BY TRACY McCUBBIN, MD, ABOIM, ABEM
Why do we observe American Heart Month every February? Perhaps because it coincides with Valentine’s Day and it has been designated the month all about hearts? Or is it because every year more than 600,000 Americans die from heart disease? Heart disease affects all ages, genders and ethnicities. Some risk factors include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and excessive alcohol use.
Genetics also play a role in this disease process. I have a personal interest in maintaining a healthy heart since my grandfather had a heart attack at 52 and then his daughter (my mother) had a heart attack at 52. However, your genetics are not the end of the story! Environmental influences can make a big impact. I want to share with you some tips to keep your heart in tip-top shape.
You can take an active role in reducing your risk for heart disease by engaging in regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet and managing your stress? Heart disease occurs when the arteries leading to the heart become clogged. Although heart disease has been around for thousands of years, we do know that many aspects of modern life exacerbate risk factors and make people more prone to heart disease. Today, one of four deaths in the US is attributable to heart disease. Heart disease can affect everyone, but taking stock of your health risks, activities and diet can help you reduce your risk.
I want to share with you some tips to keep your heart in tip-top shape.
Move your body:
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week. Exercise is one of the best things you can do to protect your heart and your blood vessels.
When it comes to heart health, everyone thinks “cardio” is the form of exercise with the biggest bang for the buck. However, yoga, the gentle practice of movement to breath, also packs a powerful punch in the fight against heart disease.
There is good evidence dating back to 1990 that a lifestyle that includes yoga as one of its four key components (along with a low-fat vegetarian diet, moderate exercise, and the maintenance of loving, supportive relationships) can actually shrink blockages in arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart, without the use of medication.
According to US News and World Report, the gold medal for best 2021 diet went to the Mediterranean diet for the fourth year in a row. It is not really a diet per se but a style of eating which focuses on meals full of fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Fish and poultry are encouraged with small amounts of dairy, red wine and chocolate! By eating in this anti-inflammatory way, you reduce or eliminate processed food. Processed food is often unhealthy as it contains additives and preservatives, chemicals that your body does not need.
The Mediterranean Diet also encourages eating with friends and family, socializing over meals, mindfully eating your favorite foods, as well as mindful movement and exercise for a complete healthy lifestyle.
Since the late 1970s, hundreds of studies have supported a link between omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and a lower rate of heart attacks and related problems. The best-known omega-3s — found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, and mackerel — are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Based on recent studies, eating fish is more beneficial than supplementing with a fish oil.
Just one salmon dinner and a tuna sandwich for one lunch over the course of a week is enough to meet the AHA’s recommendation to eat two weekly servings of fish. (A serving is 3.5 ounces, or about 3/4 cup of flaked fish.)
Sometimes you feel like a nut:
And that is a good thing! Consuming nuts lowers your risk of heart disease! Researchers published a study on this topic in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2017. Those that consumed nuts 5x per week or more had a 23% lower risk of heart disease than those who rarely or never at nuts. Walnuts seem to be the best choice. However, all nuts showed benefit.
Selectively indulge your sweet tooth
Dark chocolate not only tastes delicious, it also contains heart-healthy flavonoids. These compounds help reduce inflammation and lower your risk of heart disease, suggest scientists in the journal Nutrients. Eaten in moderation, dark chocolate — not oversweetened milk chocolate — can actually be good for you. The next time you want to indulge your sweet tooth, sink it into a square or two of dark chocolate. No guilt required.
What do I drink?
Well, if you drink one or more diet sodas a day, your chances of having a heart attack are 43% higher than those who drink regular soda or no soda at all.
Moderate consumption of alcohol can help raise your levels of HDL, or good cholesterol. It can also help prevent blood clot formation and artery damage. According to the Mayo Clinic, red wine in particular may offer benefits for your heart. A compound called resveratrol is responsible and Pinot Noir generally has the highest resveratrol content. That doesn’t mean you should guzzle it at every meal. The key is 2-3 glasses per week. Men benefit more from this strategy than women.
Remember to brush your teeth
Good oral hygiene does more than keep your teeth white and glistening. According to the Cleveland Clinic, research suggests that the bacteria that cause gum disease can also raise your risk of heart disease. It is important to brush twice daily. And remember to floss, daily. Keeping your gums in good condition is part of this important equation.
And speaking of Valentine’s Day…
I have some great news: having sex can be good for your heart. Sexual activity may add more than just pleasure to your life. It may also help lower your blood pressure and risk of heart disease. Research shows that a lower frequency of sexual activity is associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease.
We hope you have a fun and heart-healthy Valentine’s Day!