The statistics might be dreary, but heart ailments are not inevitable. Low-tech, low-cost changes in lifestyle and diet, plus health-building herbs,can make all the difference.
You aren’t going to like these statistics. But you don’t have to live them out.
One American dies every 35 seconds from cardiovascular disease—from a heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, or other condition of the heart and blood vessels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States for men and women, claiming more lives than the next four leading causes (cancer, respiratory illnesses, accidents and diabetes) combined.
What you might find even more surprising is that almost every American has the beginnings of this condition. That’s right—unless you’ve been a lifelong vegan, it’s virtually certain that your artery walls show at least the beginnings of the cholesterol-rich deposits (atherosclerosis) that lead to heart attack and most strokes. That’s what several studies have found, including a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association by pathologists who autopsied the arteries of 2,876 Americans who died between the ages of 15 and 34. All of them—100 percent—showed at least some atherosclerosis.
Now the good news: Lifestyle and dietary modifications offer measurable protection against diseases of the heart and blood vessels. You know the standard prescription for preventing heart disease: Don’t smoke. Exercise regularly. Limit dietary salt and saturated (animal) fat. Banish trans fats. Maintain your recommended weight. Control your cholesterol and blood pressure.
What you might not know is the list of herbs, supplements and other natural approaches that also can make a difference.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is an herbal mainstay for heart health. In a classic study, researchers at New York Medical College in Valhalla analyzed five previous studies and found that one clove a day reduces cholesterol by 9 percent. Other studies show similar reductions. For every 1 percent decrease in total cholesterol, the risk of heart attack drops 2 percent.
The issue isn’t cut and dried, however. Some studies show no cholesterol-lowering effect of garlic, notably a recent Stanford report published in Archives of Internal Medicine that used raw cloves and a garlic supplement. But right now the weight of evidence still favors using garlic as a cholesterol reducer.
Garlic reduces the volume of the atherosclerotic plaques that narrow the arteries. German researchers measured plaque volume in 152 people with heart disease, then gave them garlic (900 mg a day). After four years, their plaque volume was reduced by up to 18 percent, resulting in a substantial increase in blood flow and significantly less risk for heart attack and stroke.
Garlic also helps prevent the formation of internal blood clots that trigger heart attacks and most strokes.
Tea (Camellia sinensis)—black, green, oolong and other varieties—is the world’s second most popular beverage (after water). In Chinese medicine, tea is believed to counteract the damage inflicted by greasy foods. Westerners began to take notice of tea’s healthful effects when a Dutch study in the early 1990s showed that the antioxidant flavonoids in tea reduce the risk of heart disease. Many subsequent studies have shown that tea protects the heart. It is high in antioxidant compounds that prevent—and undo—the cell damage at the root of heart disease (and most cancers). Researchers at the University of North Carolina analyzed 17 studies of tea and heart disease. Their conclusion: Three cups a day reduces heart attack risk 11 percent.
Coronary artery disease leads to heart attack. Another serious form of heart disease is heart failure, which indicates heart weakness. In heart failure, the heart can’t pump as well as it should. The result is profound fatigue, fluid build-up in the lungs and often death.
Many studies show that hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) safely stimulates weak hearts to beat more normally and efficiently. German researchers tested fatigue and shortness of breath in 952 people with heart failure, then gave them one of three treatments: conventional drugs, drugs plus hawthorn or just hawthorn. Two years later, all three groups improved, but the hawthorn groups improved more than those who took just drugs. Other studies support this one. Several studies also have shown that hawthorn helps reduce blood pressure.
Heart failure isn’t something to try to treat on your own; you must have professional medical care if you are suffering from heart failure or coronary artery disease. If you want to supplement your medications with hawthorn, follow supplement label directions, or take 160 to 900 mg of a standardized extract in two to three divided doses a day.
