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Secrets to a healthy heart

We now know that heart disease is caused by long-term low-grade inflammation of the arterial walls. Cholesterol is merely trying to help by adhering to lesions in the arterial walls, much like a plaster does on our outside skin.

Foods and lifestyle habits can cause and exacerbate inflammation, but there are many foods, herbs, spices and nutrients as well as lifestyle choices that help reduce it. Backed up with the necessary changes – a healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking and reducing alcohol – many people find rapid improvements in their cholesterol ratios, blood pressure and other indicators of risk. 

If you have cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, the following also apply: 

  • Take a glucose tolerance test and measure HbA1C level (better still: insulin level) and manage your blood sugar if high. 
  • If you have low HDL take an EPA fish oil supplement, 1000mg *
  • Measure your homocysteine.
  • If you have high homocysteine, increase your intake of vitamins B6, B12 and folate. *
  • If you have high blood pressure take a multi-mineral supplement. *

If you are on medication, work closely with your doctor if you want to include nutritional and lifestyle changes that may minimise your medication requirements. As your vital heart statistics improve, your doctor will want to reduce your medication accordingly. You can also consult a nutritional therapist or health coach to support this process and create a plan for you.

Measuring your risk

The main measures used to indicate your level of risk are blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, homocysteine levels and blood sugar levels. 

Blood pressure

This measurement consists of 2 numbers: the ‘systolic’, always the higher number, measures the pressure when your heart is contracting to force blood out. The ‘diastolic’ is the more important because it measures the pressure when your heart is at rest. A normal reading is around 120/76 mmHg. If your blood pressure is above 140/90, you have hypertension and are at a much greater risk of heart disease.

Cholesterol level

There are typically 3 readings: total, LDL (‘bad’) and HDL (‘good’) cholesterol. Total cholesterol should be between 3.9 and 5.2 mmol/l. However, what matters more than the absolute numbers is the total/HDL ratio, which should be <5. Your LDL/HDL ratio should be below 3.5. You can lower your total/HDL ratio by lowering your insulin levels. We now have blood tests available that are much more detailed and detect important distinctions such as LDL particle numbers and size. 

Unfortunately, in many countries, these are only available privately, either through a functional medicine doctor, nutritional therapist, or health practitioner. 

Triglyceride level

These are fats in the bloodstream, which are primarily derived from excess glucose. A high reading suggests a diet too high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. It should be at around 1mmol/l

Blood sugar levels

High blood sugar levels are a risk factor. Better still is to know your insulin level, yet this is rarely measured in routine blood tests. Diabetes is the main risk factor for heart disease, and increased insulin levels precede elevated blood sugar levels for years before a diagnosis of diabetes.

Love your Heart
  • Avoid fried and deep-fried food (incl. chips, crisps).
  • Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. Choose complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, porridge oats, and root vegetables instead.
  • Eat oily fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring, pilchards, sardines and anchovies as well as nuts and seeds, high in vitamin E, essential fats and minerals. Essential fats, especially omega-3, help increase HDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation. 
  • Eat plenty of fresh fruit and veg to ensure your diet is rich in antioxidants. Free radicals can damage artery walls, enabling plaque to form, and oxidise the cholesterol in the plaques. Antioxidants disarm the free radicals and so stop them causing damage. 
  • Fruit and veg, porridge oats, nuts, seeds and pulses contain plenty of fibre, which gathers up used cholesterol in the gut and helps excrete it before it is reabsorbed. They are also good sources of potassium, calcium and magnesium, important for heart health. 
  • Avoid fizzy drinks – sugar-sweetened as well as diet drinks.
  • Moderate salt, but do not omit it completely as a low salt intake may be more damaging than a high one.
  • Keep fit.
  • Don’t smoke. 
  • Lose weight.
  • Avoid prolonged stress
  • Know your blood pressure and have your blood lipid levels checked every 5 years. Consider a more detailed cardiovascular health blood test (private) if you are at a high risk.
  • Take a good quality multi-vitamin and –mineral, 2000mg vitamin C and an omega oil supplement every day. *
  • Use turmeric and ginger liberally in your cooking. These are powerful antioxidants and can relax arteries and reduce inflammation. 
  • Have 1 or 2 cloves of garlic every day (or a garlic capsule). It reduces blood platelet ‘stickiness’ – their ability to adhere. It promotes healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.