Love your heart
The bad news is that heart disease is accelerating globally. The good news, however, is that there is so much you can do to reduce your risk.
Often mistakenly regarded as a disease mainly affecting men, it’s a sobering fact that coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and heart failure are the leading causes of death among women - and many of them are unaware of the magnitude of this threat. Prevention is the best medicine, with the most important modifiable risk factors being an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, smoking, and the harmful use of alcohol.
Over time, a high pressure lifestyle and poor diet can turn you into a ticking time bomb. There may be little warning that this silent disease has taken its toll. An acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) occurs when an artery supplying the heart becomes blocked. Warning signs are not always sudden or severe, and vary from person to person. The most common are pain or tightness in the chest, shoulder, neck, arm, jaw or back, nausea, dizziness, or a cold sweat. For women, the threat of a heart attack is even less obvious – they may only experience vague symptoms like fatigue, discomfort in the shoulder blades, and shortness of breath. Immediate medical attention is required if you or someone you are with experiences these warning signs.
1. Get clued about cholesterol
Cholesterol is usually discussed in the context of disease, but is, in fact, necessary for health. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is vital to build and repair cells; it is used to manufacture vitamin D and important hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone and cortisol; and it is essential for bile production, which is necessary for fat digestion and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
Cholesterol is also integral to brain health as it assists myelin synthesis. Myelin, a specialised fatty tissue, provides a covering or insulation for nerves. Myelin breakdown leads to cognitive decline, and interestingly, memory loss is one of the side effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs. The body generally makes all the cholesterol it requires in the liver. If levels get too low, critical body processes are impaired.
Sure, keeping cholesterol in check is important to reduce your cardiovascular risk. However, heart health experts look beyond cholesterol as a single indicator of risk. It has become clear that chronic inflammation plays a key role in cardiovascular health. Therefore, a blood test of the crucial inflammatory markers – C-reactive protein (CRP) and homocysteine - along with cholesterol ratio may provide a better assessment.
CRP is a marker of systemic inflammation. This compound is produced in the liver and concentrations rise when there is low level inflammation throughout the body. It is considered a predictor of heart disease risk. Lipoprotein (a) is also considered an inflammatory marker. This lipoprotein is carried in the bloodstream, bound predominantly to low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Increased concentrations raise coronary heart disease risk. Lipoprotein (a) is a major component of plaques found in blood vessels and a higher than normal value is strongly associated with plaque build-up.
Homocysteine is a third marker of inflammation. Too much homocysteine is related to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and fatty deposits in peripheral arteries. Triglyceride levels are routinely measured when you have a cholesterol test. These are harmful fats carried in the blood from the food we eat which increase heart disease risk. It may surprise you to hear that alcohol and foods high in sugar contribute significantly to raised triglycerides.
2. Add some C
Dr Linus Pauling is considered one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. He was a long time advocate of taking vitamin C to support cardiovascular health. His suggested dosages went way beyond the recommended daily intake (RDI) as he regarded atherosclerosis as a lifelong vitamin C deficiency. He believed lipoprotein (a) acts as a surrogate for vitamin C, serving to strengthen blood vessel walls in the absence of adequate amounts of this vitamin in the diet.10 Pauling was convinced high doses of vitamin C could inhibit formation of disease-causing plaques on blood vessel walls.
3. Lose it
A study in Nutrition says a holistic approach that shifts the focus from weight loss to health promotion may be the key to losing those extra kilos. Intuitive eating rather than strict dieting encourages an awareness of the body's response to food. This becomes a guide to making the connection between a healthy diet and improved wellbeing. Further, removing the stigma of being overweight and respect for body size diversity builds self esteem.
4. Check your thyroid
An abnormally slow heart rate may indicate a condition called sinus bradycardia. A normal heartbeat is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, a resting heartbeat of less than 60 beats per minute indicates sinus bradycardia. Aside from a slow heartbeat, other symptoms include dizziness, a racing heart, and shortness of breath. This heart condition is common when the thyroid is underactive and there are low levels of thyroid hormones to fire up the heart muscle.
