It is never too early to think about supporting your heart health. When we are young and healthy, we tend to be concerned with our fitness and our looks, along with sexual health.
However, taking measures to protect your heart’s function right now will keep you healthier as you get older, allowing you to continue to enjoy your family, friends, career and lifestyle.
Interestingly, according to survey data from the American Heart Association, of the four generations polled, 75% of Generation Z respondents were the most concerned about ill health preventing them from “experiencing everything they’d like to do in life.”
The lingering COVID-19 pandemic has shifted perceptions about health.
Eduardo Sanchez, M.D., MPH, FAAFP, American Heart Association chief medical officer for prevention, said “Controlling blood glucose and managing and modifying risk factors for heart disease and stroke has never been more important,” Sanchez said. “If there’s a silver lining in all of this, perhaps it’s a new appreciation for wellness and emphasis on controlling the controllable, the existing threats to our health that we know more about and have more tools to manage.”
Let’s review the tools to build the foundation of healthy heart function.
Diet: Perhaps the most-researched heart-healthy diet is the Mediterranean Diet. It’s also easy to follow. As an example, one study of approximately 26,000 women found that those who followed the Mediterranean Diet had 25% less risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the course of 12 years.
Exercise: If you are not comfy with the gym (and many people don’t like it), there are many other ways to get fit. Regular exercise is a strong supporter of heart health. According to one review, up to approximately 250,000 deaths in the US per year are “attributable to a lack of regular physical activity.” Further, “we see a higher rate of cardiovascular events and a higher death rate in those individuals with low levels of physical fitness.”
Manage stress: High stress often leads to indulgence in foods or other substances to pacify and ease the tension. This can quickly turn, as many of the “feel good” fixes (eg, smoking, drinking, excessive use of anti-anxiolytics, eating carb-laden and fried foods) have negative impacts on many systems in the body. According to the AHA, these activities can lead to increased blood pressure and can also damage cardiovascular arteries. There are numerous ways to manage stress – yoga, counseling, acupuncture/acupressure, massage, meditation.
Get regular checkups. You may feel young and spry and healthy now but there may be systemic and organ degradation going on that you can’t feel. Better to know now than later when a health issue arises. The AHA recommends having your cholesterol profile checked by age 20 – and then every four to six years after to discern any potential pattern of unhealthy levels.
Dietary supplementation: Key heart health supplements include omega 3 EFAs, Coenzyme Q10, antioxidant vitamins A,C, E, and herbs such as hawthorne.
Probiotics have been shown in an increasing number of studies to benefit cardiovascular wellness. Unlike the supplements mentioned above, probiotics are a universe of distinct strains, each of which has affinities and abilities to support varied areas of health.
Probiotics and Your Heart
Newer research outlines the link between morphology of the gut microbiome during aging and cardiovascular health status. In this observational study (in both old and young mice) researchers noted they believe that “diets high in probiotic-rich cultured food (yogurt, kefir, kimchi) and prebiotic fiber could play a role in preventing heart disease by promoting a healthy gut microbiome.”
Another study in individuals with a predisposition for heart malfunction showed that those who consumed more dietary fiber tended to have healthier gut bacteria – associated with reduced risk of death from a heart attack. Earlier research showed that the types and levels of bacteria living in the intestines may create a predictor profile of a person’s likelihood of having a cardiovascular event and that manipulating the bacteria profile may help reduce risk of poor heart health.
Undesirable cholesterol levels impact cardiovascular function and these numbers can largely be managed through diet and lifestyle. And, of course, the mighty probiotics. One meta-analysis of 15 studies including 976 participants found that consuming any of several Lactobacillus species (eg L. reuteri, L. plantarum) had significant beneficial effects on total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein.
One strain – Lactobacillus reuteri NCIMB 30242 – was shown in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled, parallel-arm study of 127 participants to reduce LDL cholesterol by 11.64% after nine weeks.
A meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials that included 1971 individuals looked at several types of probiotics’ impact on total cholesterol (TC), and that results would improve through time. They concluded, “Available evidence indicates that probiotics supplements can significantly reduce serum TC. Furthermore, higher baseline TC, longer intervention time, and probiotics in capsules form might contribute to a better curative effect.”
Another heart-related benefit of probiotics is their ability to manage inflammation. For example, in one study, 127 subjects whose cholesterol levels were higher than normal consumed L. reuteri NCIMB 30242 for nine weeks, resulting in reduction of the pro-inflammatory marker C-reactive protein in addition to showing better cholesterol profiles.
This welcome “side effect” was also seen in another study; this one involving 30 men with higher-than-normal cholesterol who took a supplement containing L. plantarum for 6 weeks.
One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled and crossover 10-week study looked at the effects of consuming fermented milk containing L. acidophilus L1 on serum cholesterol in 48 volunteers. Daily consumption of 200 g of yogurt after each dinner contributed to a significant reduction in serum cholesterol concentration (−2.4%) compared to the placebo group.
A yogurt rich in another strain – Bifidobacterium longum BL1 – was investigated in another study for its effects on lipid profiles in 32 adults. After four weeks, the authors observed a significant decline in serum total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides in the probiotic yogurt group along with a 14.5% increase in HDL-cholesterol compared to those in the control-yogurt group.
Additionally, probiotics may also help control triglycerides, a class of fatty acids related to cholesterols. In one study of 92 adults with higher-than-normal triglycerides, those who supplemented with both L. curvatus and L. plantarum for 12 weeks showed significantly reduced triglycerides compared to those subjects in the placebo group.
Of course, there are many more studies showing probiotics’ value in supporting your heart and cardiovascular system. And just because February (“heart month”) may now be in the rearview mirror until our return trip next year, doesn’t mean you should stop thinking about having a (healthy) heart. No matter your age now, if you are reasonably healthy, give yourself a fun challenge for next February 1: work with your doctor now to modestly reduce your heart numbers. Bonus – you’ll even experience a higher sense of well-being! Now that’s something to love.