Heart disease is a leading cause of loss of quality and length of life, especially in developed nations like the US. Since it’s such a critical organ, it’s crucial to do what we can to support a healthy heart. I’m sure you already know the drill: eat a healthy diet focused on whole foods, limit processed “junk” foods, exercise regularly, reduce stress, get enough sleep, and maintain a healthy weight. These guidelines are generalized and big-picture, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation and even individualization. I won’t bore you with repeating them. Instead, I’m sharing some nuggets of research that dive a bit deeper into the how and why. I hope you find something helpful in supporting holistic heart health.
- Oral Health and Nitric Oxide – Naturally occurring nitrates in plants (as opposed to those used in processed meats, which are potential carcinogens[Corliss, 2022]) are thought to provide some cardiovascular protection by converting to nitric oxide (NO). How does this happen? In our oral microbiome. When we eat veggies like spinach, arugula, celery, fennel, and beets (all plants rich in dietary nitrates), these compounds are digested and secreted back into the mouth, where a healthy oral microbiome converts them to NO (Greger, “How Tongue Scraping…”, 2023). Eating prebiotic, fiber-rich, and nitrate-rich plant foods and maintaining good oral hygiene (to include avoiding overuse of antimicrobial mouthwashes) are good ways to support a healthy oral biome, and thereby support a healthy heart (“Probiotic Oral Bacteria”).
- Garlic for Heart Health – In a randomized, placebo-controlled study participants were given 800 mg of garlic powder a day, and over 3 months saw a 50% increase in artery function. And this was plain garlic powder. Garlic has also been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Systematic review of metaanalysis studies show that it can also help manage blood pressure. What’s not to love? What about the more expensive aged garlic extracts? There’s some controversy around whether they’re actually more effective, and some say they have little to no effect at all, so they may not be worth the money (Greger, “Benefits of Garlic”, 2019).
- Sneaky Trans Fats – Trans fats are recognized as such a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke, that the FDA prohibited the addition of partially hydrogenated oil (the major source of artificial trans fats) as of 2020 (Cleveland Clinic, 2023). However, trans fats are still in food, particularly highly processed foods like commercial baked goods, microwave popcorn, pre-made dough, non-dairy coffee creamer, and fried foods. (mayo clinic). How does this happen? FDA regulation allows a food to contain up to .5 grams of trans fat per serving and still be labeled as 0 g trans fats. Another source is the accidental trans fats that are created by frying food at high temperatures and re-using oil over and
over. According to an article published on the Cleveland Clinic website, “there’s no amount of healthy trans fats” and “trans fats in your bloodstream can lead to blocked arteries, coronary artery disease and inflammation” (“Trans Fat Has…”, 2023) The best way to minimize your exposure? Stick to a whole foods, plant-centered diet.
- Blood Sugar & Metabolic Health – There is a well-established link between high blood sugar and increased LDL (bad) and decreased HDL (good) cholesterol. Most experts agree that high blood sugar over time can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control the heart.(CDC) The American Heart Association currently recommends not consuming more than 6% of your daily calories in the form of added sugars. For women, this is an average of 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men.For reference, A 12 ounce serving of cola has about 39 grams of sugar. Excessive sugar consumption is highly correlated with metabolic disorders, which include and are linked to heart disease. (Alam, Kim, Jang, 2022)
- A Gut-Heart Connection – Gut health and the friendly bacteria found there are a hot topic these days. Is there a connection between the gut and heart health? According to Dr. Stanley Shaw, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “There’s a complex interplay between the microbes in our intestines and most of the systems in our bodies, including the vascular, nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, all of which are linked with cardiovascular health”. A fiber rich diet promotes a healthy gut microbiome, which in turn creates metabolites that can ultimately either promote heart health or disease. (Solan, 2023)
If you’d like to take inventory of your own heart health, talk to your doctor and visit The American Heart Association. They have a tool called My Life Check® (https://mlc.heart.org/.), which helps you identify your score in their “Life’s Essential 8”® and allows you to assess your risk for heart disease and stroke. Remember to check with your healthcare provider before taking a new supplement or making significant lifestyle changes.
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