The diet mantra for a healthy heart is familiar to all of us: Less animal fat; no trans fats; more fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and nuts; more low-mercury fish. Avoid meats, whole milk, dairy foods and processed foods (potato chips, baked goods, etc.) that are high in saturated fat, cholesterol or trans fats. Eat plant foods that are high in fiber and antioxidants. Fish contains a special type of fat (omega-3 fatty acids) that protects the heart and is a part of the heart-healthy diet.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to gain these benefits. The Mediterranean diet is rich in plant foods and fish but also contains olive oil (high in monounsaturated fat) and modest amounts of meat and dairy products. Several studies show that the Mediterranean diet protects the heart, reduces the risk of heart disease and aids recovery from heart attack.
It’s no wonder that the American Heart Association urges Americans to eat more salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids: Studies show that as fish consumption increases, heart disease risk falls. Harvard researchers followed the fish consumption and heart attack risk of 84,700 women for 16 years. Compared with those who rarely ate fish (less than once a month), women who ate more had a significantly lower risk of heart disease. For those who ate fish two to four times a week, risk declined 34 percent.
Recently some fish—tuna, swordfish, mackerel and shark—have been found to be high in toxic mercury. Fortunately, other omega 3-rich fish and seafood are still safe to eat—salmon, shrimp, trout and catfish. Fish oil supplements are also an excellent substitute.
Nuts—specifically almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts—are another heart-healthy food. South African researchers reviewed 23 studies. Their conclusion: Nuts consistently and significantly lower cholesterol.
Two major heart supplements are fish oil and coenzyme Q10. If you don’t care for fish, fish oil supplements provide the same benefits. Clinical nutritionist Shari Lieberman, Ph.D., recommends four to six fish oil capsules a day containing 180 to 400 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) plus 120 to 300 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Coenzyme Q10 is a catalyst for many chemical reactions in the body, especially in the heart, where it boosts energy production and the heart’s pumping efficiency. It’s also an antioxidant. Many studies show that CoQ10 strengthens the heart. Indian researchers report that it reduces risk of heart attack. University of Connecticut researchers have shown that it strengthens the hearts of patients suffering from heart failure. Lieberman recommends 50 to 300 mg a day.
Dozens of studies show that regular, moderate exercise improves fitness, sleep, and mood—and helps control weight and prevents heart disease. You don’t have to sweat buckets to gain the health benefits of exercise; brisk walking for 30 to 60 minutes a day is sufficient. Harvard researchers tracked the exercise habits of 73,700 postmenopausal women. Any exercise reduced their heart disease risk—the more the better. The good news? The heart benefits of brisk walking were almost as great as the benefits of intense workouts.
You’ve probably heard of Type A behavior. It’s characterized by impatience, hostility, anger and aggression. Thirty years ago, researchers demonstrated that being Type A increases the risk of heart attack. More recent studies support this hypothesis. British researchers cataloged the number of Type A traits in 2,884 men. As the number increased, so did the men’s risk of having a heart attack unusually early in life. In addition, any emotional stress can reduce blood flow through the heart and contribute to heart attack.
Fortunately, stress management diminishes the ravages of stress on the heart. In 2005, Duke researchers enrolled 134 people with heart disease in a program involving one of three treatments: routine medical care, routine care plus exercise, or routine care plus a stress management class. Compared with usual care, both exercise and stress management improved participants’ heart function.
Among the various stress management regimens, yoga and Transcendental Meditation have been shown to be heart savers.
All the approaches in this article help the heart. Mix and match the ones that best fit into your life and the lives of those you love.
Should you drink alcohol to prevent heart disease? And if so, is red wine best? A great deal of research shows that moderate alcohol intake—no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women—reduces risk of heart attack. The most beneficial alcoholic beverage is red wine, in part because of its alcohol content, but also significantly because it begins as purple grape juice. The pigments that give dark and brightly colored fruits and vegetables their color are rich in antioxidants. Drink alcohol (in moderation) if you like. But you can get almost as much benefit by drinking purple grape juice. Recent studies show that purple grape juice lowers cholesterol, improves arterial function, and inhibits the formation of the internal blood clots that trigger heart attack and most strokes.
Michael Castleman is a widely published health writer. Visit his website at www.mcastleman.com.