by making healthy lifestyle choices. In honor of Heart Health Awareness Month, I’ve put together a list to guide you in naturally caring for your cardiovascular system. Incorporating these ideas into your wellness routine can go a long way in ensuring that your heart stays healthy and strong.
Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Choices
Making small adjustments to your lifestyle is an excellent way to be proactive about heart health. Here are some suggestions.
Lack of physical activity is the fourth leading cause of global deaths. Regular physical activity is crucial for cardiovascular health, yet only one in five adults in the US are getting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week. Both aerobic and resistance exercise help lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular fitness. If this number seems daunting to you, start small: take the stairs instead of the elevator, ride your bike to work instead of driving, or set an hourly reminder to get up and walk around for a few minutes. If you have heart disease, talk to your health care provider about getting you on a fitness program that is safe and appropriate for you.
- Don’t Smoke and Avoid Secondhand Smoke
Many people are aware of the relationship between smoking and cancer but it is also a significant cause of heart disease and stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking tobacco raises triglycerides, lowers HDL-cholesterol, increases plaque in blood vessels and the risk for blood clots. And it matters where you work and who you live with: secondhand smoke causes nearly 34,000 early deaths from coronary heart disease and 8000 strokes each year in the United States among nonsmokers. Even brief exposures can harm your blood vessels.
- Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
Obesity, especially in non-active individuals, is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It is thought that the chronic low-grade systemic proinflammatory state associated with excess fat, particularly visceral fat, is the reason. If you are overweight or obese, gradually increasing your physical activity will increase your lean muscle mass and begin to lower your risk for heart disease.
- Manage Stress
We are living in stressful times, and many of us are feeling the effects on our physical and mental health. A systematic review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that psychological factors (e.g., depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, hostility, post-traumatic stress disorder) were associated with a significantly increased risk of developing coronary artery disease in both women (22%) and men (25%). Research consistently shows that inadequate social support increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. The connection between despair, grief and the cardiovascular system can be found in our everyday expression: it broke my heart, my heart is breaking. Nurture your relationships. And find ways to manage your stress: meditation, journaling, yoga, spending time in Nature, doing breathing exercises, watching a funny movie… whatever you are drawn to.
You can watch a video of me demonstrating my favorite breathing exercise, the 4-7-8 breath, here.
- Practice Gratitude and ForgivenessI’m a huge believer in the healing power of gratitude. When we stop to remember what is good in our lives, we’re able to slow down the train of negative thoughts that threaten to drive straight through our hearts. Research shows gratitude makes us happier people, as evidenced in the University of Pennsylvania study where participants who wrote a letter thanking someone for their kindness immediately showed improvement in personal happiness scores.
And because bottling up betrayals and other resentments can raise our blood pressure and harm our hearts, practicing forgiveness is a worthy pursuit. If this is an area that you struggle with, consider reading Forgiveness by Iyanla Vanzant or the Power of Forgiveness by Emily Hooks. It’s not just about forgiving others, it often starts by forgiving ourselves…..
Food truly is medicine, especially when it comes to our heart. Nature has provided us with a beautiful bounty of healthy foods that are both nutritious and delicious. Here are some things to add to your diet to keep your cardiovascular system humming.
- Colorful Produce
Brightly-colored fruits and vegetables are packed with phytonutrients like anti-inflammatory flavonoids that support heart health. Try to “eat the rainbow” by incorporating produce of every color into your meal plan.
- Fiber-Rich Foods
Studies indicate eating plenty of fiber can reduce heart disease risk, helping to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and keep arteries clear. The goal for men and women is 38 and 25 grams per day, respectively. Unfortunately, most Americans consume about 15 grams per day on average. Soluble fiber, such as oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples and blueberries, can lower blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol. Eating just one cup of blueberries every day may reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease by as much as 15 percent. Toss a handful in your oatmeal for a double whammy of heart-boosting nutrition!
