Preventing heart disease — the natural approachby Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP & Dixie Mills, MD
Remember that everything in your body is connected to everything else. And guess what’s at the center? Your heart. So nurturing your heart, even in the smallest ways, is vital to your health. Yes, you may have genetic factors linked to heart disease or a family history, but that is not a death sentence for you, and addressing your lifestyle holds the greatest promise for lifelong heart health.
Lifestyle and heart diseaseSometimes I have a patient who just won’t change her lifestyle. Such women are in a kind of denial about their health risks. Sometimes they just don’t feel they have the energy to make changes. I have a simple message for them: if you don’t change your life, your life will change you — and the changes may be regrettable ones. When that happens, you’ll regret it. But the second half of my message is that as we age, a turn for the worse in heart health is far from inevitable, and making changes in your life is easy if you take it one step at a time.
Try to see it this way. If you can take ownership for the choices you make regarding smoking, junk food, excess alcohol, lack of exercise, and many of the stress factors in your life that can exponentially increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, you put yourself directly at the driver’s wheel. And that is where you hold the power to point yourself in a heart-healthy direction.
As for diet, simply switching to “low-fat” food products is not the answer — in fact, they can accelerate development of a heart condition. Confusion about fat is rife in this country. Let me say this simply: you have to eat fat to have a healthy metabolism, which in turn supports a healthy heart. But you need to eat a diet rich in “good” fats, the unsaturated oils that comes from plants. Essential fatty acids are vital — without them you can’t metabolize cholesterol, control insulin and blood acids, or reduce inflammation. You also need relatively moderate amounts of the saturated fats found in dairy products, meat and some vegetables. You should avoid trans fats at all costs — such as the partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods.
And you need to stop smoking. There are many health risks associated with this habit, but smoking and heart disease go hand in hand. Smoking, among other things, irritates the lungs, diminishes oxygen uptake, incites inflammation and exacerbates atherosclerosis.
Heart disease preventionLet’s look at some other specific ways you can reduce your risk of heart disease. Here’s our seven-step approach.
- Eat well. What you eat affects your insulin levels, which drives your metabolism and the synthesis of cholesterol. What’s more, it’s been proven that a diet high in vegetables and soy, and low in simple carbohydrates and saturated fat can reduce cholesterol levels as effectively as statin drugs — without side effects! We have seen our patients lower their cholesterol and their insulin resistance significantly by following our common-sense dietary guidelines.
- Take a medical-grade vitamin–mineral supplement daily to bridge any nutritional gaps that could lead to inflammation, elevated homocysteine levels, or inefficient metabolism. (To learn more, read our article on nutritional supplements.) We also add fish oil, evening primrose oil, and folic acid in a therapeutic setting to soothe cardiac inflammation.
- Exercise. Your heart is a muscle — treat it like one! The only way to build muscle strength is to exercise. Current guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate daily activity. Start slowly if you need to, say 5–10 minutes a day, and work your way up. Mindfulness exercises such as yoga and t’ai chi bring additional heart-healthy benefits by simultaneously reducing stress.
- Reduce stress and emotional conflict. Take an inventory of the sources of stress in your life. Then list what you can do about them. Pay particular attention to negative patterns and how to break them. There are lots of small things you can do to reduce stress. If you can afford it, I highly recommend you invest in therapy, which (with the right therapist) can be the most effective way to get at the emotional legacy that lies at the root of so much stress. (We recommend the therapeutic method outlined by the Hoffman Institute.)
- Increase your joy and self-love. There are many ways to open your heart, maximize joy, and bring balance and love back into your emotional life: meditation, massage, yoga and other alternative treatments all work to this end. (For more information, read our listing of alternative and complementary therapies.) Find something you love to do. Take a class that interests you. Treat yourself like your own best friend.
- Check in with yourself. Make a list of the steps you’re going to take, then put a reminder in your calendar each month to review how you’re doing. At the clinic we call this holding yourself accountable. It will help you make continued progress.
- If your condition warrants it, investigate what modern medicine has to offer you.
If your blood tests reveal extremely high levels of CRP and LDL, you may want to consider medication. Taking a statin drug like Lipitor, especially over the short term, can help protect you ‘til your dietary and lifestyle changes take effect. Recent findings are convincing that these drugs effectively reduce cholesterol and inflammation. However, we recommend taking them at the lowest possible effective dosage, and in combination with selenium, Co-Q10, L-carnitine, and ribose supplements to reduce side effects. If you are on a statin, be sure to have your liver enzymes tested regularly to watch for side effects. And remember that small-dose aspirin (80–100 mg daily) can have significant preventative effects.
There is another more recent gift of modern science that is worth mentioning, the 64-slice CT scan of the heart. If you have a strong family history of cardiovascular disease or your risk factors of coronary heart disease are otherwise high, ask your physician about this non-invasive, virtually pain-free procedure. This imaging technique delivers full 3-D images of the heart and other organs in a matter of moments, allowing easy diagnosis and treatment planning — whether that just constitutes prevention for you or immediate surgery. Though the 64-slice CT scan is not available in all areas and most insurance policies do not cover it, the cost can in some cases be justified by the knowledge and options it newly affords us.