Heart Healthy Habits for Human Longevity
Thanks to the pumping action of your heart, blood flows throughout the circulatory system of your body, bringing nutrients, oxygen, and hormones to your vital organs, muscles, skin, and bones, as well as removing toxins and waste products, such as carbon dioxide. The heart is a powerful but sensitive organ.
Unfortunately, cardiovascular disease and heart attack are leading causes of mortality in the U.S. and around the world. Some of the reasons result from modern lifestyles and lifespans that have changed drastically during the past 200+ years with the advent of technologies that improve our lives in many ways, while also tempting us to make unhealthy choices (motorized transportation, manufactured foods, television, etc.) and in some cases increasing emotional stress.
Let’s honor that four-chambered ball of cardiac muscle in your chest and its heartfelt gifts by taking good care of it for American Heart Month in February and celebrating it every day of the year for long term health. There are things we can do to prevent heart disease and having to take pharmaceuticals such as statins, which may cause significant side effects and not be as effective as lifestyle interventions.1,2
Measuring a Healthy Heart
A few key measures of heart and overall health include blood pressure, resting heart rate, and heart rate variability. When blood pressure is too high, it means the heart has to work harder to transport blood around the body. A low resting heart rate indicates more efficient heart function and better cardiac fitness.
Heart rate variability is the time between each heart beat, which perhaps surprisingly is not evenly spaced, but varies by several milliseconds. When the heart beats faster under increased exertion or stress, heart rate variability goes down; when relaxed and recovered, heart rate variability increases. Heart rate variability is an indicator of your recovery and stress level as well.3 When your heart rate variability is low, it means your nervous system is stressed and you are not fully recovered.
The best ways to improve your results on these biomarkers are through optimizing your diet, exercising, and reducing stress. While family history and genetics influence your risks for developing heart disease,4 your lifestyle is largely under your control, and there are things you can do to mitigate increased genetic risk.
When the brain senses changes in the environment, through sensory organs such as the eyes, skin, and ears, it processes and relays the relevant information to the heart through nerves and the endocrine system, which releases hormones that influence various organs including the heart. The brain and heart send signals to each other via nerves of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-recover) nervous system branches.
The heart responds to electrical, hormonal, and other signals by beating harder and faster, or slower and softer, depending on what each situation demands to help us stay alive, accomplish goals, and be at peace.
Your bloodstream contains many hormones that vary throughout the day. Important ones involved in heart health and inflammation include epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. In stressful situations, the sympathetic nervous system activates to release epinephrine and cortisol to boost heart rate which increases blood pressure. If stress becomes a chronic condition, those elevated hormones can damage blood vessels, promote fat buildup, and lead to higher blood pressure or even a heart attack.
Learning and practicing techniques for lowering your stress levels is one of the most important things you can do to protect your heart and overall health. Here are some ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system to reduce cortisol and increase norepinephrine levels:
- Spend time outside in nature
- Take at least six deep breaths in and out; even better, take 30 or 40 deep breaths
- Meditate and practice mindfulness
- Manage negative thoughts and avoid rumination
- Associate with positive people, manage negative thoughts
- Get enough sleep to recover from stressful events and maintain a healthy mood
Chronic inflammation can also be a factor in cardiovascular disease. A recent study found that treating psoriasis, a chronic inflammatory skin disease, with drugs that target the immune system decreased markers for risk of heart attacks and stroke.5
Being overweight or obese also makes the heart work harder to move blood around the body. Often, obesity is accompanied by cholesterol buildups and inflammatory plaque deposits in the arteries that restrict blood flow and increase blood pressure, a condition known as atherosclerosis, also called hardening or clogging of the arteries. Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise is of utmost importance for a healthy heart.
The most effective way to maintain a healthy body weight is through eating a clean, nutrient-rich diet that is right for you. Food allergies and sensitivities can cause inflammation and fat storage,6 so if that might be an issue for you, food sensitivity testing can identify possible food triggers.
Metabolic syndrome describes a group of conditions that often occur together, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes.7 Insulin resistance, in which the body’s cells cannot properly use insulin to process glucose for fuel, is a common factor in metabolic syndrome that can cause of high blood sugar and diabetes. Over time, elevated blood glucose levels can damage and constrict the blood vessels, increasing blood pressure and putting that person at higher risk of heart disease.
When you eat starchy foods, your body combines those carbohydrates with fatty acids to make triglycerides. High triglyceride levels in the blood are another major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, because they can increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particle numbers.8 The more LDL particles in the blood, the more likely they are to damage the artery walls and cause plaque buildups.9
Excess sodium, a component of salt, is also a primary culprit behind high blood pressure. Although, processed foods are generally more to blame than table salt added when cooking healthy foods. Sodium in the bloodstream pulls extra water into the blood, which increases blood volume and blood pressure.
Alcohol and tobacco are two of the most toxic substances you can put in your body, so it is very important to limit or avoid alcohol and not to smoke tobacco. Both are extremely damaging and inflammatory to your blood vessels and heart. Nicotine in tobacco also raises blood pressure.
Key components of a heart healthy diet:
- Eat more vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains — Plant sterols have been shown to reduce blood cholesterol more than statins10
- Reduce meat and sugar intake, both of which can cause inflammation
- Enjoy good sources of potassium, such as avocados, bananas, potatoes, beans, and yogurt
- Keep your blood sugar steady by avoiding high-glycemic-index foods,11 including anything with refined sugar or flour
- Increase fiber intake
- Avoid processed foods, especially those high in added sodium
- Replace salt with herbs and spices for flavor
- Increase consumption of omega 3 fatty acids
- Eliminate hydrogenated fat from your diet
- Do not smoke
- Avoid or limit alcohol
- Enjoy dark chocolate in moderation (at least 70% cacao content)12,13
One of the best ways to get your blood pumping (in a good way) throughout your body to condition your heart muscle and blood vessel resilience is through regular moderate or intense exercise. Adults should aim for at least 30 minutes moderate physical activity every day if possible, while children and adolescents need at least one hour daily to maintain a healthy weight and hormone levels.
If you are not exercising regularly, you should start — but please start slowly and take caution not to over-exert yourself at the beginning of a new exercise program, which may put more stress on your heart than it is ready to handle.
Measures of physical fitness related to heart health include resting heart rate and heart rate variability. An average resting heart rate for most people is around 60 beats per minute, while trained athletes and meditators sometimes reach as low as 40 heart beats per minute when resting. The fewer beats your heart has to make to deliver blood to your tissues, the less wear and tear it will accumulate.
By consistently following the above lifestyle recommendations, your heart and whole body will thank you for reducing your risk of a heart attack,14 without having to resort to using pharmaceutical drugs.15 Here’s to your heart!