February is traditionally the month for focusing on your heart. And not just because of Valentine’s Day. Back in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson first proclaimed February as American Heart Month, a time to focus on heart health education with the goal of reducing what is the number one killer of Americans—heart disease.
In fact, according to the most recent statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), the leading cause of death worldwide is cardiovascular disease, stemming from ischemic heart disease and stroke.
At OmegaQuant, we are just one organization to follow the former president’s lead and dedicate the month of February to sharing heart-healthy information on this blog. Other organizations, too, like the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are just a few of the scientific, medical, government, for-profit and non-profits educating the public on best practices to help reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.
Are you wondering this: can heart health be improved? Let’s put it this way. Scientific experts point to several things that are helpful to your heart. For our part today, we’re going to remind you why heart health is important, give a shout-out to some heart-healthy nutrients, and talk about the basics of good heart health.
Why is Heart Health Important?
It’s kind of an obvious question. With even more obvious answers. But it’s worth laying the basic groundwork.
Here are three main functions of your heart:
- Your heart pumps blood throughout your body. In turn, your blood transports oxygen and nutrients to your body’s tissues. It also removes carbon dioxide and unwanted stuff (that’s the non-scientific term) from the tissues. Without working blood, your tissues would be functionless and you’d wither away. And without your heart beating in an appropriate manner, your blood couldn’t do its job.
- Your heart partners with your body’s other systems—including your nervous system—to control your heart’s pace. For adults, your resting heart rate should be between 60-100 beats per minute. Numbers outside of that range may signal a problem with your heart, itself, or with your brain, thyroid or other organs. Read more about heart rate here.
- Your heart regulates your blood pressure. High blood pressure can result in heart attacks, strokes and general heart disease while low blood pressure can lead to dizziness, fainting and shock, which can end in death if not addressed in time.
Needless to say, if your heart isn’t healthy, you won’t be either. Read more about how your heart functions here.
5 Nutrients to Keep Your Heart Healthy
You know this: your diet plays an important role in health. What you eat, and how much you eat, can help determine whether your heart loves you back. Here are five nutrients (and one honorable mention) that can help keep you heart healthy.
- Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)
PUFAs are one of the good fats, especially for the heart. And two of the most important PUFAs are omega-3 EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), found in the oil (and sometimes in the tissues) of fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, halibut, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies. (There are also plant-based sources of omega-3, known as ALA, which is converted into EPA and DHA in the body.)
With over 40,000 published studies, omega-3 EPA and DHA are among the world’s most researched nutrients, and heart health is just one of the areas where omega-3s can be beneficial.
Omega-3s help reduce inflammation and some (but not all) research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids may help lower triglycerides or blood pressure, reduce blood clotting and irregular heartbeats, and decrease the risk of strokes and heart attacks. (As an aside, while omega-3s have an impact on many risk factors associated with heart disease, they do not lower cholesterol—but they also don’t appear to increase bad cholesterol levels.)
The amount of omega-3s you’re getting plays a role in the heart health benefits conferred by EPA and DHA, which is one reason why testing your blood levels to determine your Omega-3 Index is smart.
Read more here.
It’s technically a mineral, but one that’s often referred to as a nutrient. Many people are not getting enough magnesium in their conventional diets, especially teenagers and men over 70 years old, one reason to consider supplementing.
When it comes to food, magnesium is available in green leafy vegetables (e.g., spinach), legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains and some dairy products such as milk and yogurt. You’ll also find magnesium in fortified foods, including some breakfast cereals.
When it comes to magnesium and heart disease, some studies have shown that people with more magnesium in their diets lower their risk for heart disease and stroke—but it’s not always possible to tease out the effect from other nutrients. Magnesium is also believed to help regulate the heartbeat, help prevent angina, and reduce elevated blood pressure.
Some research has also shown that having higher amounts of magnesium in your diet may be associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Magnesium helps the body break down sugars and may also help with reducing the risk of insulin resistance, both factors associated with type 2 diabetes. This is important as type 2 diabetes is a known risk factor for heart disease.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a fat-soluble compound manufactured by your body in the liver and other tissues, including those in your heart. With vitamin-like effects, this powerful antioxidant can be obtained (in relatively low amounts) in organ meats, beef, pork, chicken and fatty fish. It’s also available in some fruits and vegetables, legumes, soybean and canola oils and some nuts and seeds.
But the fact that it’s found in relatively small amounts in food combined with the fact that as we age, our bodies make less of it, it’s not unusual to add a CoQ10 dietary supplement. In addition, the 35 million+ people taking statins for high cholesterol in America alone should be aware that taking statins may lower your body’s natural production of CoQ10, which is sadly ironic given the potential role of CoQ10 in supporting heart health.