Who doesn’t love the Alliums: garlic, onions and leeks? As a food, garlic has a modest but beneficial effect on cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as platelet function. I consume garlic and onions everyday. If you want to use it in cooking, to get the most health promoting benefits, crush it and put it in a little olive oil (or other cooking oil) and let it sit for 10 minutes, before subjecting to heat.
One of my all-time favorite spices for cooking and medicine, ginger contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory constituents that have been shown to benefit the cardiovascular system.
Along with food, supplements can help provide your cardiovascular system with the nutrients it needs to function properly. Here are a couple of science-backed suggestions.
- Fish oil
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have been shown to reduce the inflammation that can cause cardiac events like heart attack and stroke. Omega-3s may be especially beneficial for people who have coronary heart disease or a recent heart attack, according to a recent American Heart Association advisory. Fish oil supplements are considered quite safe, especially at the typical dose of 1 gram per day, and distillation methods essentially eliminate the presence of methylmercury, an environmental toxin found in fish.
Magnesium is very important for heart health. Studies have confirmed that higher magnesium levels are associated with a lower risk of stroke, heart failure, and diabetes, an independent risk factor for heart disease. Many of us are at risk for magnesium deficiency given the prevalence of chronic diseases, medication use, lower magnesium content in modern food crops, and the widespread consumption of highly processed foods. Supplementing with 200-300 mg of magnesium citrate or glycinate per day is a safe and sensible recommendation. If you have chronic kidney disease, however, make sure you check with your health care professional before taking magnesium supplements.
Herbal medicine has a number of remedies that can benefit our cardiovascular system. Here are some of my favorite botanicals for boosting cardiovascular health.
- Grape Seed Extract
Grape seeds are a particularly rich source of these polyphenols, which have been found to exert a beneficial effect on blood pressure. A meta-analysis of 16 clinical trials found that grape seed extracts had a mild effect on lowering blood pressure, particularly those with metabolic syndrome. Grape seed extract can be considered for those who have prehypertension (120-139/80-89). The dose used in the studies were 150-300 mg per day (standardized to 90-95% procyanidins).
- Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Hawthorn has a long history in addressing cardiovascular concerns. It is still recognized as a remedy for nervous palpitations in Europe and modern research confirms it has a beneficial effect on mild forms of congestive heart failure, though for the latter, please talk to your health care professional first. The product used in the majority of clinical trials is available as HeartCare by Nature’s Way.
- Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
Hibiscus is a member of the Malvaceae family. The bright red calyces (outer parts of the flower) are widely consumed in the Middle East, Central and South America, India, and other areas, as both a flavorful beverage and as medicine. A review of ten clinical trials found that hibiscus could significantly lower blood pressure, while Tuft’s researchers found that patients drinking 8 ounces of hibiscus tea (1.25 grams hibiscus per 240 ml) three times daily for six weeks had a significant reduction in blood pressure compared to a placebo beverage. Hibiscus tea can be wonderful for those who have mild forms of hypertension being managed by diet and lifestyle.
You can find my recipe for heart-healthy hibiscus tea here.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Turmeric, a member of the ginger family, is highly valued as a flavorful spice and medicine in India. It is one of the major ingredients in curry dishes. The golden-reddish color of turmeric rhizomes is due to the presence of curcuminoids, generally referred to as simply curcumin. A potent anti-inflammatory, turmeric is currently being researched for its beneficial effects on health. Turmeric, or more precisely curcumin, is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that has beneficial effects on blood sugar and cholesterol, while reducing gut permeability. A meta-analysis confirmed that turmeric can gently lower LDL-cholesterol, making this spice a wonderful addition to the diet. Some prefer to take it as a supplement. Look for those that are standardized to 95% curcumin. To improve bioavailability, look for turmeric bound to a lipid (e.g., Meriva) or delivered with black pepper extract providing 2-5 mg piperine.
Support Your Heart, Naturally
I hope this list gave you some ideas for supporting your heart more naturally. For more information on how we can keep our mothers, daughters, sisters, and selves safe from cardiovascular disease, check out the American Heart Association’s signature women’s initiative, Go Red for Women.