Heart disease has been the number-one killer of Americans for years—and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon. According to the CDC, 610,000 die of heart disease and 735,000 suffer a heart attack annually.
Heredity and increasing age play a role in your own personal risk of heart disease. You can’t do much to change those, but there is a far greater number of risk factors that you do have control over. These include:
- Chronic, uncontrolled stress
- Poor diet (including excessive alcohol consumption)
- High blood pressure or cholesterol
First things first in this heart health plan—if you smoke, you obviously need to stop…now. The benefits of kicking the habit start just 20 minutes after your last cigarette. In that short amount of time, your pulse and blood pressure return to normal. Just 12 hours after your last puff, elevated carbon monoxide blood levels drop back to normal. This means more oxygen in your blood and better heart function since your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump oxygen through your body. After 24 hours, your risk of heart attack falls significantly. And the benefits become even more profound the longer you go without smoking.
There are many smoking cessation aids and programs that really work. If you need additional support, talk to your doctor. They should be just as invested in your success as you are.
You should also make an effort to reduce stress in your life. Stress doesn’t directly cause heart disease, but it does have an impact on heart disease risk factors, including smoking, overeating, and overconsumption of alcohol. And internally, stress sets off a chain of events that causes high blood pressure. When your body releases adrenaline in response to stress, it not only leads to a rise in blood pressure, it increases heart and breathing rates. This is normal and fine during occasional instances of acute stress. But if it happens over and over, day after day—as is often the cause with chronic stress—it can eventually damage your arteries.
Some good stress-busting techniques include exercise, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi, journaling, and professional counseling/therapy.
The rest of the risk factors for heart disease (obesity, inactivity, poor diet, and high blood pressure/cholesterol) can usually be controlled, even eliminated, with two things: eating a healthy diet, and engaging in regular exercise.
A Heart-Healthy Diet
No one loves hearing that it takes a little bit of work and effort to keep your heart healthy. But the simple fact is, without proper diet and physical activity, your heart can’t function at its best.
There’s no magic food that on its own decreases the risk of heart disease. But there are many categories of foods that have properties shown to protect the heart. Some of them include:
- Fish. Salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines, in particular, contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation, keep blood vessels flexible, thin the blood (making it less likely to clot), increase beneficial HDL cholesterol, and lower dangerous triglycerides. In one meta-analysis that included 222,000 people, researchers found that consuming only one meal that contained fish weekly (compared to one fish meal per month) reduced risk of death from heart disease by 15 percent. And those who ate the most fish (five or more times per week) had an amazing 40 percent decrease in risk.
- Healthy (monounsaturated) fats. Olives (and olive oil) are especially good for you as they contain heart-friendly monounsaturated fats. Other choices for monounsaturated fats include avocados, nuts (walnuts, macadamia, etc.), and their oils.
- Fruits and vegetables (preferably fresh and organic). Antioxidants and vitamins such as folate found in all types of produce offer protection from heart disease. Fruits and vegetables (as well as whole grains) are also robust sources of fiber. According to a meta-analysis of 22 studies, for every 7 grams of additional fiber you consume every day, your risk of heart disease drops 9 percent. (Your goal should be around 30 grams of fiber daily.)
Moderate consumption of alcohol—particularly red wine—can also have protective effects on the heart. But you want to be careful to limit your intake to one glass a day at most.
All of these foods are staples in the Mediterranean diet—an eating plan that has been shown time and again to improve heart health and reduce risk of several diseases. In fact, a meta-analysis that included more than 1.5 million people found that the Mediterranean diet reduced both overall mortality and mortality from cardiovascular disease by 9 percent, as well as incidence of other diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
The easiest way to start eating a more heart-friendly diet is to ditch vegetable and canola oils and start using olive and avocado oils in your cooking and marinating. Instead of snacking on cookies, chips and other processed junk food, opt for cut up vegetables or a piece of fruit, or bake your own goodies using nut flours and low glycemic sweeteners like coconut sugar or stevia. Make vegetables the focus of most of your dishes, and for three or four dinners per week, swap out chicken, red meat, or pork for fish.
