The hearts of our Valentines are not the only ones that we celebrate in the month of February. Since 1963, Congress has officially required the President to declare February as American Heart Month as a way to urge Americans to join the battle against cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular diseases, including stroke, are our nation’s No. 1 killer. For those reasons, it’s important to know what ‘heart health’ means and how you can accomplish it.
Gaining a basic understanding of cardiovascular physiology is important in order to know how to improve that physiology. Allow me geek out for a few moments here on the physics of what the heart does for us.
For starters, the heart is a pump that is responsible for supply our entire body with blood flow to provide our cells with oxygen and nutrients, and to help eventually rid the body of some toxins. Heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer meet the metabolic demands of the body.
The heart working as a pump pushes our blood through a series of large and small tubes (arteries, capillaries and veins) that have a limited volume capacity. If our ‘tubes’ get too gummed up (with plaques derived from cholesterol) and become smaller in diameter, or if our blood volume has a dramatic increase, our heart will have to work much harder to pump the required blood through, straining the system. This is what we refer to as blood pressure, and when the blood volume is too high, or the arteries have become too narrow, hypertension ensues.
The heart also has an intricate conduction system that allows it to beat in a succinct, rhythmical fashion. Our heart rate is supposed to increase as we exercise and move around throughout our daily activities, but at rest, our heart rate should remain even and slow. Arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, occur when the heart’s usually quiet electrical system misfires or becomes overactive, often due to damage of the cells that support the conduction system. Last, but not least, our heart cells require oxygen to survive. When these cells become starved of oxygen, from too little or restricted blood flow, it is possible to experience chest pain, commonly called angina.
So… now that we know all about what our hearts are responsible for, how do we keep them healthy? We can take many lifestyle-based steps to decrease the workload required of our cardiovascular systems. Keeping blood pressure in check is a good place to start. A key tactic in accomplishing this is decreasing the amount of stress in our lives, as the hormones and neurotransmitters released during times of stress are responsible for constriction of our blood vessels, which in turn causes elevated blood pressure.
While the stresses of our daily lives can often not be eliminated, how we cope with stress can be improved upon. This includes taking time daily to relax, breathe, and let our bodies switch from the “go go go!” mode, to one that is more calm. And any amount of time will be beneficial: from laying down and breathing deep for a few minutes to hours of meditation. There are several specific nutritional, herbal and even pharmaceutical options that can be explored if blood pressure is a concern. Keeping our blood pressure at a normal level decreases the wear and tear on our vascular systems and our hearts, allowing for flawless function well into our later years.
There are several dietary changes that can be made to improve heart health. By now, most people are aware that saturated fats and processed foods should generally be avoided. Those foods can lead to a negative increase in cholesterol levels as well as help generate plaques along artery walls that further promotes hypertension and increases the risk of adverse events, such as a stroke. And most people also know that sugar, along with simple carbohydrates and starches, should be avoided.
What may not be as familiar to you, however, are the foods that we can add to our diet to improve heart function.
Foods rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium are all important for proper function of our heart cells and their conduction systems. Coincidentally, these foods also offer plentiful vitamins and minerals. Now, where can you get these power-packed nutritional foods? Your own garden! That’s right: fruits and vegetables have high amounts of the major minerals we need for heart health, as well as smaller nutrients that help our entire cardiovascular system, such as bioflavonoids and vitamin C. Fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, are also high in soluble and insoluble fiber —- both of which help balance cholesterol levels and overall bowel health.
It is also important to remember that your heart is a muscle and it, like all other muscles in our body, needs regular exercise to maintain healthy. Fortunately for us, some of the main ways to exercise out bodies also give our hearts a sufficient workout. Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming, jogging or biking gives your heart the best workout. Weight loss, achieved through diet and exercise, also increases our overall heart health by putting less work on the heart.
If you are unsure where to start with these heart health changes, come in and see us at Nature Cures Clinic. Navigating the world of health and fitness can be tricky and overwhelming… let us help you find your way!
Photo courtesy Debs