Have a Healthy Heart

Reduce your risk of heart disease with herbs and a nutrient-rich diet.

| January/February 2005

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, about 1.5 million Americans will suffer heart attacks this year. However, statistics do not equal fate. Many proactive steps are available to help reduce the risk, from the foods we eat (and avoid), to the herbs and supplements we take and the lifestyle changes we incorporate.

Health practitioners have known for some time that for good heart health, we need to avoid saturated fats and watch our cholesterol levels — and many studies continue to confirm this. Lowering our cholesterol concentrations can result in a 25 percent decrease in death from heart disease, according to research published in the British Medical Journal.

People tend to be much more aware of their blood lipid profiles today than they were even a few years ago. A lipid profile is a blood test that measures levels for total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol), low-density lipoprotein (LDL, also known as “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides.

The goal is not to achieve as low a cholesterol level as possible but to achieve a healthy cholesterol ratio. This ratio refers to the amount of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol and should be at least 3.5:1 — higher numbers are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. (To find this ratio, divide your total cholesterol by your HDL level.) Because this ratio increases with higher HDL levels, increasing HDL is important for a healthy heart. The best way to increase HDL is to exercise. Decades ago, heart patients were told to rest, but now we know that 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to five times a week can prevent the development of heart disease (and reduce symptoms in those who already have heart disease).

Besides cutting down on foods that are high in saturated fat, such as red meat, eating more plant sterols can help reduce cholesterol levels. Sterols are lipid-soluble compounds that include beta-sitosterol, stigmasterol and campesterol. Good sources of plant sterols include peanuts, seeds, whole grains, nuts and legumes, such as soybeans. Plant sterols decrease cholesterol by reducing the amount of cholesterol absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract.

In fact, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a diet that included 2 grams a day of sterols, 42 grams a day of soy protein and 19 grams a day of viscous fiber, such as oats, decreased cholesterol as effectively as statin drugs did.

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