The building blocks to a healthier heart and longer life.
Perhaps no other organ gets as much attention as the heart, and for good reason: cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 31% of deaths. Each year, about one in every four adult deaths in the U.S. is due to cardiovascular disease (CVD). This equates to one death every 34 seconds. It is also a major cause of disability. The good news is that there are lots of natural strategies to promote heart health to prevent these outcomes.
Heart health is a vast topic that can, and has, filled volumes. In this article we will try to hit the highlights, focusing on evidence-based natural medicines and techniques that you can use to support a healthy heart and circulatory system.
Atherosclerosis is a narrowing and hardening of the arteries due to the accumulation of plaque. This can occur anywhere in the body, but when it affects arteries supplying blood to the heart, it is called coronary artery disease (CAD), which is the most common type of heart disease. The underlying cause for all heart disease is dysfunction of the endothelial cells that line the inside of arteries. When these cells do not function properly, plaque builds up and hardens, narrowing the artery. As atherosclerosis progresses, sections of plaque can rupture or break off causing a blood clot, which can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. More than 20 million Americans have CAD, and someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds, totaling more than 800,000 heart attacks per year.
Who is at risk for developing heart disease? Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for heart disease (see our previous coverage about lowering blood pressure naturally for more on this topic). Diabetes, obesity/being overweight, poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and excessive alcohol use are other risk factors.
High cholesterol has traditionally been considered a risk factor, but this has been disproven in more recent research. Half of people who have had heart attacks had normal cholesterol, and low cholesterol has been linked with bad health outcomes like cognitive decline. As we’ve noted previously, cholesterol isn’t the ticking time bomb most people have been led to think. Dr. Harlan Krumholz of Yale’s Department of Cardiovascular Medicine found that old people with low cholesterol died twice as often from a heart attack as did old people with high cholesterol. A review of nineteen large studies of more than 68,000 deaths by the Division of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota found that low cholesterol predicted an increased risk of dying from gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases. This is part of the reason that the conventional model fails at stemming the tide of heart disease: cholesterol-lowering drugs like statins do not get to the root cause of the problem and come with an array of nasty side effects to boot.
The numbers on heart disease are scary, but the good news is that a healthy lifestyle makes a significant difference when it comes to lowering risk. The Nurse’s Health Study, a long-term prospective cohort study, suggested that consistently following a healthy lifestyle could prevent 82 percent of coronary artery events. The INTERHEART Study that spanned 52 countries found that 92 percent of heart attacks could be prevented through changes in lifestyle.
Lifestyle changes that can help lower heart disease risk include exercise, diet, and supplementation.
Exercise. Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger. A stronger heart can pump more blood with less effort, so the force on your arteries decreases. The standard recommendation is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (like walking at a brisk pace), 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity like running, and one or two strength training sessions per week. Recent research has shown that even short bouts of exercise can have enormous heart benefits: one study found that those who engaged in one or two-minute bursts of exercise three times a day (speed walking, rapidly climbing stairs, etc.) showed a 50 percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality risk. The moral of the story: get moving!
Diet. Numerous studies have shown that diets like the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on lots of healthy fats like olive oil, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and legumes, prevent heart disease and stroke. Diets high in refined sugar and starches, like the standard American diet, pave the way to obesity, a known risk factor for heart disease. Studies have shown that a sugar-laden diet increases your risk of dying of heart disease even if you aren’t overweight. A one-point rise in your A1c, the blood test that measures blood sugar levels over time, can increase cardiovascular disease risk by 18 percent. Why? Insulin resistance raises blood sugar levels, and high blood sugar leads to inflammation, which damages the lining of the arteries.
The DASH diet gets a lot of attention for being heart healthy, but there are some serious deficiencies with this diet. Most crucially, DASH is a low-fat diet, relying on the fallacy that fat restriction will lead to weight loss and thus a reduction in cardiovascular risk. A recent scientific review, for example, showed that various foods including full-fat dairy milk, yogurt, butter, cheeses, and cream were not found to increase heart disease risk. The latest studies also exonerate animal fat as the culprit in heart disease.
We also reported recently on intermittent fasting and its benefits for heart health. Relatedly, portion size is something to pay attention to. Overeating, and the large portion sizes that are common at many restaurants, can lead to weight gain which, of course, affects heart disease risk.
