Heart health is one of our biggest concerns. You almost certainly know of someone who has suffered a heart attack or stroke, or who suffers from hypertension (high blood pressure).
According to the World Health Organization, heart disease is the leading cause of premature death in the world today. Second comes stroke – and actually, heart attacks and strokes have the same basic cause.
Then come cancer, lung disease and diabetes, and all of these “top five”(should be “worst five” really) become more likely to hit us as we get older.
Every country in the world has problems with heart health. Recent statistics from the United States are that 1.2 million Americans suffer heart attacks each year, and some 452 000 die. That’s well over a thousand people a day, more than 50 every hour, and close to one death every minute.
700 000 Americans suffer strokes each year, 150 000 die, and many survivors are left severely handicapped.
And 72 million US citizens aged 20 or more have clinically high blood pressure (140/90 and above), which is a contributory factor in these tragedies.
Weight is another risk factor for heart health, and 58 million Americans are currently judged to be overweight (including 8 out of 10 over twenty-fives) and 40 million obese.
As I have been writing this, and as you have been reading it, someone, somewhere, has had a heart attack or stroke and died. I don’t know about you, but I am looking at ways to protect myself.
(Or maybe this is Basic Plumbing for Heart Health101)
The heart is a muscle that works as a pump, pushing the fluid we call blood through the pipes we call arteries.
It’s a circulating system. Nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood gets pumped out under pressure, distributes its load of nutrition around the body, cycles back, is refreshed, and is pumped out again.
If the pump stops, we die.
Or, to put it more cheerfully, the better it works, the more healthy we are likely to be. With a healthy heart, all parts of our body, and all the organs, will be receiving a good supply of nourishment through the blood.
Fortunately it’s a pretty efficient system, and the arteries have a slick inner lining to help the blood slide smoothly along. Unfortunately, however, over time these artery walls get damaged.
Oxidative damage is a problem here. It’s the equivalent in our arteries of rust spots on metal when paintwork gets scratched.
These rough spots in the arterial pipes interfere with the blood flow. Maybe just the tiniest bit, but in time they start to gather deposits of the infamous cholesterol.
Cholesterol is necessary for the blood flow, and it’s not necessarily bad. There are two forms, called HDLs and LDLs, and it’s the LDLs that cause trouble because they become sticky when they are oxidized.
So the sticky cholesterol in the blood flow starts to catch on the damaged spots on the artery walls, and a deposit of plaque builds up on the artery walls.
It is reckoned that by the age of 5 years we are already showing signs of plaque, and by the time we are 40 we all have plaque deposits.
As the plaque deposit grows, it narrows down the artery and restricts the flow of blood. The heart muscle has to work harder to push the blood through, and pressure builds up in the clogged system.
It is the combination of high LDL cholesterol and high blood pressure that makes our doctors anxious. And again, excess weight is a factor.
Of course, if the artery walls were sufficiently flexible, they could stretch to compensate for the plaque deposit, but as we age our arteries get harder and stiffer.
Worse still, we now know that some plaque deposits (called vulnerable plaque) are even more dangerous, although they have not in fact narrowed the arteries at all.
Vulnerable plaque is caused by inflammation. The inflammatory process attracts cells of the immune system (called monocytes) to the artery wall where they fill up with fatty plaque. The cell walls form a very thin covering over the plaque, and this results in soft or vulnerable plaque.
When stressed, the thin covering can rupture and the contents (the vulnerable plaque) spills into the bloodstream.
And so we get to the often fatal consequences. Sticky platelets are summoned to the site of the damage. They may continue to build up to form a blockage in the artery, or they may clump together to form a clot that, under pressure, is pushed along until it reaches a point where the artery narrows down. It then forms a blockage.
If that blockage is at the heart, it’s a heart attack; if it happens in the brain, it’s a stroke. So, although we have headed this page “heart health”, we are really looking at the whole cardio-vascular system.
Can we protect ourselves?
Yes, we can. The basic recommendation is to get enough rest, take enough exercise, and be careful with your diet. There are two sides to this:
* taking evasive action to reduce the risk factors, and
* taking proactive steps to increase your body’s ability to fend off disease.
Smoking is a known high risk factor for both heart disease and cancer. To reduce the risk, don’t smoke.
Smoking is especially dangerous for people who have vulnerable plaque in their arteries. The nicotine is itself an inflammatory agent so it speeds up the processes.
Weight control is important for heart health. Most of us now have a good idea of which foods to careful with – fats (though not all fats), refined carbohydrates and sugar.
Obesity (and the diabetes that often accompanies it) also increases the release of C-reactive protein which causes the inflammation in the arteries.
Cholesterol levels have to be controlled, though again, not all cholesterol is bad. LDL, or low density lipoprotein, is the bad sort that forms deposits on the walls of your arteries and clogs them.
HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol actually removes these deposits and shunts them out of your system. So you want your HDL to be high and your LDL to be low.
This is where the different kinds of fats and oils become important.
At one stage, people thought that for the sake of heart health they should cut out all fats altogether. Now we know that while some fats and oils boost the damaging LDL levels, others actually do us good by boosting the HDL levels.
