It’s February and love is in the air. It’s the perfect month to think about hearts – specifically heart health. February is Heart Health Month and what better time to think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from heart disease?
Cardiovascular disease takes more lives each year than all other forms of cancer combined. The statistics tell us that every 60 seconds, someone dies from a heart disease-related event. It is clearly one of the most pressing health concerns of our time. But here’s the good news – there are many effective lifestyle changes that can help to prevent heart disease. In light of the fact that many commonly prescribed medications related to heart health are associated with negative side effects (ie. statins, beta-blockers), maybe it’s time to consider that prevention really is the best form of medicine.
Slash Your Risk by 80% with These 5 Lifestyle Factors
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology a few years ago identified five lifestyle factors in men that prevented 80% of myocardial infarctions (heart attacks). The study gained a lot of credibility because it followed 20,000 men over the course of 12 years. Unfortunately, the researchers also found that only 1% of men practiced all five of these lifestyle factors. Hopefully this percentage is going up as the outcomes of this study reach more of the public. Even though this particular research was done in men, women can benefit from these practices as well. Here are the five take-aways that you can implement in your own life to reduce the risk of heart disease.
1. Eat a heart-healthy diet
What does a heart-healthy diet look like? There is much debate and confusion out there surrounding how to eat for optimal health. In this particular study, the Recommended Food Score was used, which is a questionnaire developed using current dietary guidelines and specific foods known to have benefits for the heart. A good score was obtained by those who regularly included fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, legumes, nuts, fish, and lean meats in their diet. This is often referred to as a Mediterranean-type diet and includes an emphasis on mono- and polyunsaturated fats over saturated fats. These types of fats are found in foods like olive oil, avocado, fish, nuts, and seeds. More recently, research has uncovered that sugars and processed grains are more of a concern than saturated fats. It may be that the positive findings regarding the Mediterranean diet have more to do with the inclusion of generous amounts of these unsaturated fats, vegetables, fruits, etc. rather than the minimization of saturated fats.
2. Stay active
This portion of the study defined staying active as walking or bicycling at least 40 minutes per day and exercising at least 60 minutes per week. Some health and wellness experts recommend incorporating a combination of high intensity interval training, strength training, stretching, and core training for optimal fitness that can provide a wide range of health benefits in addition to heart disease prevention. More recently, prolonged sitting has been shown to have concerning effects on health, even among those who exercise regularly. The meta-analysis showed that sitting over half your waking hours significantly increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and even mortality. Taking frequent breaks or working at a standing desk are a few simple ways to stay active in a way that works independently from exercise but that will likely have just as positive an impact on your health.
3. Measure your waistline
The well-known heart protective effects of minimizing belly fat was demonstrated in this study using waist circumference. Men with a waist measuring less than 95 cm (37.4 in.) were included in the low risk group for that variable. Belly fat is known as visceral fat. This type of fat has been strongly linked with heart disease and diabetes because of its proximity to internal organs such as the heart. According to the Heart Foundation, men with a waist circumference greater than 37 inches and women with a waist circumference greater than 31.5 inches have an increased risk of heart disease.
4. Quit smoking
Being a non-smoker was yet another lifestyle factor that significantly reduced the risk of heart attacks in combination with the other factors. Now that the cancer-smoking link is common knowledge, this study adds to the mountains of evidence on the other devastating health effects of smoking. While it can be difficult to quit due to the addictive nature of nicotine, there are many programs, support groups, and medications now available to help people kick the habit.
5. Limit your alcohol intake
The low risk group for alcohol intake were those who drank between 10 and 30 grams per day (1-3 drinks), which is considered moderate consumption. Keep in mind that the moderate consumption was in the context of the other positive lifestyle factors. While certain alcoholic beverages may have health benefits (ie. antioxidants in red wine), low to no alcohol consumption is still preferable if you are aiming for optimal health. Alcohol is damaging to the liver, a quickly absorbed form of dietary sugars, and can be addictive, just to name a few.
Reduce Inflammation by Grounding
Inflammation is a buzz word in health these days and with good reason. Chronic, low grade inflammation has now been linked to just about every chronic health condition. The field of cardiology is no exception. Research has consistently shown a link between markers of inflammation and risk of future cardiac events. One such marker is C-reactive protein (CRP). You can be proactive about your heart health by requesting that your physician test your CRP levels. A result less than 1 indicates low risk, with 1-3 showing moderate risk and greater than 3 high risk. A healthy diet is one of the best ways to maintain healthy inflammation levels. Another lesser known method of reducing systemic inflammation is the practice of grounding, also known as “earthing.” The anti-inflammatory and blood-thinning effects of walking barefoot outdoors has been documented using blood markers and imaging techniques. It is thought that the negatively charged electrons on the earth’s surface act as antioxidants in the body, neutralizing free radicals.
Don’t Forget Stress Reduction and Supplements
According to a new study in Lancet, the amygdala may be the missing link between stress and heart disease risk. Stress increases activity in this part of the brain, which was shown to be highly predictive of future cardiac events. There are many activities known to reduce stress, such as yoga, social interaction, and taking a vacation. One therapy which has been shown to be very effective at reversing the physiological effects of stress on the body is called Emotional Freedom Technique, sometimes known as “tapping.” There are variations of this technique, which can be performed at home or through a health professional. And finally, dietary supplements are often an effective and safe option for preventing heart disease. Here are some nutrients, herbs, and spices most commonly recommended by cardiologists and integrative healthcare practitioners:
It is always good idea to be cautious about taking new supplements by first talking with a professional, particularly if you are on medications. They can help guide you on which supplement(s) would be most helpful in targeting specific health markers that apply to you. However, adding these herbs and spices (ie. ginger, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon) to your cooking is a safe and easy way to start benefiting from the heart healthy compounds they contain. Take the time to share this information with your friends and family during Heart Health Month. You may help save a life!