Here’s a sobering statistic: Every 34 seconds, someone in the United States will experience a heart attack or other serious heart-related event. And approximately one person will die from one of these events every minute, making it the leading cause of death in America. (15) That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is compelling scientific evidence suggesting that giving your cardiovascular system the nutrients it needs can improve your heart health and prevent cardiovascular-related health concerns.
How to improve heart health
Your heart is the hardest working organ in your body and it’s the centerpiece of your cardiovascular system. Thanks to its pumping action, a healthy heart constantly circulates blood throughout the body, carrying oxygen and nutrients to your organs and tissues via a series of arteries. When everything’s working correctly, the heart is like a high-performance machine. Unfortunately, there are a number of things that can undermine heart health. Some, like advancing age or a family history of heart disease, are beyond your control. But there are other modifiable risk factors, including high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, being overweight or obese, or being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. (23) However, it’s often your daily habits that can have the greatest influence on your heart health. While some habits, such as smoking, being physically inactive, overindulging in alcohol, or experiencing chronic stress, are well-known enemies of a healthy heart, the most common threat to cardiovascular health is the all-American diet filled with processed foods. (9)(11)
Build a heart-healthy diet
Being mindful about what you eat is one of the most important ways to support a healthy heart. Research confirms that people with a history of heart disease who eat a healthy diet composed of whole foods significantly lowered their risk of a heart attack compared to those eating a diet filled with nutritionally void processed foods. (6) Those processed foods—prevalent in Western diets—are high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, and unhealthy fats. Research published in the journal Nutrients shows that these foods can increase your risk of developing heart disease by up to 20%. (27)So what are the best foods for heart health? Here’s your go-to shopping list:
Adding plenty of colorful, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to your meals has been shown to reduce both oxidative stress and inflammation—two enemies of healthy arteries. (4) When shopping for produce, consider buying organic whenever possible. While it costs a bit more, a study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organically grown fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of heart-healthy antioxidants than conventional produce. (5)
2. Dairy products
Skip the low-fat and fat-free items and go for full-fat dairy. New research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that people who ate full-fat dairy had a 42% lower risk of cardiovascular death—including death from stroke—than those who ate the least. (10)
New findings in the journal Heart show that eating an egg every day reduced the risk of stroke by 26% and the odds of dying from any type of heart-related event by 18%. (25) Further increase your nutrient intake by opting for omega-3 fortified eggs and adding a couple of handfuls of veggies to the pan.
Contrary to popular belief, a diet that includes lean red meat can actually be good for your heart. While poultry is a good source of protein, recent research suggests that eating lean grass-fed red meat on a regular basis can lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels while also reducing blood pressure. (24) Lean cuts of grass-fed beef are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, niacin, zinc, and iron. (21)
Cold-water fish is an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. According to the American Heart Association, eating fatty fish once or twice per week can lower the overall risk of cardiovascular disease. (26) Some fish, such as shark and swordfish, contain high levels of mercury, which can be harmful to the brain and nervous system. Instead, look for low mercury varieties like rainbow trout, wild Alaskan or Pacific salmon, and sardines. (28)
6. Healthy fats
Not all fats are bad for heart health. In fact, some are essential! While extra-virgin olive oil is well known for its cardiovascular benefits, avocado oil’s cholesterol balancing and anti-inflammatory properties make it another heart-healthy fat. (8) Even though it’s high in saturated fat, new evidence shows that coconut oil can also be a beneficial addition to your diet thanks to its ability to raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, commonly referred to as the “good” cholesterol. (18)
7. Grains, beans, and nuts
According to the American Heart Association, whole grains and beans are heart-healthy sources of fiber that can improve cholesterol levels and reduce the overall risk of cardiovascular disease. (2)(3) Research also suggests that enjoying a handful of nuts at least five times per week can lower the overall risk of heart disease by 14% and the risk of coronary heart disease by 20%. (16)
Consider heart health supplements
In some cases, it’s not always possible to get all the heart-healthy nutrients you need from diet alone. For extra support and with guidance from your integrative healthcare practitioner, consider the following five supplements, which have been shown to support a healthy cardiovascular system.
1. Aged garlic extract
Aged garlic extract has been clinically shown to reduce inflammation, improve your antioxidant status, keep arteries flexible, decrease cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure. (16)(30) Research also shows that aged garlic extract can reduce the buildup of both unstable plaque and calcium deposits that can reduce blood flow in your arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. (7)(22)
2. Coenzyme Q10
With anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) provides energy to heart cells and protects them from free radical damage. (14)(20) Yet as we age, our body’s ability to make CoQ10 declines, increasing the need for supplementation. It’s important to note that not all CoQ10 supplements are equally effective. Here’s why: CoQ10 comes in two different forms—ubiquinol and ubiquinone. Ubiquinol is the reduced, active, and more usable form of CoQ10 and accounts for 90% of the CoQ10 that’s in the blood. In contrast, studies demonstrate that ubiquinone is far less effective than ubiquinol at improving CoQ10 plasma levels. (19) Always opt for the ubiquinol form instead of ubiquinone when choosing a CoQ10 supplement.
3. Fish oil
Adding a fish oil supplement to your routine might help lower your cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of dying from any type of cardiovascular event, according to a review of 34 studies examining the heart health benefits of supplementation. (1) Fish oil supplements have the potential to interact with certain pharmaceutical medications, such as blood thinners, so be sure to talk to your practitioner before taking an omega-3 supplement.
This mineral is essential for a healthy heart, yet many people don’t get enough. Clinical studies have shown that low levels can cause arrhythmias, spasms in the blood vessels, high blood pressure, angina, and blood clots. There is also a strong link between low magnesium levels and the formation of calcium deposits in the arteries that can contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. (12) Research conducted at the State University of New York shows that magnesium also acts as a natural calcium channel blocker by relaxing blood vessels and increasing the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart while also reducing the heart’s workload. (29)
While we often hear of the benefits of beneficial bacteria for the gut, a growing number of studies show that probiotics are also good for your heart! One review of 26 clinical trials and two meta-analyses featured in the journal Nutrition Review demonstrated that L. reuteri significantly lowered low-density lipoprotein and total cholesterol levels while improving other risk factors like inflammation. (13) Another review found that taking a probiotic containing multiple species of beneficial bacteria lowered systolic blood pressure by 3.56 mm/Hg and diastolic pressure by 2.38 mm/Hg. (17) Keep in mind that the benefits of probiotics are dependent on the specific strain. Speak to your practitioner for guidance on choosing the strain and dosing that’s right for your wellness goals.
The bottom line
The heart is a vital organ responsible for circulating blood, oxygen, and nutrients throughout the body. While cardiovascular issues are common and can be life-threatening, many risk factors that contribute to the development of these conditions are within your control. Following a healthy diet and incorporating certain dietary supplements can help support heart health and prevent cardiovascular-related events. Be sure to always consult a health practitioner for guidance before making changes to your wellness plan.
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