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On the pulse

As Irish Heart Month approaches what can we do to protect our hearts from health issues and control cholesterol and blood pressure?

”Heart problems are caused by some factors we cannot change, like age, and factors we can change, like our lifestyle,” says Janis Morrissey, Director of Health Promotion, Information and Training with the Irish Heart Foundation. “The good news is that 80 per cent of premature cardiovascular disease is preventable through healthy lifestyles.

“Coronary heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in Ireland for both men and women,” says nutritional therapist Olive Curran who works with PPC in Galway. “Risk factors to consider include high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and obesity. High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors associated with coronary heart disease. Shockingly, four out of five people over 45 years have high cholesterol, and two-thirds of these are untreated.”

“There is strong evidence that female-specific risk factors such as menopause and high blood pressure in pregnancy contribute to heart disease and stroke,” says Janis Morrissey. “In September, the Irish Heart Foundation is running its Her Heart Matters campaign to raise awareness that women are five times more likely to die from heart disease and stroke than breast cancer.”

Your heart-friendly diet

“Diet wise try to eat less processed foods, less saturated fat, salt, sugar and meat,” says Bernadette Cass from health store the Fruit ‘N Nut Place in Portlaoise, Co Laois. “Eat smaller meals as opposed to large meals. Include good fats such as flax, walnut, hemp, pumpkin and unrefined cold pressed nut and seed oils over your food once it’s cooked. Oat, wheatgerm, nuts and seeds should be part of your daily diet, beetroot juice is really good for heart health and blood pressure and including garlic helps with cholesterol too.”

“Research shows a Mediterranean-style diet can help to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke,” says Janis Morrissey. “Like the Irish Food Pyramid, a Mediterranean-style diet is based around fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, beans and other pulses, nuts and seeds. It includes some olive oil, fish, seafood and poultry, and is low in sugar, processed foods and red meat.”

“People who follow a Mediterranean diet don’t think of their eating habits as a diet plan,” says Olive Curran. “It’s simply a way of life that can lead to long, healthy lives with less chance of chronic disease. Healthy, tasty and nutritious, the Mediterranean diet has lots of different tastes to offer. Fish is eaten regularly, and there is low consumption of meat. A glass of red wine is often enjoyed with meals. The Mediterranean diet discourages the consumption of saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats), both of which contribute to heart disease.

“Fruits and vegetables provide a multitude of antioxidants that help prevent LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidising, which prevents plaque from building up on the insides of the walls of the arteries. Snack on whole fruits or vegetable crudités with hummus, add salad as a side to each meal and include lots of vegetables with your dinner. Eat a vegetarian meal at least twice a week.”

Choose healthier fats

“The basic rule is that ’bad’ fats, saturated and trans fats, increase the risk for certain diseases; ‘good’ monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower disease risk,” says Olive Curran. “The key to a healthy diet is to include more good fats such as fatty fish, seeds such as flaxseed and seed oils, olive oil, nuts such as walnuts.

“Omega-3 fats EPA and DHA from cold water fatty fish (sardines, anchovies, mackerel, salmon) have many benefits for heart health. They have been shown to lower triglycerides, balance cholesterol, regulate heart rate and make blood platelets less sticky. Omega-3 fats are found in high amounts in oily fish and to a lesser degree in nuts and seeds.”

Heart-supporting supplements

“A healthy balanced and varied diet will provide your body with all of the vitamins and minerals you need in most cases,” says Janis Morrissey.

Supplements that may help keep your heart healthy:

L-Arginine – studies have shown that l-arginine can help lower blood pressure and help protect us against heart disease.

Chromium – helps to maintain normal blood sugar levels.

Coenzyme Q10 – “a powerful antioxidant that can work well with selenium, vitamins C and E and zinc to help protect arteries from damage,” says Olive Curran.

“The herb hawthorn is really good for emotional and physical support for your heart, it helps with blood pressure too,” says Bernadette Cass.

“Magnesium is an anti-stress mineral that is needed in high quantities by your heart muscle,” says Bernadette Cass.

Omega-3 – “There is more scientific evidence behind the cardiovascular benefits of fish oil than any other nutritional supplement,” says Olive Curran.

Plant sterols – “If your cholesterol is high, taking plant sterols should be your first step,” says Olive Curran. “Plant sterols work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine, which contributes to a significant decrease in blood LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol.”

“Rose essential oil is a lovely addition to use externally for your heart. Mix a few drops with almond oil or aloe vera gel and rub it over your heart area,” says Bernadette Cass.

Vitamin B3 (niacin) – has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol which helps to reduce cholesterol.

Vitamin C – strengthens artery walls, protects against plaque deposits, and increases the availability of nitric oxide, which helps to dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow.

“Vitamin E strengthens artery walls, improves muscle function and oxygen supply to the heart,” says Bernadette Cass.

Other heart supports include:

Artichoke – can help the liver to produce more bile which clears toxins including unwanted cholesterol.

Cayenne – opens up the cardiovascular system and makes it easier for blood to flow through the blood vessels, helping to lower blood pressure.

Green tea – a relaxing drink thought to be helpful in controlling cholesterol.

Ask your local health store staff for advice.

Heart-friendly lifestyle

“Being physically active is one of the most important things you can do for your heart,” says Olive Curran. “Exercise helps to lower blood pressure and strengthen your heart muscle. Smoking is also a major risk factor for heart disease as it contributes to hardening of the arteries. If you drink, drink in true moderation.”

“Actively managing your stress levels is a major factor,” says Bernadette Cass. “Take time to slow down and enjoy your hobbies. Do yoga and deep breathing. Remember to talk to people and get things off your chest.”

“If you feel stressed, your blood will produce more hormones,” says Janis Morrissey. “Although these hormones are useful in small amounts, too many of them continuously and over time can damage your arteries and may lead to high blood pressure.”

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