Try also to consume less cow milk dairy. If you do eat it, opt for Greek yogurt or cheese, or dairy made from goat or sheep milk. And if you want to indulge in some alcohol on an occasional basis, choose heart-healthy red wine over beer or hard liquor.
And it should go without saying: Avoid added sugars and processed food as best you can.
Move Your Way to Better Heart Health
There’s not much to add about exercise that you don’t already know. Just as exercise strengthens the muscles in your legs, arms, core, and everywhere else, it strengthens your heart muscle and allows it to become more efficient at pumping blood throughout your body. This means that your heart pushes out more blood with each beat, beats slower, and works “less hard,” all of which keeps your blood pressure in check.
You don’t have to become a marathon runner or Olympic weightlifter. All you need to do is get up and go for a walk every day for 15 or 20 minutes. Work your way up to longer stretches of exercise, and vary your movements over time. Go dancing one day, cycling the next, swimming the next, and so on.
3 Key Supplements for Heart Health
There’s one final piece in the heart disease prevention puzzle, and it’s one that a lot of conventional doctors don’t discuss—heart-supportive supplements. Even if you do everything right with your diet and lifestyle, certain supplements move the dial from good to truly excellent heart health.
There are several supplements that benefit the heart, but three of the best are omega-3 fatty acids, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and curcumin.
You can get your omega-3 essential fatty acids from fish, but a lot of people prefer not to each fish five times a week. Not to mention, there is the concern of mercury contamination. For this reason, taking omega-3s in supplement form is a great option. A good starting dose is 1,000–3,000 mg of the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA daily (be sure to read labels for total EPA and DHA content per serving of oil).
CoQ10 is an important antioxidant that fuels energy production in the cells’ mitochondria—which are responsible for up to 90 percent of the energy that cells need to stay alive.
CoQ10 sparks the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the substance your body uses for energy. Of all the organs in your body, your heart relies on CoQ10 the most due to the extraordinary amount of energy it uses. This makes sense considering your heart is always beating and working hard to keep you alive. So, the higher the CoQ10 in your body, the more ATP the body can produce to fuel your heart.
CoQ10 has been studied extensively for many heart-related issues. Studies have shown that it helps to lower LDL cholesterol, improve HDL cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack, and protect the heart during a heart attack. Low levels of CoQ10 are linked to low levels of HDL cholesterol, which in and of itself raises the risk of heart disease.
The typical therapeutic dose of CoQ10 (as ubiquinol) is 300 mg daily, taken in divided doses. For general health and maintenance, a daily dose of 100 mg is sufficient.
Finally, there’s curcumin, the medicinal component of the bright yellow spice turmeric. You may be familiar with curcumin as a potent anti-inflammatory supplement. Chronic inflammation can encourage the development of plaque inside the arteries, reducing blood flow and overworking the heart. Reducing chronic inflammation helps prevent this process.
But curcumin has additional heart health benefits; it improves endothelial function and circulation and reduces “stickiness” between your blood cells, minimizing the likelihood of blood clots.
In a study of healthy middle-aged and older adults, those treated with 12 weeks of curcumin experienced improved endothelial function thanks to increased nitric oxide bioavailability and reduced oxidative stress.
The typical dose for curcumin is 500 mg two to three times per day.
Your heart is an incredibly hard-working organ that needs proper care and nourishment. Following the steps outlined here, you can protect it now so it can reward you with excellent health for years to come.
- Heart Disease Facts. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm. Last accessed Feb. 15, 2019.
- He K, Song Y, et al. Accumulated evidence on fish consumption and coronary heart disease mortality: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. Circulation. 2004 Jun 8;109(22):2705–11. Last accessed Feb. 18, 2019.
- Threapleton DE, et al. Dietary fibre intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2013;347:f6879. Last accessed Feb. 18, 2019.
- Sofi F, et al. Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. BMJ. 2008;337:a1344. Last accessed Feb. 18, 2019.
- Santos-Parker JR, et al. Curcumin supplementation improves vascular endothelial function in healthy middle-aged and older adults by increasing nitric oxide bioavailability and reducing oxidative stress. Aging (Albany NY). 2017 Jan;9(1):187-205. Last accessed Feb. 18, 2019.