By Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer-Researcher

February brings us Valentine’s Day and appropriately, our national observance of heart health, which can serve as a starting point for a lifelong focus on cardiovascular wellness.  Many things affect our hearts and cardiovascular systems in general, and though we cannot control all the variables that play a part in heart health, we can do quite a bit to improve the health of our hearts and blood vessels and thereby, extend our lives in the doing.  We will also “add life to our years” by keeping our cardiovascular systems healthy and running smoothly.

Let’s begin our journey on the path to better heart health by looking at a few basic tenets of cardiovascular wellness.  Then later in our story, we’ll examine some less discussed aspects of heart health, and some new research.

In first position has to be the admonishment, “Don’t smoke.”  Smoking puts a terrible stress on the body, especially the lungs and heart.  Tobacco products introduce carcinogens (cancer causing agents) into the body, while simultaneously cheating the body of oxygen and filling it with carbon monoxide and “soot” from the smoke.  Although the whole body suffers, the heart, lungs, and cardiovascular system as a whole take the biggest hits.

In second position for importance to heart health should be keeping a reasonable control on blood sugar levels.  Elevated blood sugar literally makes blood thicker and harder to pump, stressing the heart, not to mention the overall weakening of the body’s tissues (including the arteries and smaller blood vessels) that results from long-term elevated blood sugar.  Diabetes is known to greatly increase the risk for heart and cardiovascular problems.

Conversely, people with low-blood sugar also suffer a greater risk of heart problems.  Episodes of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can include symptoms like irregular or fast heart rate, breathlessness, and fainting.  Obviously, any of these symptoms would indicate a stressed heart.

To maximize heart health, blood sugar levels should be maintained in a healthy mid-range as much of the time as possible.  Either too high or too low blood sugar levels on a recurring basis are bad news for the heart.

Thirdly, get some form of daily “exercise”.  Whether a formal exercise routine is selected or informal physical activity is chosen, the important point to follow is that we all need to get up and move and use most muscle groups everyday, or at least, several times a week, to maintain heart and cardiovascular fitness.

The best option for heart health would be a well thought-out (and adhered to) formal exercise plan that includes elements of strength training, cardiovascular workouts, and flexibility and balance moves.  However, even if such a regimen is not possible under current circumstances for an individual person, any exercise is better than none.  Simple activities like walking, raking leaves, cleaning house, or climbing stairs can all benefit heart health, circulation throughout the whole body, and muscle tone.

Fourth, seek to attain (or keep) a mid-range body weight for personal height.  Rather like blood sugar, bodyweight should not be either too high or too low.  Either condition is a stress on the heart.

Fifth, endeavor to keep cholesterol levels in a healthy mid-range as well.  High cholesterol is associated with a greater risk for heart disease.  On “the flip side”, extremely low cholesterol levels can cause a host of other ills in the body, which are detrimental to overall health and can ultimately stress the heart.

Sixth, regularly consume a varied and well balanced diet.  Emphasize adding more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish, whole grains, and lean meats to the daily diet.  Try to get dairy products as organic or grass-fed options.  Deemphasize simple sugars and “empty” carbohydrate foods.

Now that we’ve gone over some heart health “basics”, let’s take a look at some other, newer concepts regarding preserving our hearts for as long as possible.

One such concept that has been researched more over the past few years is the importance of being connected positively to loved ones.  Research has shown that strong, positive relationships between a person and his/her family members (and/or friends) are really good for the hearts of all involved.  Reductions in stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rate are noted when study subjects are experiencing positive family and friend relationships.

Conversely, when arguments, disagreements, or estrangements rule over close relationships, study subjects exhibit greater stress, higher blood pressure and heart rates and more signs of heart disease.  “Affairs of the heart” really do have a bearing on heart health.

For your own cardiovascular health, as well as that of your family members and friends, try to keep all relationships on a positive note and lines of communication open.  If anything has “soured” between you and another person, consider reaching out to them to “patch things up”.  You’ll both be better off for the effort.

On a related topic, people who socialize often have been shown, in research studies, to be 50% less likely to have heart disease.  Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, cardiologist and director of Women’s Heart Health at the Lenox Hill Hospital Heart and Vascular Institute, emphasizes the importance of social support.  From spending time with friends, chatting on the phone, or simply smiling at strangers as you pass by, social interaction reduces stress, and stress is a major factor in the development of heart disease, according to Dr. Steinbaum and most other cardiology experts.

As well as being more social, consider singing out loud to strengthen the heart.  Interestingly, Swedish research shows that the calm breathing patterns used when singing hymns or other soothing songs causes noticeably improved heart rate variability.  Heart rate variability is a key indicator of heart health.

Speaking of musically related issues and heart health, researchers in Portugal have found that firing up your walk with an upbeat tune can reduce heart disease risk by as much as 50%.  Study participants who increased their walking speeds from 2 mph. to 3 mph. saw noticeable improvements in heart health due to the faster blood flow.  Dr. Steinbaum emphasized during her statements that exercise is the best medication for prevention of heart disease.

On a nutritional note, the importance of adequate vitamin D in the diet has been in the news for a while now for prevention and treatment of a variety of conditions.  Lately, deficiencies in vitamin D have been recognized as an important factor in high blood pressure and heart disease issues.  Taking in 2,000 IU of Vitamin D-3 daily is thought to be able to reverse deficiency.

Nutritional supplements and some natural therapies can assist with heart disease prevention and treatment. 

For those persons wishing to give themselves an additional edge against cardiovascular disease through natural therapies and supplements, the following list of suggestions could be of great value:

  • Coenzyme Q10 increases oxygenation of the heart and improves overall function.
  • Garlic extract lowers homocysteine levels, a heart disease risk factor, and thins the blood slightly.
  • Vitamins B12, B6, and folic acid help maintain healthy homocysteine and C-reactive protein levels. Measuring C-reactive protein levels is a way of detecting inflammation in the cardiovascular system, which can lead to heart attacks even when other risk factors are normal.
  • Vitamin C and bioflavonoids are very important to regulating blood pressure.
  • Calcium and magnesium are extremely important to the proper functioning of the heart muscle. Magnesium is probably the most overlooked key to lowering blood pressure and blood sugar levels discussed by the mainstream media.  Take calcium and magnesium in divided doses.  Use chelate forms of both minerals.
  • Lycopene is a carotenoid that lowers LDL “bad” cholesterol.
  • Phosphatidyl choline reduces fat and triglyceride levels in the blood.
  • Pycnogenol reduces buildup of plaques in the arteries.
  • Acupuncture treatments can lower blood pressure and improve circulation.

Always remember to check with your personal physician before beginning a supplement program to avoid any potential problems between your prescription drugs, individual health conditions, and any given supplement.

Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas and tools to use to carve out a healthy heart plan for the future – a long and healthy future with a strong, resilient heart.

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