The heart is an amazing organ. It beats about 100,000 times a day and circulates our six-ish quarts of blood through our bodies three times every minute. An adult heart is approximately the size of two fists and is central to our well-being and quality of life. When I ponder my heart and its health, it almost scares me because as important as the heart is, it is prone to a multitude of ailments such as angina, hypertension and heart attacks.
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of adults in this country, more than cancer or pitbulls. Therefore, heart health should be a serious concern.
Lifestyle choices go a long way in preventing or controlling cardiovascular disease. The following suggestions are probably familiar, but deserve mentioning. Avoid cigarette smoke. Both first-and second-hand smoke are damaging and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Eat right. Increase consumption of whole foods and avoid processed foods, particularly those high in hydrogenated oils. Exercise regularly. A walk a day will help maintain weight and cardiovascular health. Be aware. Get tested for high blood pressure and elevated levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and homocysteine, especially if heart disease runs on the family.
There are some natural things that can help specific risk conditions. Let's start with high cholesterol levels. High LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels have been linked in multiple studies as a risk factor in heart disease. Although diet will help lower cholesterol levels, several nutrients can be useful as well. Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) are known to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Since this nutrient is also an anti-inflammatory and provides so many other benefits, it's a no-brainer whether or not high LDL levels are a problem. Red Yeast Rice Extract (a traditional Chinese food and herbal remedy) has shown a promise for lowering cholesterol levels (and triglycerides levels as well). This nutrient inhibits HMG-CoA, the enzyme responsible for making cholesterol, and its chemical composition is similar to the "statin" drugs that are prescribed to treat high cholesterol. Policonsonol, a sugar cane derivative, is another nutrient with cholesterol lowering properties. And let's not forget the vitamins. Niacin is a B vitamin and the first vitamin to be recognized as having cholesterol-lowering properties. It's advisable to take a non-flush niacin, as regular niacin can produce uncomfortable facial and body flushing. Vitamin E is another vitamin associated with heart health. It is generally thought that vitamin E helps prevent LDL cholesterol from being damaged. LDL that's damaged is thought to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. A food that has been shown to lower cholesterol is soy protein, especially from fermented sources like tempeh and miso.
Another specific indicator of increased risk of heart disease (and strokes) is high blood pressure or hypertension. The causes of high blood pressure are not really known, but there are some natural substances that can help control this condition. Fish oils (omega-3s) can have a blood pressure lowering effect. Magnesium, calcium and potassium are minerals that are necessary for cellular and heart health. It has been shown that many people with high blood pressure also have a magnesium deficiency. Both potassium and calcium are recognized for their blood pressure-lowering qualities, but potassium supplements should not be taken if one is taking potassium-sparing diuretics. CoQ10 (coenzyme Q10) is an enzyme produced naturally by the body. It is a powerful anti-oxidant and free radical scavenger, and production of this enzyme slowly decreases with age. Several studies have found that CoQ10 significantly reduces hypertension. Good old vitamin C (with bioflavonoids) has been connected to lowered blood pressure and strengthened arterial walls. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling contended that high doses of vitamin C and lysine could prevent the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Garlic improves heart and blood vessel health and has a mild blood pressure and cholesterol lowering effect.
The last risk indicator I'll mention is homocysteine. Homocysteine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the blood. High levels of homocysteine have been linked to heart disease, strokes and other vascular problems. A Harvard researcher, Kilmer McCully, theorized many years ago that though high levels of cholesterol indicated a risk of heart disease, high levels of homocysteine actually indicated heart disease. Because the connection between homocysteine and heart disease has only recently been recognized, homocysteine is rarely tested for and should be requested. Low doses of folic acid, B6 and B12 have been shown to reduce homocysteine levels.
Space allows the discussion of only the preceding three heart risk factors, although there are many more and natural ways to treat them as well. Take the time to evaluate and decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease. Your life does depend on it.