Your heart is an amazing organ. It contacts and relaxes around 70 times a minute, 100,800 times per day and over 2.76 billion times during an average lifespan to keep blood flowing round your body. If you look after your heart, it can carry on beating significantly longer, but fail to pay attention to your diet and lifestyle and your heart may fail prematurely, too.
Nutrition is key
Because heart muscle contracts regularly, it needs a ready supply of oxygen, glucose and other nutrients. If this supply fails, due to narrowed or blocked arteries, you will experience heart muscle pain known as angina. If the blood supply to your heart is compromised more severely, for example by a blood clot or arterial spasm, then a heart attack occurs as heart muscle cells die.
Other age-related problems include heart failure when weakened muscle no longer pumps efficiently, and valvular heart disease in which damaged heart valves either fail to open properly (stenosis), fail to close properly (incompetence) or both. Both problems interfere with blood circulation, so that excess fluid pools in the ankles (causing swelling) or lungs (breathlessness) or both.
Reducing the risk
Most heart problems are linked with an unhealthy diet containing too many processed foods, excess refined carbohydrates (especially sugar and white flour), and not enough wholegrains, fruit and vegetables. Concentrate on obtaining whole-foods and beneficial fats such as fish, olive, rapeseed and walnut oils, while cutting back on processed foods such as donuts, cakes, biscuits. Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables daily, and cultivate a love for the humble yet antioxidant-rich cup of tea.
You can also reduce your risk of heart disease by:
- Not smoking – smokers are five times more likely to have a heart attack in their 30s and 40s than non-smokers, and three times more likely to have one over all
- Losing any excess weight especially the ‘menopot’ around your waist
- Exercising regularly for at least 30 minutes, on most days
- Keeping your alcohol intake within recommended safe limits
- Cutting back on salt intake – don’t add salt during cooking or at the table, and compare labels to select products with the lowest content of salt/sodium chloride
- Avoiding excess stress, which increases your blood pressure by an amount equivalent to carrying an extra 20kg in weight, or an additional 20 years in age
- Knowing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Maintaining tight control of heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and raised cholesterol (through diet, lifestyle and any necessary prescribed medication)
While diet should always come first, certain food supplements have a beneficial effect on the heart and circulation.
Omega 3-rich fish oils can have a thinning effect on the blood, lower blood pressure and reduce abnormal heartbeat rhythms. If you suffer from heart disease it can reduce your risk of sudden death by 40 to 45%.
As well as containing DHA and EPA, krill oil contains two powerful antioxidants, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin – these are best known as the pigments which give flamingos their attractive pink plumage. Taking krill oil supplements (1g per day for 12 weeks) can lower ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol by 32% and triglycerides by 11% while raising ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol which protects against heart disease by 44%. These are exactly the sort of changes needed to improve heart and circulatory health. In addition, krill oil reduces blood glucose levels by 6%. Try Healthspan Super Strength Krill Oil, 1,200mg 60 capsules £29.95
Garlic improves arterial elasticity and blood flow. Garlic also dilates small arteries and small veins to lower blood pressure and improve the circulation.
Statin drugs are widely prescribed to lower cholesterol levels. They act on the liver to reduce the synthesis of cholesterol and also reduce cell production of co-enzyme Q10. Taking a statin can halve circulating levels of co-enzyme Q10 within just 2 weeks which may contribute to the muscle-related side effects some people experience when taking a statin. Taking co-enzyme Q10 supplements (eg ubiquinol 100mg or ubiquinone 200mg) helps to maintain blood levels of this important muscle nutrient without affecting the cholesterol-lowering action of statin drugs.
Effectively lower a raised cholesterol level. In fact, adding sterols to statin medication is more effective than doubling the statin dose.
Magnesium is needed for over 300 body enzymes to work properly and is essential for heart muscle contraction, maintaining a normal heart rhythm and to regulate blood pressure. Lack of magnesium can cause spasm of coronary arteries (linked with angina or heart attack) and potentially dangerous abnormal heart rhythms. These effects seem to be more pronounced during times of stress.
Folic acid, B Vitamins
Folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 are needed to lower blood levels of a harmful amino acid, homocysteine, which can damage artery linings if levels are raised. The Nurses' Health Study, for example, involving over 80,000 women found that women with the highest intakes of folate were 45% less likely to have a heart attack than those with the lowest intakes. B vitamins are widely included in supplements designed for heart health.
Always check with your GP before taking any supplements if you are on medication.
Visit British Heart Foundation for further information on heart health and how you can help reduce your risks.
You can follow Sarah's Nutritional Medicine blog at DrSarahBrewer.com, her nutritional tweets @DrSarahB and her health, weight and fitness tweets @DrSarahBHealthy.Last modified: June 10, 2021