One American dies from cardiovascular disease every 35 seconds—be it from a heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure or other condition of the heart and blood vessels. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States for both men and women, claiming more lives than the next four leading causes (cancer, respiratory illnesses, accidents and diabetes) combined. But what may be even more surprising to know is that just about 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 recent 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 probably already know the standard prescription for preventing heart disease: Don’t smoke. Get regular exercise. Limit dietary salt and saturated (animal) fat. Banish trans fats. Maintain your recommended weight. Control your cholesterol and blood pressure. In addition, several herbs, supplements and other natural approaches can help.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is an herbal mainstay for heart health. In a classic study, researchers at New York Medical College in Valhalla analyzed five 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. So, according to these studies, a daily clove cuts heart attack risk by about 18 percent.
Other studies, however, show no cholesterol-lowering effect of garlic, notably a recent Stanford report published in Archives of Internal Medicine that used both raw cloves and a garlic supplement. At this point, the weight of the evidence still favors garlic as a cholesterol reducer. But even if it isn’t, the stinking rose is still good for the heart.
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.
Finally, garlic helps prevent the formation of the internal blood clots that trigger heart attacks and most strokes.
To get the most of garlic’s cholesterol-lowing benefits, chop, mince or smash it to release its heart-protective compounds. Cook lightly or eat raw. If you’d rather not eat a clove of fresh garlic a day, garlic supplements, including deodorized brands, have similar effects. In fact, most of the studies showing that garlic lowers cholesterol have used aged garlic extract, not fresh cloves. Garlic supplements with proven benefit include Kwai and Kyolic. Follow supplement label directions, or take the equivalent of one clove a day.
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. Since then, many other studies have shown that tea protects the heart. It is very 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 actually means serious 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 agree.
In addition, several studies show that hawthorn helps reduce blood pressure.
Heart failure demands professional medical care. If you’d like to supplement 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.
Less animal fat. No trans fats. More fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and nuts. And more fish (low in mercury). That’s the diet mantra for heart protection. Meats, whole milk dairy foods and many processed foods (potato chips, baked goods, etc.) are high in either saturated fat, cholesterol or trans fats, all of which increase the risk for heart disease. Meanwhile, plant foods are high in fiber and antioxidants that keep the heart healthy. And fish contains a special type of fat (omega-3 fatty acids) that protects the heart.
Many studies show that as consumption of plant foods increases, the risk of heart disease (and cancer) declines. Harvard researchers tracked the diet and health of 43,700 men for six years. As the subjects’ intake of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains increased, their risk of heart disease plummeted. Another Harvard group tracked 68,700 women for 10 years, with the same results.
But 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. Several studies show that the Mediterranean diet protects the heart, reduces the risk of heart disease and aids recovery from heart attack.
The American Heart Association urges Americans to eat more salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids. And no wonder: Many 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 at fish two to four times a week, risk declined 34 percent.
But recently, some fish—tuna, swordfish, mackerel and shark—have been shown to be high in toxic mercury. Fortunately, other fish and seafood containing omega-3s are still safe to eat: salmon, shrimp, trout and catfish. Or take fish oil supplements (see “Best Choices in Supplements,” at right).
Nuts—specifically almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and pecans—are another heart-healthy food. They’re high in calories, so weight watchers should not over-indulge. But if you minimize meat, junk food and rich desserts, adding some nuts to your diet won’t add pounds. Many studies show that nuts reduce cholesterol. South African researchers recently reviewed 23 studies. Their conclusion: Nuts consistently and significantly lower cholesterol.
Two major heart supplements are fish oil and coenzyme Q-10.
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 hearts 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 prevent heart disease. The myth is that you have to sweat buckets to gain the health benefits of exercise. In fact, 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, and the more the better. Compared with intense workouts, the heart benefits of brisk walking were almost as great.
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. Recent studies agree. British researchers catalogued the number of Type A traits in 2,884 men. As the number increased, so did the men’s risk of 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 regimens diminish the ravages of stress on the heart. Recently, 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, both yoga and Transcendental Meditation (TM) have been shown to be heart savers. A recent Indian study shows that yoga reduces blood pressure, cholesterol and other blood markers associated with heart disease. A study by UCLA researchers showed that in people with high blood pressure, TM significantly reduces it, which reduces risk of both heart attack and stroke.
A good stress management routine is key for a healthy heart.
Absence makes the heart grow weaker—absence of close personal relationships, that is. Swedish researchers correlated the progression of atherosclerosis with social support in 102 Swedish women. Independent of all other risk factors, over three years, those who were the most socially isolated showed the most arterial narrowing. Spanish researchers have found that in people with heart failure, those with the most social support are the least likely to be hospitalized.
Dean Ornish, M.D., is a scrupulously mainstream medical researcher whose studies have repeatedly shown that a combination of natural approaches can accomplish what high-tech drugs, bypass surgery and angioplasty cannot—actual reversal of heart disease. Over the past 30 years, in a series of landmark studies (and bestselling books describing them), Ornish has proven beyond any scientific doubt that a combination of an ultra-low-fat diet, daily exercise, meditation, yoga, and a support group can bring people with heart disease back from the brink of death and give them a new lease on life.
Many complain that the Ornish diet is “too hard” for the typical American. That’s true. But the diet Ornish uses to reverse heart disease is prescribed only for those who have one foot in the grave from serious heart disease. Healthier folks don’t have to go to such extremes. For most people, a Mediterranean diet works fine.
Ornish’s work proves that low-tech natural approaches to heart health work wonders—and for a fraction of the cost of conventional heart disease treatment.
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. •
Michael Castleman is a widely published health writer. Visit his website at www.mcastleman.com.
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