Cardiovascular disease kills on average one Australian every 12 minutes, and affects one in six, so it’s worth the investment. More good news: it’s never too late to start, especially since the main risk factors – high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, overweight or obesity, and physical inactivity – can be reduced through lifestyle changes at any age.
If you have an existing heart condition, Dr Kylie Dodsworth, Integrative GP at the Centre for Health and Wellbeing in Adelaide and Vice President of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association (AIMA), says it’s important to seek medical advice before taking herbs and supplements. “Not changing or adding medications, including herbs and supplements, without medical advice is important if there's an issue with a person’s heart,” she says. “And they should have regular heart health checks, including blood tests, with their doctor or integrative practitioner.” Here are 10 tips to get your ticker into shape:
1. Herbs and supplements Known heart-lovers are fish oil for its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, coenzyme Q10 for its antioxidant kick, magnesium orotate for boosting muscle and nerve function, and vitamin D for its role in preventing hypertension. “Other heart health supplements include the amino acids l-carnitine for boosting cellular energy and l-arginine which improves blood flow. Kyolic garlic has good studies that show it lowers blood pressure, while antioxidants C and E decrease the risk of unstable angina and help prevent tolerance to certain heart medicines,” advises Dodsworth. She also recommends red yeast rice extract as a natural statin that lowers cholesterol levels, and the herb hawthorn to dilate the blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure and improves blood flow through the heart. “These are all very effective for heart health and have very strong therapeutic effects, so it’s important to only take them under medical supervision,” adds Dodsworth.
2. Keep insulin down “When insulin levels increase it signals the liver to make more cholesterol, the cells to store more fat, and the blood vessels to become thicker, which are all bad for heart health,” explains Dodsworth. “Reduce your insulin levels by lowering your intake of refined sugar and high calorie carbohydrates found in ‘white foods’ – white bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and (of course) sugar – that have little to no nutritional value.”
3. Manage stress Dodsworth says stress management is vital to heart health. Massage is good for the mind and body, and therefore a heart lover as well. Meditation just received a tick from the American Heart Association, while yoga and tai chi are known stress busters.
4. Do HeartMath The HeartMath Institute (www.macquarieinstitute.com.au) helps people bring their physical, mental and emotional systems into balanced alignment with their heart’s intuitive guidance. “It’s a place where people can learn about their heart rate and breathing, and how to regulate them using biofeedback to achieve a calmer state,” explains Dodsworth.
5. Watch for hidden salt Researchers who analysed 2,215 cooking sauces sold in four major supermarkets between 2010 and 2017 found they’re not only packed with salt, but some brands were nearly 100 times worse than others! The biggest culprits were powdered sauces and curry pastes. Look for less than 400mg sodium per 100g in cooking sauces, use only half a packet or jar and top up with extra water, fresh herbs and vegetables, or make your own sauce from scratch. Watch out for ready meals as well - research shows they’re getting saltier, too.
6. Walk the mall Heart Foundation walking groups have taken over shopping centres across Australia, where walkers pound the mall before the shops open. “Joining a group is a great way to ensure you meet the recommended minimum 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week,” advises National Manager for Heart Foundation Walking Groups Michelle Wilson. These walks are free, weatherproof, and away from traffic and other pedestrians. Visit walking.heartfoundation.org.au to register. Dodsworth says high intensity interval training (HIIT) that uses the big leg muscles is good for your heart. “Research shows that three minutes of HIIT on an exercise bike (3 reps of 30 seconds of hard and fast pedalling, followed by 30 seconds of recovery) just once a week decreased insulin levels, increased metabolic rate, lowered blood pressure and promoted sustained fat-burning.” She recommends people try and do 3 minutes of HIIT every day focusing on using the big leg muscles (if you don’t have an exercise bike, try some squats); however, people with heart problems should seek medical advice first.
7. Watch your portion size Juicing is a worldwide phenomenon, but it also concentrates calories, making it easier to consume excessive carbohydrates. This isn’t good for your waistline or your heart. The George Institute for Global Health has found our portions are getting bigger, with pizza and cake being the worst offenders. “We had expected portion sizes to have grown but we were still surprised by just how much (66%),” commented Dr Miaobing Zheng.
8. Go nuts Nutrition Australia says that studies indicate eating a handful (about 30g) of nuts per day reduces the risk of developing heart disease by 30-50%, and the risk of death from heart disease by around 20%. Make sure the nuts are unsalted and either raw or dry-roasted.
9. Mediterranean is still the one The Mediterranean diet is still the go-to model for promoting heart health, energy and wellbeing. It’s high in fish and plant-based foods, uses antioxidant-rich herbs and spices, limits red meat and uses healthy fats (mostly from olive oil). Best of all, it includes red wine (in moderation).
10.Take care of your gut Dodsworth says when our gut bacteria are out of balance we are more prone to disease processes, including heart disease. Simple ways to cherish your gut include avoiding processed foods, reducing or eliminating sugar from your diet (it’s the best fertiliser and accelerator of pathogenic microbes around), and including fermented and fibre-rich foods.