5. Toss trans fatty acids
Manufactured trans fatty acids are considered the most harmful dietary fats, especially to heart health. These fats are formed when vegetable oils are hardened, a process called hydrogenation. There is compelling evidence that trans fatty acids increase the amount of unhealthy cholesterol in the blood and also decrease levels of protective high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Trans fats are found in fried foods, commercial baked goods (doughnuts, biscuits, cakes, chips, crackers), margarine and products that list ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oils’ as ingredients. In Australia and New Zealand it is not mandatory to declare trans fatty acids on food labels.
6. Keep active every day
A new Australian study published in Circulation compared people who watched less than two hours of television compared to those who sat in front of the television for more than four hours a day. They found the avid television viewers were 80 percent more likely to die for reasons linked to heart disease than those who watched less. The researchers warned it was not just the television addicts whose lifestyles put them in danger - any prolonged sedentary behaviour, such as sitting at an office desk or in front of a computer, posed similar risks. The bottom line? Find enjoyable ways to keep active.
7. Maintain healthy teeth and gums
Chronic gum disease may increase the likelihood of heart disease. Why? It seems bacteria associated with gum infections can be released into the bloodstream. Once these pathogens gain a foothold, they trigger a chronic low grade inflammatory response. This can include endocarditis, or inflammation of the heart lining. In addition, if you have toothache, bleeding or swollen gums, you may avoid foods that are harder to chew. This can lead to less fruit and vegetable intake and the temptation to go for softer processed foods that are high in fat and calories, creating additional problems with weight gain.
8. Quit smoking
For women, smoking is the primary cause of cardiovascular disease. Worse, women are more susceptible to the harmful effects of smoking. Women who smoke three to five cigarettes a day double their risk of heart attack, compared to men who double their risk when they smoke six to nine cigarettes a day. Despite the clear message that cigarettes contain a multitude of toxic compounds, more women than men are taking up this addictive and harmful habit.
9. Look into your eyes
Did you know a common eye condition may predict elevated cholesterol? Arcus senilis occurs when cholesterol deposits form a white opaque ring around the periphery of the iris, the coloured part of the eye. These ‘cholesterol rings’ do not interfere with vision, but may indicate elevated cholesterol, and are most commonly seen in older adults. Arcus senilis may also be linked to brain fatigue and accelerated brain stress.
10. Keep your heart joyful
A recent large study published in the European Heart Journal found emotions such as joy, enthusiasm and contentment are protective factors against heart disease. On the other side of the coin, research consistently shows people who experience depression or social isolation are at greater risk of developing heart disease.16 Exercise, meditation and yoga are powerful ways to enhance your mind-body balance. To get out of the house, try new social events, or volunteer for a local charity. You'll meet new people and feel you are making a difference.
11. Feed your heart
* B-group vitamins support energy metabolism and help the nervous system function efficiently. Folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 are particularly important, as they work hand-in-hand to keep homocysteine in check.
* Chlorella (Chlorella vulgaris) and coriander (Coriandrum sativum) have powerful detoxifying properties and are often used together to clear heavy metals. Greater production of cholesterol may be the body’s protective mechanism against environmental toxins, particularly heavy metals.
* Coenzyme Q10 (coQ10) helps the heart to fire on all cylinders. However, synthesis declines with advancing age. This heart-healthy nutrient is vital if you are taking a statin medication to lower cholesterol. It is well accepted these drugs severely deplete coQ10 levels.
* Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a supreme cardiotonic, as it supports healthy functioning of the heart muscle, helps maintain healthy blood pressure, and is used to address a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, and heart failure.
* L-arginine is an amino acid used by the body to produce nitric oxide (NO). NO relaxes blood vessels to allow for improved blood flow. Boosting NO may benefit those with raised blood pressure or a family history of heart disease. Note: it should be used in caution with people with active herpes simplex virus.
* Pomegranate (Punica granatum) is a remarkable superfood that protects endothelial health. Endothelial cells line the inside of arteries and when they are healthy, the artery is healthy. Adding the juice or fruit to your diet may offer remarkable cardiovascular benefits to guard against premature ageing of the vascular system.