VERY moderate consumption of alcohol (one drink a day for women and maybe two for men) can also increase the “good” cholesterol level.
Excess weight is linked to high “bad” cholesterol levels, and exercise not only helps with weight control but also pushes up the “good” HDL level.
A relatively new discovery is the importance for heart health of homocysteine.
This is an amino acid that is produced by the body, usually as a by-product of the digestion of meat.
High levels of homocysteine in the blood have been linked to heart attacks, strokes, and possibly Alzheimer's disease. High homocysteine levels cause the arteries to narrow and to harden, interfering with blood flow, and also contribute to blood clotting.
In fact, some medical scientists reckon that high homocysteine is even more dangerous than high LDL cholesterol.
High homocysteine levels are cause by a lack of folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 in the system, and can be reduced by the taking these in supplement form.
The baseline for heart health is to take one multivitamin a day. That should supply 400 mcg/day of folic acid in addition to vitamins B6, B12, and other important vitamins.
So, from the risk-reducing side, the recommendations for heart health are:
* don’t smoke
* lose excess weight
* exercise regularly
* control high blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, inflammation and homocysteine levels
Unfortunately, there are other risk-creating factors that we can’t easily control. We might group them all under the one heading…
We know that stress and heart disease go hand-in-hand. Our problem is that so many of the things that stress us – physically, mentally, emotionally and in other ways – are beyond our control. These are things like heavy traffic on the roads, financial worries, a stressful job, the fast pace of modern life. You name it!
Pollution in various forms also puts our bodies under stress. One study found that just six hours of exposure to environmental smoke reduced the HDL cholesterol level (the good cholesterol that we need to balance the bad) by up to 18%.
If we can’t reduce the risk factor of things beyond our control, we have to go another route: we need to improve our body’s natural ability to cope and stay healthy.
What we need to do is nourish our bodies, and particularly our cardio-vascular system, well enough ward off disease. Provided it is properly cared for and nourished, the human body can look after itself pretty well.
Many people will tell you that a normal healthy diet is all you need. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and less of the saturated fats, and you’ll be OK.
Sadly, that’s not really true. Several factors cause this. For example …
* the abnormal stresses on our bodies have become more than a normal diet can counteract, and
* modern foodstuffs – often grown in poor soils, refined, processed and kept in cold storage – have a depleted nutritional value, so that to get sufficient nutrition from “normal” foods, we would have to consume unrealistically large quantities.
For both general health and heart health, it therefore makes sense to supplement our normal daily diet by taking nutritional supplements.
With cardio-vascular problems in mind, we can think in terms of three levels of supplementation: for everyday health; for protection against stress; and for protection against heart disease specifically.
For everyday good health, a general multi-vitamin and Omega-3 are good starting points. A good multi-vitamin will contain basic levels of the Vitamin Bs and folic acid, and Omega-3 has many benefits (we’ll expand on this in a moment).
As a foundation for good health the formulation of lipids and sterols called Tre-en-en* repairs, feeds and protects cells from all manner of ailments.
For stress, an increased intake of Vitamin B Complex is advisable (it also helps reduce homocysteine levels). Aloe Vera in liquid form is a stress-beating tonic.
For heart health specifically …:
Omega-3 is vital.
It has been found that people who have a diet high in fatty fish or supplement daily with Omega-3 have a 50% - 70% lower risk of heart disease.
Omega 3 …
* lowers bad cholesterol (LDLs) and increases the good HDLs;
* opens up the arteries and improves blood flow;
* lubricates the platelets and reduces the plaque that forms deposits in the crucial arteries, thereby
* reducing the risk of clot formation;
* is anti-inflammatory, and also
* in the event of a heart attack, it reduces the risk of the heart stopping altogether.
A note about the Omega oils – Omega-3 and Omega-6 are amongst the oils that do us good. Omega-6 is inflammatory and Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. Both are needed at the right times, but we need to keep them in the right balance.
We usually get enough Omega-6 through a normal diet, but the best source of Omega-3 is oily fish – salmon, sardines, tuna and so on. And it needs to be raw for full effect.
So if you are not eating raw oily fish at least twice a week, you are almost certainly not getting enough Omega-3! This is one of the cases where our normal diet lets us down, and supplementation becomes the best solution.
Garlic also reduces LDL cholesterol, inhibits blood clotting, reduces platelet clumping, and lowers blood pressure - all good for heart health. Here’s another case where a supplement may be preferable to chewing on a raw clove.
Oxidative damage to the artery walls and the oxidation of LDL cholesterol are root causes of cardio-vascular problems, so anti-oxidants such as the carotenoids are important. So are Vitamins C and E.
Fibre helps too, by mopping up the damaging oils and fats.
Then for the control of homocysteine levels, there is a specific formulation that we use and recommend called Lipotropic Adjunct*.
The sensible thing is to protect your body before problems start.
Protective supplementation not only helps with heart health, but with other potential problems as well. And remember that if your heart is working effectively, every organ in the body benefits.
It is wise to start looking after yourself from early on and make it part of your lifestyle.
A sound basis would be a lifelong daily intake of good quality supplements providing
* A multi-vitamin
* Carotenoids and
Tre-en-en and Lipotropic Adjunct are available from only one producer.