February is Heart Month. In a month dominated by Valentines Day and all things heart shaped, it is a good time to take a look at your heart health and how you can support it.
Many people associate heart issues with older adults, there has unfortunately been an increase in heart disease in younger people including the 18-25 age group.
A healthy heart is central to overall good health. Embracing a healthy lifestyle at any age can prevent heart disease and lower your risk for a heart attack or stroke. You are never too old or too young to begin taking care of your heart.
What is Heart Health?
The heart beats about 2.5 billion times over the average lifetime, pushing millions of gallons of blood to every part of the body. A healthy heart brings a steady flow of blood carrying with it oxygen, vitamins, minerals, hormones, and other compounds. It also removes waste products.
Recognised risk factors of heart disease include; a family history of heart disease, dietary factors, diabetes, blood vessel inflammation, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, high alcohol intake and alcoholism.
What foods can help your heart?
Nutrition and lifestyle interventions have been recognised in heart health for many years with large scale studies dating from the 1960s onwards.
When it comes to heart health the food you eat can be a game changer. Even when there is a genetic link, the food you eat can make all the difference to your heart health outcomes.
Functional foods, foods that don’t just taste good but have a specific function in your body can help you to improve your cholesterol, lower your blood pressure and balance your blood sugars.
Cholesterol is one of the most well known heart health markers and lowering cholesterol is one of the most Googled heart related phrases in Ireland, Europe and the US.
Reducing sugar and processed foods and increasing fibre e.g. oats, broccoli, carrots, peas, beans, nuts and seeds, omega 3 fats from fish, nuts and seeds, increasing your intake of green, red and orange vegetables can all help to reduce cholesterol. I’ve created a free ebook on natural ways to lower cholesterol, which you can download here.
Balancing Blood Pressure
Blood pressure readings track two things. The force that pushes on the walls of your blood vessels as they transport oxygen and blood. (Systolic) The force created when your heart rests between beats (Diastolic)
A blood pressure reading of 120/80 is considered optimal, if it is higher than this e.g. 140/85 your blood pressure is considered high . A reading of 90/60 is considered low blood pressure or hypotension. One in five Irish adults have been diagnosed with hypertension or high blood pressure.
Balancing your salt and potassium intake, increasing foods rich in magnesium eating foods rich in antioxidants from berries and vegetables, along with getting enough water and consuming beetroots are some of the ways you can balance your blood pressure.
What lifestyle changes can help?
Lifestyle changes including getting regular exercise, improving sleep quality and finding ways to destress can have hugely beneficial effects on your heart health.
Establishing a good sleep routine
The average adult needs 7-9 hours sleep. Many of us do not achieve this level of sleep, either because they struggle to stay asleep, often waking multiple times during the night or they have trouble falling asleep. Sleep is vital to heart health, if you regularly get a poor night sleep, you are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease — regardless of other risk factors like age, weight, smoking and exercise habits.
When we are tired our body craves simple carbohydrates, caffeine and sugar to get us through the day. These foods can drive insulin resistance and add to high blood pressure and inflammation that has long term negative effects on our heart health.
Setting a good sleep routine with simple habits such as going to bed and getting up at the same time each day will help you get the sleep you need.
Finding ways to destress
Chronic stress is a major driver of heart disease. When we are stressed we release a stress hormone called cortisol. The long-term effects of cortisol on the body include higher levels of triglycerides, blood cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure. It can also promote the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
Deep breathing exercises, gardening, dancing, laughing, singing (even in the shower or car), journaling, chanting, a relaxing bath or walking in nature are all wonderful ways of releasing stress. As are reflexology, acupuncture and talk therapy.
Be mindful not to rely on high intensity exercise such as running to relieve stress as this can increase cortisol levels, physical stress is stress too!
Exercise (little and) often
As you increase your breathing and heart rates with activity, the muscles in your heart get stronger, allowing them to pump with reduced effort. This lowers your blood pressure.
Something as simple as doing housework or chores, walking for 30-40 minutes per day (does not have to be all at once) or going for the occasional bike ride can all get your blood pressure down. If this isn’t possible for you, rebounding (using a small trampoline that is low to the ground) for 15-20 minutes per day can have the same effect and ‘happy hormones’ and relieve stress.
Ten foods to eat for heart health
Okay so fibre is not one food but it does have such enormous benefits for our heart health that it absolutely needs to be included. Studies have found that high fibre foods can help to reduce blood pressure and inflammation. There are two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble and both help to improve heart health. Soluble fibre found in beans, oats, flaxseed and bran has been found to lower total LDL cholesterol.
2. Green Tea
Green tea contains a compound called ECGC that not only lowers inflammation but reduces triglycerides and may break up plaques that are linked to dangerous blockages.
Garlic has long been associated with health benefits. It contains a compound called allicin which is a type of antioxidant. This antioxidant has been found to lower blood pressure and reduce total cholesterol. It also adds flavour to meals particularly for those on a low salt diet.
Pomegranates are high in dietary fibre and antioxidants. Pomegranate juice has been found to protect the lining of the arteries and stop plaques forming. Some small scale studies have also found that pomegranate juice can reduce cholesterol levels. This is not suitable for those on blood thinners
5. Oily Fish
Oily fish including mackerel, salmon and sardines are high in omega 3 which helps with blood circulation.Eating foods high in omega 3s could help to prevent heart attacks and strokes Aim for 2 portions per week. Plant based sources of omega 3 include flaxseed and chia seed.
Tart cherries are another great source of heart health supporting flavonoids. Cherries contain anti inflammatories and antioxidants. Not only do they lower cholesterol and support a healthy heart, they have also been found to help with sleep.
Beetroot juice is one of the richest dietary sources of nitrates, which help lower blood pressures, improve blood flow and heart health and may lead to a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.
Tomatoes are rich in lycopene and help lower LDL cholesterol and regulate blood pressure. Other nutrients in tomatoes including beta-carotene, potassium (important in blood pressure), vitamin C, B and E and flavonoids may boost your heart health.
9. Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is part of a Mediterranean Diet that has been widely regarded as the most heart healthy diet in the world. Olive oil contains a compound called oleic acid as well as other antioxidants. Oliec acid has been found to lower cardiovascular disease risk, reduce insulin resistance and reduce risk of plaque build up. However, it should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
10. Dark Chocolate
Studies show that dark chocolate – 75%+ without the added sugar or saturated fat — is a heart healthy chocolate treat.. Cacao beans, which are used to produce dark chocolate, are rich in cardiovascular disease fighting antioxidants. Studies show it can help to reduce blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease.
Claire O’Brien is a nutritional therapist at The Natural Clinic. Nutritional therapy stresses the use of whole and organic foods, lifestyle changes such as improving sleep, stress management, exercise, and connection. Nutritional therapy looks at specific combinations of food and beneficial food compounds, supporting the body’s natural ability to detox, supplements, biochemistry, laboratory tests to create the optimum diets for you as an individual.