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Take it to heart

Looking after your heart health and cholesterol is highlighted in September’s Irish Heart Foundation heart month

There were 9,652 deaths from heart disease and stroke in 2022 which is an increase compared to the previous year," says Dr Angie Brown, Consultant Cardiologist and Medical Director with the Irish Heart Foundation. "Furthermore, we are seeing rising levels of high blood pressure and other risk factors, so there is a concern that the mortality from heart disease and stroke may rise again unless we address these risk factors. The risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, in particular, high LDL (bad) cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, sedentary lifestyles, excess alcohol, family history of premature heart disease, and age."

Prevention is best

"We can’t do anything about our family history or age, but we can about the other risk factors," says Dr Brown. "So, if you have a family history of premature heart disease it’s even more important to get your blood pressure checked, a blood test to measure your cholesterol and blood sugar. Have a healthy diet, don’t smoke, ensure you stay as physically active as you can, and reduce your alcohol consumption. It’s also important to be aware of the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke and call an ambulance if you think you are having a heart attack or stroke."

Managing cholesterol

"For most people, the behaviours required to bring down their cholesterol number, can improve heart health," says Liz O’Byrne, a nutritional therapist who works with health store the Aloe Tree in Ennistymon, Co Clare. "This can be done by introducing lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking, taking regular exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet and taking supplements if recommended, plus taking advice from your healthcare provider."

"Being careful with your diet will help to reduce the amount of cholesterol in your system," says Bernadette Cass from health store The Fruit ‘N Nut Place in Portlaoise. "A diet with a wide and varied amount of vegetables and good fats is the aim in supporting a healthy heart and adequate cholesterol in your body. Fibre that is found in oats can help take out excessive cholesterol from our bodies, as well as apples. Eating more raw foods and reducing processed foods is always helpful for our health. Seeds such as linseed and chia seeds are a source of omega-3 and these help to reduce inflammation and increase bowel movements. Aim to reduce certain foods like eggs and cheese and fatty foods like fries. Drink beetroot, pomegranate and aronia berry juice to help your heart health."

Heart friendly diet

"A heart friendly diet is fibre rich and contains lots of colourful fruits and vegetables, wholegrains and lean protein such as chicken and fish (particularly oily fish) and healthful fats," says Liz O’Byrne.

"Raw foods such as fruit, greens and sprouts are ideal," says Bernadette Cass. "Try to include nuts and seeds daily as these provide you with good fats and minimise foods that are processed. Processed foods usually contain trans fats which should be avoided as much as possible."

Choosing the best fats and oils

"Choose unsaturated fats (these are liquid at room temperature) which are mainly found in plants," advises Liz O’Byrne. "They are anti-inflammatory and therefore good for our hearts. There are two types of these ‘good’ unsaturated fats – polyunsaturated fats, found in fish oils, walnuts, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, soybean oil and sunflower oil; and monounsaturated fats, found in avocados, peanut and olive oils, nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts and pecans and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame. Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat that cannot be made by the body and must be derived from the foods we eat. The best way to get adequate omega-3s is by eating oily fish a couple of times per week. Plant sources are flaxseeds, walnuts and soybean oil."

Sugar and your heart

"Sugar intake should be kept to a minimum, mainly because it contains empty calories," says Liz O’Byrne. "Choose naturally-occurring sugars in food such as fructose from a piece of fresh fruit (rather than dried or fruit juice) as the fibre can help prevent blood sugar spikes." Bernadette Cass agrees: "Sugar messes up our cortisol levels and this is linked to the stress hormone. It is better to eat fruit which has natural-occurring sugars to get your sweet hit."

Heart friendly supplements

"Supplements I would recommend to prevent heart issues are garlic, hawthorn, coenzyme CoQ10, magnesium, omega-3, vitamin D3 and K2 supplements," says Bernadette Cass.

"A fish oil or vegan omega-3 supplement is recommended if you are not eating at least two portions of oily fish per week," says Liz O’Byrne.

Natural support for your heart

  • Amino acid L-arginine – can help lower blood pressure and help protect against heart disease.
  • Artichoke – reduces levels of LDL cholesterol, and helps 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.
  • Co-enzyme Q10 – nourishes and strengthens the muscles of our body, particularly the hard working heart muscle.
  • Chromium – helps maintain normal blood sugar levels.
  • Fish oil supplements – impart an improvement in cardiovascular risk and help to thin the blood. A supplement of fish oil with omega 3 will cut down on unhealthy fats called triglycerides.
  • 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.
  • Magnesium – maintains the regularity of the heartbeat as well as keeping blood pressure within the normal range.
  • Omega-3 – from fish or plant sources. It is a natural blood thinner and anti-inflammatory, and some omega-3 products combine plant sterols with the oil, doubly useful for the circulatory system.
  • 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.
  • Vitamin C – strengthens artery walls, protects against plaque deposits, and increases the availability of nitric oxide, which helps to improve blood flow.

Other help may include a high strength garlic formulation, vitamin D3, niacin, red yeast rice or lecithin.

Ask your local health store staff for advice.

Irish Heart Month
This September the Irish Heart Foundation is running the ‘Her Heart Matters’ campaign with support from the HSE and Healthy Ireland, to increase awareness of the risk of heart disease and stroke in women and the fact that this risk increases as women enter menopause.

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