by Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher

Late February and early March are the perfect times to think about ways to improve our heart and general cardiovascular health.  As the seasons transition from winter to spring, we are presented with increased opportunities to be physically active, as well as more involved in our community’s many upcoming events, scheduled during late winter and early spring.  Further, with Valentine’s Day in our recent rear-view mirror, now is a great time to refocus our relationship lens on the people who matter to us most and think about how improving relationships helps improve heart health – ours and theirs.

Additionally, late winter and early spring are great times to partake of the nutritional bounty available in both seasons.  At this time of year, nutritious winter squash, apples, and citrus fruits are all still plentiful and good, and spring fruits such as pears and plums are starting to come onto store shelves.

At this time of year, we have particularly diverse ways of improving heart health through nutrition, exercise, community involvement, and relationship growth.

Because heart and general cardiovascular health can be affected by so many different influences, it is best to take a “multi-disciplinary” approach toward improvement.

Let’s take a look at some heart health basics to begin our journey toward better outcomes.

  • Don’t smoke at all (or use other tobacco related products), and drink alcohol only in careful moderation. The cardiovascular system is very sensitive to the host of toxic chemicals in smoke.  Likewise, excessive alcohol consumption is a stressor on the heart, not to mention the liver and kidneys.
  • Be sure to stay active in whatever way(s) you’ll be most likely to adhere to in the long-term. Many people find the ease and simplicity of walking to be the best answer, but there are a whole slew of other options, such as biking, yoga, weight-lifting, Tai Chi, gardening, home repair and renovation, jogging, dog-walking, etc.  The idea is to move your body, regularly and often, using as many muscle groups as possible to help maintain overall muscle and cardiovascular fitness.

If you can commit to an organized, formal exercise program that includes elements of weight-training, flexibility/balance, and cardiovascular work, so much the better for you.

  • Studies have shown repeatedly that life expectancy and blood pressure readings are markedly better among people with stable, loving family and friend relationships. The heart actually performs its job more efficiently when affairs of the heart are positive, supportive, and largely free of stress or discord.  Blood sugar levels are also improved by loving, positive relationships.

Cultivating warm, caring relationships with loved ones not only improves overall life satisfaction, but also is one of the best antidotes to heart disease.

  • Even if lifestyle, exercise, and relationships are all in tip-top shape, cardiovascular problems can still be created (or worsened) by chronic, unresolved stress. The constant outpouring of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, can heighten blood pressure, narrow blood vessels, and raise blood sugar and cholesterol, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.

Seek to reduce, or if possible, eliminate, major sources of stress in your life.  Of course, no one’s life can be stress-free, but living in an unrelenting quagmire of high stress is a recipe for unhappiness first and ill health second.  The heart and cardiovascular system are particularly susceptible to the effects of stress.

If there is simply no way to reduce or eliminate the source of a particular stressor in your life, then seek to alter your response to it.  Consider using an alternative attitude to the situation to avoid a stress response.  If a physical stress response occurs anyway, then start looking for release outlets for pent-up anxieties, fears, anger, or other negative emotions.  Exercise, dance, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, “venting” to a friend or relative, prayer, laughter, or becoming absorbed in a pleasurable activity such as painting, writing, playing music, or crafting are all examples of ways to constructively and positively dispel stress and lessen its negative effects on the heart and cardiovascular system.

  • Look for ways to participate in the community and its events. Humans thrive on sociability and interconnectedness; people find feeling connected to a larger group, beyond just family and friends, calming and reassuring, thereby lowering stress levels and heart disease risk.  Also, the act of doing something good for others, such as can be found when volunteering, or even the act of attending an event and experiencing camaraderie and a shared pleasurable experience can give a person a sense of belonging to a local community.  That sense of belonging translates to better heart health and a longer life.

Houston is filled with a myriad of organizations pursuing worthy goals, and the city teems with opportunities for volunteerism.  Consider volunteering at a shelter for humans or animals, or volunteer at the rodeo, a house of worship, or any other group that interests you.  Don’t forget that participating, even as a simple attendee, to local, seasonal events helps give you “interconnectedness” to your community and the flow of life and passage of time.  In the spring, Houston boasts many interesting events, from the Azalea Trail to art exhibits, to special public park activities, and faith-based special services at houses of worship, just to name a few options.  The basic message is attend, participate, volunteer, soak up your local community; you’ll be better off physically and mentally, and so will your community, and best of all, your heart will thank you with improved health.

  • Now, let’s look at a few basic nutritional cautions for optimizing cardiovascular health. (We’ll go more in-depth into nutritional information in the mid-March article, whose focus is on good nutrition in general.)

Firstly, include a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in the diet to provide fiber and micronutrients.  Fiber helps to clear out excess fats and toxins from the digestive tract, which is a benefit to the heart.  Also, certain types of fiber, such as that found in oatmeal, can help lower cholesterol levels, another heart healthy move.

Additionally, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains contain micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants, all of which help the body function better and more efficiently.  The heart itself is, therefore, better nourished, and it is less strained because the whole body is functioning at a higher level of efficiency.

Secondly, eat fish, such as salmon or tuna, regularly to obtain omega-3 fatty acids, a key nutrient for heart health.  Fish (or krill) oil supplements are widely available for purchase in stores and on-line if fish is truly not appealing to a given person.  Also, for vegans or people who simply don’t like fishy aftertaste of supplements, Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from certain plant-based sources as well, such as flax seeds or flax oil, also widely available.

Thirdly, keep overall dietary sodium levels low to moderate to help keep blood pressure in the normal range.  Excessive sodium puts a strain on the heart and kidneys.

Fourth, seek to keep blood sugar levels in the normal range and without wide swings between low and high.  Excessively high or low blood sugar is very hard on the heart.  Do your heart a favor by limiting sugary snacks, and always consume some protein, fat, or complex carbohydrates along with a “simple sugar” treat to help even out blood sugar spikes and dips.

Fifth, remember that the heart is a muscle, and as such, it needs adequate levels of protein, magnesium, and calcium to function properly, just as skeletal muscles do.  If your diet is low on any (or all) of these nutrients, consider altering your diet to include more of these nutrients or consider taking supplements to correct the deficiency.

Sixth, make it a point to include garlic and onions in the diet regularly, and/or take garlic supplements for heart health.  Garlic has long been known to provide a slight blood thinning effect, allowing the heart to work less hard to pump the blood.  Also, garlic and onions are excellent for immunity boosting and can help battle even serious infections, thereby protecting the heart indirectly from the stress of fighting diseases.

Seventh, remember that Coenzyme Q-10, or Co Q-10, is very important to heart function.  The substance naturally declines in our bodies with normal aging but can be supplemented easily by taking widely available soft-gels from grocery or drug stores or on-line sources.  Even younger people can be deficient in Co Q-10 if taking certain prescription drugs, such as statins, which can artificially lower Co Q-10 in the body to unhealthy levels.

Eighth, the naturally occurring anti-oxidants in dark chocolate and red wine are also heart healthy options – if chocolate and wine consumption are held to modest amounts.  To obtain more of the “heart smart” anti-oxidants without the negative side effects of too much red wine or too much chocolate, look to supplements readily available in health food stores.  These supplements contain the “active ingredients” in chocolate and red wine, without all of the calories, sugar, alcohol, or fat.

Finally, join us in mid-March to take a look at a more comprehensive dive into nutrition – for the whole body, including the heart.

Until then, take good care of your “ticker”!


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