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There’s never a bad time to take a look at your heart health and how you can make dietary and lifestyle changes. Rude Health magazine gets some expert advice for Irish Heart Month

Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the western world, including Ireland, and though it’s often associated with men, post-menopausal women have an equally high chance of developing heart problems,” says Jill Bell from health store Well and Good in Midleton, Co Cork. “Women can experience different symptoms to men and these can sometimes be put down to depression or hormonal issues. Breast cancer is in all our minds, but in fact heart disease is seven times more likely to see us out, and it goes without saying that prevention is better than cure.”

“Heart, or cardiovascular, disease is quite prevalent in the Irish population,” says Gerald Colfer of health store Only Natural in Wexford. “In today’s fast paced life, where people can be subjected to unhealthy processed foods, stress and sedentary lifestyles early signs of cardiovascular disease may manifest such as raised blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.”

Prevention better than cure

“Maintaining a normal body weight and taking part in regular physical activity has been proven to reduce the risk of prevalent diseases like metabolic syndrome, type two diabetes and heart disease,” says Gerald Colfer. “Maintaining control of stress levels and good quality sleep have positive impacts on weight and blood pressure.”

“Smoking and alcohol are trouble makers, whereas eating a healthy diet along with regular exercise and reasonable body weight can help to reduce raised blood pressure, high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and raised triglyceride levels,” says Jill Bell. “The body produces cholesterol when blood sugar and insulin levels rise as a result of eating refined carbs, sugars and the wrong fats. By reducing the intake of these foods and alcohol, excess body weight will drop as will triglyceride and cholesterol levels. Some experts maintain that raised cholesterol isn’t the best predictor of heart disease. They say that homocysteine, an amino acid produced in the body, can cause blood clots and damage artery walls. Homocysteine can successfully be controlled by diet and supplementing with B vitamins.”

The Mediterranean Diet

“Certain foods can influence blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol levels and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for heart disease,” says Jill Bell. “The Mediterranean diet, with good (olive) oil, salads, lots of colourful vegetables, berries, plenty of fish, raw garlic, less meat, fewer starchy processed foods and salty, sugary snacks, is just what the doctor ordered. Add to that leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach high in vitamin K and nitrates, wholegrains such as oats, brown rice and barley, nuts and seeds such as flax, chia and pumpkin, plus a square or two of dark chocolate and a cup of green tea.”

“The Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, olive oil, wholegrains, fruits, nuts, spices and herbs with a moderate amount of poultry and fish,” says Gerald Colfer. “Reduce or avoid processed foods, red meat, dairy, alcohol and refined carbohydrates. This alone can make a great difference.”

Stress and your heart

“From time immemorial humans have sensed the connection between the heart and emotions,” says Jill Bell. “Think heart-broken, downhearted, heartache, change of heart, half-hearted. It’s known now that the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with stress, can signal the production of extra white cells in the body which promotes inflammation of the arteries. Deep belly breathing, yoga, exercise and lifestyle changes can have a profound effect on stress levels and heart health, and supplements such as passiflora, l-theanine, rhodiola, Siberian ginseng and others can be very helpful.”

Natural supplements

“To maintain a healthy heart the number one supplement we recommend is fish oil, either in capsule of liquid form,” says Jill Bell. “It has the effect of thinning blood, thus easing pressure on the heart. Garlic, the most widely used medicinal herb in the world, has a similar effect. To help regulate cholesterol production lecithin derived from soya is useful, as are vitamins C, B3, B6 and B12, and red yeast rice. Magnesium provides vital support to the heart muscle as well as for the nervous system when dealing with stress and, along with fish oil, works well to stabilise blood pressure.”

“Omega-3 fish oils (EPA and DHA rich) are anti-inflammatory and can reduce cardio metabolic risk factors such as blood pressure,” says Gerald Colfer. "I also recommend:

Co-enzyme Q10 strengthens heart muscle and can improve a variety of heart conditions by decreasing oxidative stress.

Soluble fibre reduces cholesterol absorption in the intestines by binding with cholesterol so it is excreted. It can be found in psyllium powder, oats, legumes, flaxseeds and fruits such as apples and prunes.

Plant sterols are similar in structure to cholesterol, they seem to block the absorption of cholesterol from the intestines.

Artichoke seems to work by limiting the synthesis of cholesterol in the body, but also by boosting bile flow which may increase cholesterol excretion.

So if, like many Irish people, you feel your heart disease risk factors are high, don’t despair. Start with a little work on diet and lifestyle to move things in the right direction and use supplements appropriately to reap all the benefits of a healthy heart.”

Super heart supplements:

  • Amino acid L-Arginine – can help lower blood pressure and help protect against heart disease.
  • Cayenne – opens up the cardiovascular system and makes it easier for blood to flow through the blood vessels, helping to lower blood pressure.
  • Chromium – helps maintain normal blood sugar levels.
  • Green tea – a relaxing drink thought to be helpful in controlling cholesterol.
  • Hawthorne – as a tea or tincture, is an effective and gentle modulator if the heart is either over- or under-performing.
  • Potassium – as a food supplement can be very effective in reducing blood pressure.
  • Sterols and stanols – found in nuts and grains, these compounds help control cholesterol levels. Also available as supplements.

“Your average heart pumps more than 2,000 gallons of blood in 24 hours, so little wonder this muscle needs exercise, like any other muscle in the body. The nearer normalyour blood pressure the more efficiently your heart can work.” – Jill Bell

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