Heart Your Heart
Your life could depend on it
by Wendy C. Smith
February is American Heart Month. The American Heart Association uses this symbolic designation of Valentine's Day, heart shapes and love to promote the importance of heart health. According to the association, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men in this country and, women as well. The worst thing about that statistic is that cardiovascular disease is the also the most preventable cause of death.
Most of us barely pause to think about our hearts. Yet the heart is at the core of our very well being. It beats around 100,000 times a day, every day of our lives, and circulates the blood throughout our entire body three times a minute. That's a big job for an organ the size of two fists. As important as the heart is, it's susceptible to a wide range of illnesses such as angina, hypertension and heart attacks. This grouping of diseases that affects the heart system (heart and blood vessels) is known as cardiovascular disease.
Luckily, there are things one can do to reduce the risk of heart disease. The most important thing is to maintain a heart healthy lifestyle. Lifestyle choices go a long way in preventing or controlling cardiovascular disease. These suggestions are probably familiar, but should be taken seriously.
Avoid first- and secondhand cigarette smoke. Both are damaging and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Eat right. Increase consumption of whole foods and avoid processed food, particularly those high in hydrogenated oils. Reduce consumption of animal fats. Exercise regularly. Even a walk a day will help maintain weight and cardiovascular health. Be aware of the body's signals. Get tested for high blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and homocysteine, especially if heart disease runs on the family.
If specific risk conditions exist, there are some supplements that can help. For example, one specific indicator of increased risk of heart disease (and strokes) is high blood pressure or hypertension. Some natural substances 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. People with high blood pressure commonly 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 a powerful anti-oxidant and free radical scavenger produced naturally by the body, although production decreases with age. Several studies have found that CoQ10 significantly reduces hypertension. Vitamin C (with bioflavonoids) has been connected to lowering blood pressure and strengthening arterial walls. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling contended that high doses of vitamin C and lysine could prevent the buildup of plaque. And garlic improves heart and blood vessel health and has a mild blood pressure and cholesterol lowering effect.
Another risk indicator is high LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) are known to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Since this nutrient is also an anti-inflammatory, it's a good supplement to take even if LDL levels are not a problem.
Red Yeast Rice Extract (a traditional Chinese food and herbal remedy) has shown a promise for lowering both 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 currently prescribed to treat high cholesterol. Policonsonol, a sugar cane derivative, is another nutrient with cholesterol lowering properties.
There are also two heart-healthy vitamins. Niacin is a B vitamin and the first vitamin to be recognized as having cholesterol-lowering properties. Non-flush niacin is generally recommended as regular niacin can produce uncomfortable facial and body flushing. Vitamin E is another vitamin associated with heart health. Additionally, soy protein (a food) has been shown to lower cholesterol, especially from fermented sources like tempeh and miso.
Homocysteine is yet another risk indicator. 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 McCulley, 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 levels are rarely tested (unlike cholesterol or triglycerides) and should be requested. Low doses of folic acid, B6 and B12 have been shown to reduce homocysteine levels.
There are many more risk factors and, happily, natural ways to treat them as well. Take the time to evaluate your risk of cardiovascular disease and make choices that support the health of your heart. Although love might be in the air, in the end your heart beats only for you. Take care of it.