new_health (2006-09)

State of the Heart

by Wendy C. Smith

Valentine’s Day is over, although we’re probably still gazing at wilting red roses and wondering how one little box of chocolates could cause all our clothes to shrink. By the time this article comes out, National Heart Month will be over too. But just because February has ended is no reason to forget about your achy-breaky heart.

As I mentioned in my last column, our hearts beat about 100,000 times a day every day of our lives, without resting. Of course, the space between beats is referred to as a rest, but that doesn’t seem like much of a rest when the heart’s purpose is to circulate all the blood in the body through the body over and over. Since cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of adults in this country, it is never wise to forget about heart health.

Lifestyle choices go a long way in preventing or controlling cardiovascular disease. In fact, lifestyle is the top preventative factor. “Lifestyle” includes exercise, making healthy choices about what to eat and drink and making healthy emotional choices.

Eat whole grains such as oats, millet, quinoa and brown rice. The fiber will help bind the cholesterol and carry it out of the body. Nix the margarine and other saturated fats to control cholesterol as well. Increase the use of mono-unsaturated fats such as olive oil. Use unprocessed, non-heated pressed oils whenever possible.

Increase consumption of almonds and walnuts. Studies have indicated that eating fresh nuts on a regular basis may help maintain cholesterol and that people who consume fresh nuts consistently are less likely to be overweight. Eat fresh fruit. Most fresh fruits are high in anti-oxidants, which reduce inflammation.

Remove as many processed carbohydrates from the diet as possible. Processed carbohydrates, which includes products made from white flour, boost triglyceride levels and probably cholesterol. Plus, processed carbohydrates contain not only very few nutrients, but they also substantially contribute to weight gain. Reduce sugars in the diet, especially white sugar and corn syrup. There are no heart healthy processed sugars and they are linked to obesity and the risk of type-2 diabetes.

Certain supplements can help maintain heart health. Vitamin E is probably the best-known heart healthy vitamin. It may reduce absorption of cholesterol and remove accumulated arterial plaque. For best absorption, take vitamin E with a meal that contains mono-unsaturated fats, as it is a fat-soluble vitamin.

The importance of Omega-3s cannot be understated in heart health and general well being. The anti-oxidant properties of Omega-3s reduce inflammation and improve brain health and skin. Take an iron-free multivitamin. These are probably the best alternative for most adults, except women during the years of menstruation. Women have lower levels of heart disease than men, until they hit menopause when the rates among the sexes even out. There is evidence that too much iron may produce free radicals and may increase the risk of heart disease.

Another preventative measure mentioned last week is to get tested for risk indicators such as high blood pressure and elevated levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and homocysteine, especially if heart disease runs in the family. Cholesterol and triglycerides are well-known risk indicators, but homocysteine is not. 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 is rarely tested for (unlike cholesterol or triglycerides) and should be requested. Low doses of folic acid, B6 and B12 have been shown to reduce homocysteine levels.

Lastly, keep your emotional and spiritual heart healthy. Clearing out resentments, grudges, stress and other emotional issues can give your life and heart a healthy boost. Learn to love and be loved in all aspects of life. Although heartache and heartbreak are unavoidable, hanging onto emotional baggage is just as unhealthy as eating junk food every day. Learning techniques to clean out the emotional residue and re-open the heart is one of the best things a person can do to keep their emotional, spiritual and physical heart strong and healthy.

National Heart Health Month might be over, but maybe 2006 should be healthy heart year. It’s never too early to evaluate and decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease. And it’s never too late to make changes that increase your heart’s health, and that includes addressing how you are feeling and thinking in matters of the heart.