The Beat Goes On
The human heart beats up to 100,000 times a day in order to deliver between 2,500 and 5,000 gallons of blood through 60,000 miles of blood vessels. It is easy to see the importance of a healthy heart and wise to try to support it in its efforts.
The problem is that most people do not worry enough about heart health, not believing that what they are eating, drinking and doing has any significant effect on the cardiovascular system. Heart disease is a big killer in this country, one that should and could be prevented.
When talking about heart disease, a common complaint is arteriosclerosis – hardening of the arteries. These arteries are vital as they supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients. In arteriosclerosis, these arteries lose their elasticity due to thickening and calcification. Another problem is atheroma where a build up of plaque, containing cholesterol and fatty materials, blocks the artery. Atherosclerosis gives you the worst of both worlds, as plaque is accompanied by narrowing and hardening of the arteries.
Cholesterol: Elevated cholesterol levels are the best known causative factors for heart disease, along with high blood pressure. There are two basic types of cholesterol: LDL, which carries fats from the liver to the other cells of the body, and HDL, which transports fats back to the liver. LDL is known as the bad cholesterol, whilst high levels of HDL are linked to a decreased risk of heart disease.
High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and one of the biggest for a stroke. The condition can also be caused by the onset of heart disease – as the plaque builds on the artery walls and the space for the blood to move through thins, the blood pressure has to exert a greater force to move all the blood along.
Diabetes: A diabetic has an increased risk of heart disease. It is therefore of even greater importance for diabetic individuals to reduce the risk factors linked with heart attacks and strokes.
Lifestyle Factors: Smoking is the first big lifestyle factor. According to the US Surgeon General ‘smoking should be considered the most important factor for coronary heart disease’. It is always sensible to try and stop this habit, but especially so if at risk of heart disease.
Regular exercise is important as it can help to lower cholesterol levels, improve blood and oxygen supply to the heart and reduce blood pressure and obesity. If you already suffer from heart disease, then it can still play an important role in your health, but no exercise programme should be embarked upon without proper consultations with your doctor and a qualified instructor.
Stress should also be addressed; this plays a large role in high blood pressure. Several studies have shown a positive link between job pressure and the development of high blood pressure. Trying some stress management techniques and herbs such as Valerian – a herbal ‘tranquilliser’- will be helpful.
Weight should also be addressed; obesity is a contributing factor in the development of high blood pressure and heart disease.
It is important to avoid certain types of fat – saturated and hydrogenated. Saturated fats are mainly from animal sources and include beef, lamb, pork, poultry, cheese, butter, ice cream and most other dairy foods. Hydrogenated fats are plant fats which have had hydrogen pumped through them in order to make them more solid. This is a process often used in margarine making, so check your labels.
These fats have been found to contribute to the build up of LDL cholesterol and to the damage to artery walls.
Some fats are good for heart disease, however. They are known as omega 3 essential fatty acids. These fats actually help to lower LDL and increase levels of HDL – the good cholesterol. These fats come from oily fish such as salmon, tuna and trout. Vegetarian sources include linseed/flax seeds and pumpkin seeds. These foods should all be increased to improve heart health.
High sodium (salt) intake is a big factor in high blood pressure. Those with a problem should cut salt out altogether. When doing this it is important to read the packaging on prepacked foods as they will often have salt added. The problem with salt is made worse when combined with a poor intake of potassium rich foods. Good sources of potassium include most fruits – bananas are good, as are beans and vegetables. Ensuring the recommended daily intake of five portions of fruit and vegetables is important.
Caffeine should also be eliminated as far as possible: it increases stress levels and has been found to have a negative effect on blood pressure.
Supplements and Herbs
On top of dietary and lifestyle measures there are supplements and herbs that can help. Remember, however, that it is foolish to embark on self medication if you have a heart condition, without first properly discussing it with your practitioner.
Vitamin E. There have been a number of studies done which show the effectiveness of vitamin E in preventing heart attacks. Low levels of vitamin E in the system are said to be more important in the development of heart disease than high blood pressure and cholesterol together. One study looking at 87,245 nurses concluded that the nurses who took just 100iu of vitamin E daily for more than two years had a 41% lower risk of heart disease than the non users.
Vitamin C. Firstly vitamin C helps to ‘recycle’ vitamin E in the body, thereby increasing its effectiveness. Vitamin C also helps to strengthen the structures of the arteries themselves to prevent any damage, to lower cholesterol, to reduce blood pressure and to raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
Hawthorn (Crataegus). This herb has been used for many years as a heart tonic. It has shown the ability to improve the pumping action of the heart by increasing blood flow through the arteries. It achieves this through its flavonoid content. These flavonoids have a dilatory effect on the heart vessels – widening them to make blood flow easier. This in turn would reduce problems such as high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis and reduce the risk of heart attack.
Garlic has been shown to have a significant action in lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL. It has also been shown to be effective at reducing high blood pressure and has an antioxidant effect – protecting the cells in the body against damage. It will also support the action of nutrients such as vitamin E.
Note: If you are suffering from or believe you may be suffering from heart disease, do not embark on any supplements or herbs without discussing them fully with your medical practitioner first.