Some research has shown that CoQ10 has heart health benefits, specifically for coronary artery diseases and heart failure. Other research has demonstrated that CoQ10 may increase nitric oxide availability, which helps blood and oxygen flow more freely, thus potentially reducing the risk of high blood pressure.
Read more here and talk with your healthcare practitioner to determine if CoQ10 supplements make sense for your heart health situation.
Fiber is simply a type of carbohydrate that the body doesn’t digest. This is good because, instead, fiber helps regulate both hunger and blood sugar. There are two types of fiber including soluble fiber, which helps lower blood cholesterol, and is found in foods like oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples and blueberries.
Insoluble fiber is known to keep your digestive system moving, preventing constipation and promoting regularity. This kind of fiber can be obtained from whole wheat foods, quinoa, brown rice, kale and other leafy greens, almonds, and fruits like pears and apples.
This article explains how fiber helps support heart health in the areas of lowering blood cholesterol, reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome which can lead to high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, low HDL (the “good”) cholesterol and belly fat. Overall, some studies have associated a high intake of dietary fiber with a lower risk of heart disease and cardiovascular deaths.
One of the B vitamins, B9 to be specific, folate is an essential nutrient that your body needs to get from food. Best known for its benefits in preventing birth defects such as spina bifida, some research (but more is needed) shows that folate (sometimes referred to as folic acid which is the synthetic form) might also reduce the risk of having a baby born with certain types of heart problems.
Folate can be obtained by eating beef liver, some vegetables (including asparagus, brussels sprouts and spinach), fruits and fruit juices (oranges especially) and peanuts, black-eyed peas and other nuts, beans and peas.
Folate can also be found in fortified foods, such as enriched bread, cornmeal, pasta and rice, corn masa flour (corn tortillas and tamales) and fortified breakfast cereals.
Folic acid supplements, according to this fact sheet, can lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that’s linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease; however, it is an open debate in scientific circles as to whether lowering homocysteine actually decreases the risk of heart disease. There are some studies that have found the combination of folic acid with other B-vitamins, helps prevent stroke. Other research has suggested that folate may help reduce the risk of high blood pressure and some research has associated a lack of folate with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
One to watch: This review article calls vitamin K, specifically K2, “a neglected player in cardiovascular health.” And this study found that vitamin K (1 and 2) may reduce atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk. This article refers to “a highly believable biological mechanism for [vitamin K2’s] effectiveness and strong positive correlations with heart health in observational studies,” adding that long-term clinical trials on vitamin K2 and heart disease should be pursued. Like we said…vitamin K2 is one to watch!
Do Heart Health Supplements Work?
The answer is maybe, but if so, it’s in conjunction with other heart healthy practices.
For all of the above nutrients, if you’re not getting enough from your diet alone, adding dietary supplements is generally a perfectly reasonable option to consider.
And how do you know if you’re not getting the right amount of nutrients? Know your numbers. It’s possible to be tested (in a lab or in other cases with simple, at-home finger-prick or urine tests) for the levels of certain nutrients in your body. In this way, you can better understand what dietary changes (including adding supplements) can be made to help ensure you have the right amount of the nutrients that can help support your heart (and other areas of your) health. Learn about our tests here.
It’s a smart move to discuss your supplement use with your healthcare practitioners, first and foremost as these trusted advisors should be aware of what type of diet you’re eating, what over-the-counter and prescription medications you’re taking, and yes, what supplements (and in what dose) you’re taking or planning to take—if you want your healthcare practitioner to offer value to your health care. (If your doctor dismisses any discussion of supplement use, then perhaps it’s time to find a different doctor.)
Here are some other tips about supplements:
- While a little may be good, a lot may not. So, follow label instructions unless your doctor or other trusted (and knowledgeable) healthcare advisor has suggested otherwise—usually to fill a nutrient level gap or to help put you in optimal range for a nutrient.
- Buy from reputable companies and retailers.
- Don’t fall for overzealous claims—remember, in the U.S., supplements are regulated as a category of food and with only a very few exceptions (e.g., folic acid), they cannot legally claim to treat, prevent, mitigate or cure disease. And they’re not miracle workers.
Beyond paying attention to your diet, here are five more ways—the first is arguably the most important—to protect your heart.
- Quit smoking (and if you’re not a smoker, don’t start). Avoid second hand smoke.
- Exercise regularly, including some kind of cardio.
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
- Monitor and manage your blood pressure.
- Live as close to a stress-free life as possible. Don’t sweat the small stuff.