For much of the history of modern medicine, research has focused on understanding and solving some of the biggest and most obvious problems: vaccinations, pandemics, the influence of genetics and more. We have mastered full organ transplantation and developed functional artificial valves. These have all been worthy projects, and there’s a lot of money and prestige in solving these major puzzles, not to mention the lives that have been saved—or greatly improved.
But lately, high-level medical researchers have joined with physiologists and nutritionists—and even psychologists—to try to understand not only the most massive and confounding of all medical problems, but also the most essential and elemental: How is daily life best lived for optimum health? Not everything has to be a major undertaking when it comes to improving your heart health. So, in this post, we want to take a look at 10 of the simplest ways to optimize the health of your heart.
1. Decrease Stress
Some people still believe the organs of the body are like machines that are independent of psychological states. Modern research tells us this simply isn’t true. The heart responds quickly and efficiently to states of stress. You can feel it when you sense danger: The heart promptly begins to pump blood to the muscles, readying them for fight or flight. But over time, the condition of non-emergency stress can produce high blood pressure and set the stage for more severe complications, such as heart attacks.1
It is important that you begin and build some de-stressing rituals. And research is showing that toggling on email between the day’s awful news and myriad social contacts is not the proper way to unwind. Take a walk. Listen to relaxing music. Mediate. Or simply have a good old-fashioned conversation with a friend in person on the front porch.
2. Increase Joy
Philosophers and linguists have long differentiated between “pleasure” and “joy.” Pleasure is wonderful, but it can be fleeting. Joy, however, abides. What fulfills you and brings meaning to your life? Your children? Your garden? Your hobbies? Don’t let these activities be infrequent delights. Practice these things on a regular basis. We cannot completely avoid stress, but increasing our joy can help reverse the damage stress does to our hearts. In fact, this adacemic but readable study delves into the fascinating health benefits of laughing.
We just characterized pleasure as fleeting. But some forms of pleasure are actually associated with long-term heart health. Dark chocolate is one of them. Dark chocolate has properties that help relax arterial stiffness and move white blood cells through the system, both big factors in mitigating atherosclerosis, or thickened arterial walls.2
4. Be More Active
There’s no substitute for good, vigorous, aerobic exercise. A brisk thirty-minute walk can do wonders for your heart. As can sex. And with sex, you can kill two birds with one stone: pleasure and exercise at the same time! But exercise can also come down to simply being more active on a daily basis: working in the yard, cleaning, running errands, being on your feet while you cook in the kitchen. You don't have to hit the gym for an hour a day (although that's nothing to sneeze at), but you can simply start doing more daily activities to be more active.
5. Avoid Bad Foods
Fried foods (potato chips, chicken nuggets), an abundance of high-starch foods (breads, potatoes), and “empty calorie” foods and drinks (candy, soda)—cutting down on even a few of these can help you keep pounds off so your heart can keep on pounding. But research is adding a new complication to what we consider “bad food.” High-fat foods are not the only culprit. Heavily processed foods are also being studied for properties that cause inflammation in our blood vessels. The adage to “eat what your grandmother ate” is gaining a lot of traction these days. But it’s not enough to just avoid bad foods. We also have to...
6. Enjoy Good Foods
Fish, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables—you already know the grocery list for heart health. But be careful: Getting that great piece of healthy fish and frying it may not do you any good at all. Consult some cooking blogs and cookbooks about how to prepare healthy food in a healthy way. Chez Eddy, the restaurant of the Methodist Hospital in Houston that is home of the acclaimed DeBakey Heart Center, published a great heart-healthy cookbook for great recipes.
7. Up the Antioxidants
Antioxidants are wonderful for mopping up harmful free radicals, which are uncharged molecules that can damage balanced molecules found in healthy cells. Antioxidants are found in a variety of foods and are especially prevalent in beans and colourful fruits, like red and blue berries. Again, you can kill two birds with one stone: Antioxidants can be found in soothing liquids such as tea and red wine. Resveratrol is a polyphenol compound found in grapes, berries and red wine that has antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties. It’s the key ingredient in red wine that researchers believe may help lower levels of harmful LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and prevent blood clots and blood vessel damage. According to the Mayo Clinic, resveratrol research done on mice also suggests that it can help stave off obesity and diabetes. So, you’re reading that right: A glass of red wine and the aforementioned bite of dark chocolate can help your heart, boost your pleasure and help you de-stress.
8. Add Nutritional Supplements
Nutritional supplements come in all shapes and sizes, potencies and prices. Supplements can give you nutrients that you may lack in sufficient quantities from diet alone. Fish oil, for example, is full of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease. CoQ10 or Ubiquinol, which is the active, antioxidant form of CoQ10, can also help the body in various ways. In addition to aiding in cellular energy production, supplemental Ubiquinol is the active form of CoQ10 that is immediately usable by the body. As we age, the body becomes less efficient at producing CoQ10 and converting it to Ubiquinol. People who take statin medications to manage their cholesterol levels may also have depleted levels of CoQ10 because statins dimish the body’s natural ability to produce CoQ10. Ubiquinol has been shown to replenish depleted CoQ10 levels for people on statin drugs, and healthy CoQ10 levels are known to support cardiovascular health.
9. Get Enough Sleep
You must get good sleep and get enough sleep. Repeat it a thousand times. Research is now showing that not enough sleep is very harmful to your heart. It puts you at risk for all the big cardiovascular problems, including heart attack and stroke, as well as sleep apnea, fluid in the lungs and chest pain.3 Sleep must be a priority. And when you wake up from your 8 hours of rejuvenating sleep, be sure to...
10. Eat a Healthy Breakfast
Skipping breakfast is not a good idea. A breakfast of fiber and lean protein will help you stabilize your blood sugar and has been linked with weight loss and overall heart strength. A study published last year in the American Heart Association journal Circulation tracked when men ate breakfast, what they ate for breakfast and their overall health over the course of 16 years. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health who conducted the study found that those who skipped breakfast had a higher risk of heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease.4
While some cardiovascular risk factors are genetic, much of our heart risk is simply a matter of lifestyle. Making small changes now and maintaining those good habits can help prevent major heartache in the future.
- American Heart Association. Stress and heart health. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/StressManagement/HowDoesStressAffectYou/Stress-and-Heart-Health_UCM_437370_Article.jsp
- Science Daily. Why dark chocolate is good for your heart. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140227092149.htm
- The Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions. Sleep and cardiovascular disease. http://www.scai.org/SecondsCount/Treatment/HealthyLiving/SleepandCardiovascularDisease.aspx
- American Heart Association, Circulation. Prospective Study of Breakfast Eating and Incident Coronary Heart Disease in a Cohort of Male US Health Professionals http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/128/4/337.abstract