It takes a lickin’ – and usually keeps on ticking. For awhile. Your heart is a rather hardy, naturally resilient organ. But years of bad habits – many controllable – can hurt it by creating a hostile environment, like clogged arteries.
Heart conditions that lead to heart disease can occur at any age; it’s no longer an “older person’s” problem. If you are between 35 and 64 and are obese or have high blood pressure, according to the CDC, you are at risk for heart disease development earlier in life.
In fact, half of all Americans have at least one of the top three risk factors that characterize development of heart disease: smoking, unhealthy cholesterol profile and high blood pressure. While predisposition to high blood pressure and cholesterol are genetic, both these factors are controllable through diet and lifestyle modification. Smoking goes without saying – either don’t do it or if you do, stop (“cutting down” is useless).
Other risk factors are obesity/overweight (including a large amount of visceral fat, the fat that surrounds the organs beneath your core muscles), and diabetes type II, two conditions that tend to go hand-in-hand because of years of eating sugars and simple carbohydrates. But it’s more than just the carbs and sugar – sodium (salt) can turn into an enemy by raising blood pressure. Finally, lack of exercise contributes to poor cardiovascular function – just 2.5 hours per week is all that’s needed to strengthen the heart and blood vessels. Only one in five adults get this much or more.
Many of the 610,000 deaths from heart disease in the US every year (one in every four deaths) – are preventable.
3 Keys to Cardiovascular Wellness
Cholesterol profile, blood pressure and chronic inflammation are areas that you can improve via healthy diet, moderate exercise and other lifestyle modifications. Stress management is critical, as it can create unfavorable chronic inflammation, and if left untended, can cause a consistent high level of cortisol that generates growth of belly fat.
Cholesterol profile: Cholesterol is not a “bad” element; it’s useful in the body. Your liver produces this waxy substance because the body uses it to manufacture hormones as well as to digest fatty foods, among other tasks. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is ferried to cells by two types of lipoproteins – high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). The relationship is rather complex, as about one-third of HDL (the so-called “good” cholesterol) stops the LDL (“bad” cholesterol) from depositing into arteries, escorting it back to the liver where it’s disassembled for passage out of the body. LDL is the troublemaker because of its affinity for building up in arteries, restricting vital blood flow. Ideally, your LDL would be low, and your HDL would be high.
Total cholesterol, by the way, is just that – the combination of LDL and HDL. Currently, the medical community recommends total cholesterol levels to be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL); and if you have TC of 240 mg/dL, that is high. Within, your LDL should be les than 100 mg/dL, but anything above 160 is high. Conversely, HDL levels 60 mg/dL or higher is healthy, while lower levels such as 40 mg/dL is considered a major risk factor for heart disease.
Blood pressure (BP): Think of this as a powerful force. If it’s too powerful, destruction can occur. If blood pressure was wind – a mild breeze cools and soothes, while a gale or hurricane causes havoc. Blood pressure is the force of blood being pumped through your arteries; the higher (stronger) it is, the more your risk of a catastrophic event (stroke, heart attack) can occur. BP is read by two numbers – systolic (top) over diastolic (bottom). The former is the highest level your BP attains from a single heart beat; the latter is the lowest level during the relaxation of the heart between beats. Your doctor would like to see your blood pressure levels be under 120/80, the higher it is, the greater your risk of stroke or heart attack.
Inflammation: A normal and healthy inflammatory process is activated when an invader comes in – you feel this when you get a fever, as your body fights the pathogen. But in more recent years, a silent inflammation—the type you don’t feel – is chronic in nature and can increase risk of heart disease, among other illnesses. Medical experts write in a report, “Although it is not proven yet that inflammation directly causes cardiovascular diseases, we know that chronic, low-grade inflammation is closely linked to all stages of atherosclerosis, a disease that underlies heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease.” One of the key inflammatory markers physicians look for is C-reactive protein; the higher the levels, the more at risk.
Further, overweight and obese individuals tend to generate more chronic inflammatory markers, which tend to reduce when weight is lost, according to one study.
It’s important to emphasize that you are empowered to reduce your weight, your blood pressure, your inflammatory levels and create a favorable cholesterol profile. Dietary supplements have been proven useful in this area, and research into probiotics is on the rise here, too.
Fish Oils: Fatty (tasty) fish such as tuna and salmon are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids DHA and EPA and multiple studies have shown that diets that provide high amounts of DHA/EPA (and also ALA from some seeds) can have beneficial effects on cardiovascular function, including positive influence on cholesterol (increasing HDL), lower triglycerides (another fat that can be dangerous in high levels) by between 15 and 30%, inhibits arterial plaque formation and can reduce blood pressure in those with elevated levels.
CoQ10: This supplement helps produce energy in cellular mitochondria and has been widely studied for its effect on cardiovascular support, as the heart needs a lot of energy to function optimally. One review summed up trials showing or suggesting that CoQ10 can enhance myocardial contractility (the heart’s ability to pump), protects against lipid peroxidation in those with atherosclerosis, and can lower oxidative stress, improve antioxidant enzyme functions and reduce pro-inflammatory interleukin 6.
Vitamin D: Studies show that sub-normal levels of vitamin D are correlated with increased insulin resistance, hyperlipidemia (high TC and LDL), and hypertension (high blood pressure), which all together lead to coronary artery disease. Vitamin D has also been shown to be positively influential in many biological processes and should be an essential supplement for you.
How do Probiotics Support Heart Health?
Interestingly, you may not think that taking probiotics helps your heart – even though they are proven effective for digestion and immune health. But probiotics shine brightly for cardiovascular wellness.
One meta-analysis concluded that those who consumed probiotics for more than eight weeks showed reductions in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, especially in those with high blood pressure levels at the start of the studies, consumed a variety of probiotic species and an average dose of 10 billion colony forming units (CFUs).
Another analysis of 15 trials reviewed how various Lactobacillus strains affected cholesterol, and found that “Consuming probiotic Lactobacillus, especially L. reuteri and L. plantarum, could reduce TC and LDL significantly.” A similar analysis of 11 trials concluded that individuals in the Lactobacillus group showed lower TC and LDL; these findings were greater in those with mild hypercholesterolemia than those with normal range levels.
One study showed several effects in cardiovascular support. Researchers gave either placebo or Lactobacillus reuteri NCIMB 30242 to 127 individuals for nine weeks. After the study period, the supplement group had an overall reduction of 11.64% in LDL, 9.14% in TC, and even reductions in pro-inflammatory C-reactive protein and fibrinogen.
In individuals with diabetes type II – one meta-analysis of 10 human trials (total of 593 participants) found that those in the probiotic group had a significantly decreased TC, LDL, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose compared to those in the placebo group. The authors concluded that “application of probiotics might be a new method for lipid profiles and blood pressure management in T2DM.”
Getting to the heart of the matter, it isn’t difficult to create a cardio-friendly lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet is so much easier – and tasty – than ever. And if you “hate” the idea of a gym, just go out and move, several times a week. Learn how to manage – channel – stress by transforming it into positive, creative energy. Dietary supplements are a big part of the picture, especially probiotics, to ensure your heart carries you through wherever you go.