The bottom line: cholesterol and fat are not the dietary bogeyman they were once thought to be, and a heart healthy diet emphasizes plenty of vegetables, protein, healthy fats, and avoids sugar and carbohydrate-laden foods. For a great starting point, check out the Food4Health Plate created by our colleagues at ANH-International.
Environmental Exposures. Exposure to air pollution, lead, arsenic, and cadmium have been linked with multiple cardiovascular disease outcomes. Soil polluted with heavy metals, pesticides, and plastics can also lead to heart disease. These exposures cause inflammation and increase oxidative stress in the blood vessels. Detoxification can be a useful tool to combat these exposures. In fact, the TACT Trial found that chelation with disodium EDTA reduced adverse cardiovascular outcomes in patients who had a history of heart attacks.
Nutrients. A variety of nutrients and supplements can help support a healthy heart. Numerous studies have linked increased dietary fiber intake with a reduced risk of atherosclerosis. Polyphenols found in tea, vegetables, fruits also fight atherosclerosis by inhibiting blood clot formation. Resveratrol (found in grapes, berries, and peanuts) and quercetin (found in apples, onions, cherries, and grapes) are two better-known polyphenols with known heart-health benefits. Vitamins B, C, E, and K are also key to heart health. Vitamin K helps maintain healthy calcium balance in the arteries and bones. Note that calcium supplementation may raise heart disease risk, but taking vitamin K2 with calcium mitigates this risk because vitamin K directs the calcium to where it should be, and prevents it from going where it shouldn’t. Vitamin C improves endothelial function. Vitamin E helps exert control over the atherosclerotic process by regulating microRNA.
CoQ10 is a key heart health supplement—first, because CoQ10 deficiency is associated with increased CVD risk and because statins, a common heart disease medication, lowers CoQ10 levels in the body. A review of studies found that CoQ10 supplementation improved endothelial function in patients with known atherosclerosis or significant risk factors for atherosclerosis. We noted in our article on genetics that people with certain SNPs may require additional CoQ10. CoQ10 is fat soluble so is best absorbed when taken with fat in a meal.
As we noted in previous coverage, magnesium can help lower hypertension, despite the FDA’s absurd declaration that the evidence is “inconsistent and inconclusive.” Magnesium plays many more important roles in heart health, including in improving endothelial function. There are several nutrient interactions with magnesium to be aware of. High doses of supplemental zinc, for example, can interfere with the absorption of magnesium, while vitamin D increases the body’s absorption of magnesium.
The late Stephen Sinatra, MD, a pioneer in integrative heart health, swore by supplements like CoQ10, magnesium, vitamin K2, d-ribose, omega-3s, and carnitine.
Sodium and potassium also play an interdependent important role in regulating blood pressure and promoting a healthy heart. Eating less salty foods and more potassium-rich foods (spinach, broccoli, squash, avocado, bananas, and legumes) may significantly lower CVD risk. Eating a lot of sodium-rich foods (like many processed foods) and not getting enough potassium increases CVD risk.
Some supplements (like garlic, black cohosh, hawthorn, and others) have been found affect the metabolism of heart medications, so caution is necessary; please consult with your physician before deciding on a supplement regimen.
Inflammation. Anything that can be done to reduce chronic inflammation in the body is helpful for preventing the development of heart disease. We devoted an entire article to inflammation, so be sure to check that out for natural strategies to target inflammation. A common culprit in inflammation that leads to bigger problems like heart disease is the mouth: flossing, for example, has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks. This is because bacteria from the mouth, if left unchecked, can get into the bloodstream and cause chronic inflammation.
Stress. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, an important risk factor for heart disease. Incorporating practices like acupuncture, Tai Chi, meditation, and yoga into your life have all been linked to lower blood pressure. When under stress, the body produces hormones like adrenaline that make your heart beat faster and your blood vessels narrow—this is the fight or flight response. Narrower blood vessels can lead to high blood pressure. Strategies to reduce or manage stress, then, help lower blood pressure and protect us from heart disease.
It’s a tragedy that a disease so preventable and amenable to lifestyle changes is ravaging our country. Government policies that subsidize the junk food industry are certainly not helping. We need a major shift to a regenerative model of health and agriculture, where healthy, nutritious food serves as the springboard for a longer, healthier life.