February is Heart Month! With that in mind, I’ll be back each day this month with a fact about heart health or a tip to help improve cardiovascular health. Remember that while genetics may play a role, we are largely capable of reducing other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
29. Above all, listen to your body. Many people brush off the early warning signs of heart attack and this can be fatal. If something does not feel right and you're concerned have it checked out. Be safe and proactive.
28. Is coffee a do or don't? That's a good question. It seems that the research is split on this. Too much caffeine can be stimulating and harmful. While the polyphenols and antioxidants in coffee may be beneficial. It seems to elevate cholesterol, but only when unfiltered. So, what is the answer? If you enjoy coffee, do so, but in moderation. If you don't like it, don't pick up the habit for the health benefits, you can get those from the other sources discussed here.
27. Call a friend, do a good deed, volunteer for a meaningful to you cause. Matters of the heart affect our physical heart. Happiness increases feel good hormones, reduces stress and contributes to overall well-being. Forming bonds and relationships contributes to our emotional wellness and enchances our physical health as well.
26. Exercise helps to reduce stress. While yoga and meditation are great for inducing calm and inner peacefulness more aggressive activity can be a healthy outlet for negative stress. Try anything from kickboxing to African dance to work your body and release stress. Or visit the batting cage, or driving range to help let go of tension physically and clear your head. A good run or a brisk walk can also do wonders. Find what works for you and enjoy. Remember to get your doctor's approval before stating a new strenuous activity, particularly if you have health complications.
25. Don't forget to brush and floss (yes, you're reading the right article). Periodontal disease has been linked with with cardiovascular disease in multiple studies. While the exact mechanisms are not clear it is suggested that there is a link with gum disease and certain types of arterial hardening. Further, because the mouth and gums are highly vascularized, infection and agents of inflammation that are present in gum disease could easily spread to the heart and lungs. Even if the link is not concrete, go ahead and make your dentist happy.
24. Know which fats are unhealthy. Broadly speaking, saturated fats, hydrogenated fats and trans fats are the ones to avoid. Saturated fats are primarily animal fats. Hydrogenated and trans fats are processed forms of oil. Here we are thinking of primarily shortening and margarine which start out as an oil (very often a healthy oil) and are processed in a way that alters the fat into an unhealthy form. While some trans fat does exist naturally, most of our exposure comes from processed fats. Reading labels and limiting fried foods are two easy ways to reduce your intake of these unhealthy fats.
23. Learn CPR and how to use an AED (Automated external defibrillator). It could save a life. Courses are comprehensive and affordable. Check out your local Red Cross or St. John's Ambulance for more information.
22. Know the symptoms of stroke. These include: sudden weakness of face or limbs, particularly on one side of the body, sudden confusion, trouble seeing, trouble walking, loss of balance and sudden severe headache with no known cause. If you experience these symptoms, seek emergency medical care. For more information on signs and symptoms see here.
21. Sip some tea. While studies are not conclusive there is evidence to suggest that the antioxidants found in tea, particularly the catechins, help to prevent heart disease. Several long-term studies have indicated that tea drinkers have a significantly lower chance of dying from heart disease. Green and white tea varieties are particularly high in catechins, so they should be your first choice. Also, remember to find a good quality, fresh tea. If your green tea leaves appear to be more brown than green then oxidation has likely occurred and benefits will be lost.
20. Remember the children. Cardiovascular disease is something we think of as affecting the adult population. Sadly, more and more children are facing the effects of this disease. While the symptoms may not manifest themselves immediately, problems developed in childhood can develop into bigger problems during adulthood. Be on the lookout for risk factors in children including poor eating habits, obesity, inactivity and smoking. For infrmation on a recent Canadian study involving kids and heart disease click here.
19. Garlic has long been used for its health supportive properties. When it comes to cardiovascular health garlic is known to be an anticoagulant. It has also been associated having mind blood pressure lowering qualities and it is thought to reduce atherosclerosis. Making it a good choice for cardiovascular health. Remember though, if you are currently taking blood thinners, garlic may not be suitable for you.
18. Try a Mediterranean Diet. This diet emphasizes plant-based whole foods, fish, poultry and healthy fats. Fish is a wonderful lean protein choice and a source of healthful omega three fatty acids. The nuts and seeds, olive oil and avocado featured in this diet are sources of mono-unsaturated fatty acids. These are both heart and waist-line friendly sources of fat. Traditional spices and seasonings used also amp up the health benefits. The Mediterranean Diet is well-researched and well established as a both an effective weight loss too and a health supportive diet.
17. Watch the sugar intake as well. When we think of heart disease or high blood pressure salt is what comes to mind. But we have to consider that sugar, especially refined sugar and sugar syrups are major factors in contributing to obesity. Further, a diet high in sugar makes us more susceptible to developing Type II Diabetes which is another risk factor for heart disease. Keep this in mind and keep the refined sugar products to a minimum.
16. Gauge how much weight you need to lose. Body composition charts and calculations can be confusing. On chart A, you're overweight on chart B you're very overweight etc. Isn't there an easier answer? Rule of thumb: if you're a woman a waist circumference of less than 35 is what you're aiming for. For men, the number is 40. Eat a healthful diet and exercise to help you achieve this goal. If you're numbers are below these, keep up the good work and stay active to stay in shape.
15. Be aware of any the side effects and contraindications of any medication you are on. This also goes for herbal and vitamin and mineral supplements. Read the materials provided by your pharmacist with regard to prescriptions and do you research or consult a professional for information on alternative remedies. Be aware of your body, note changes and if they are bothersome or unexpected, consult your healthcare professional promptly. Never dismiss an unexpected side effect.
14. Know the signs of heart attack. Pain or discomfort in the chest is most common, however, shortness of breath, other upper body pain, cold sweats, nausea and lightheadedness are also indicators. If these symptoms are present, get medical attention immediately.
13. Watch your salt and sodium intake. Remember it's not just about what you shake on, it's about the content already in your food. Prepared and packaged foods tend to be high in sodium, so take this into consideration. Health recommendations generally suggest consuming fewer than 2000mg of sodium per day while the DASH diet recommends fewer than 1500mg per day.
12. Enjoy avocado. Many of us run from this fruit because of its high fat content. However, avocado is rich in monounsaturated fats which are indeed a healthy fat. Avocados are also high in insoluble fiber, b-vitamins and potassium and are good sources of vitamin E and K. Studies have also shown that consuming avocado reduces LDL cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels, again making them very heart-health supportive.
11. Lose weight, if you need to. A healthy weight is easier to achieve than it may seem. Set small, realistic goals to get you started and then enjoy your success. Emphasizing vegetables in the diet, reducing refined sugar and watching portion sizes are good places to start. And remember, while it's important to get down to a healthy weight, it's not just about the weight Make sure to make good food choices that nourish your body rather than drastically cutting calories. This will help to keep you feeling good and make sure your body has the nutrients it needs to function optimally.
10. Try some chia seeds. Chia seeds are gaining much attention as one of the new superfoods, and it's with good reason. These little seeds are packed with fiber, protein and omega 3 fatty acids, making them an awesome addition to a heart-healthy diet. They're quite pleasant tasting and go well in cereal, salads and shakes. For some recipe ideas try this page.
9. Do what you can to manage stress. Try yoga, meditation, or deep breathing as a way of coping. And if that is not enough, try to step back and examine the sources of your stress. Oftentimes, if we give ourselves some perspective, we can find ways to reduce or eliminate stressful situations.
8. Laugh a little. A study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine linked laughter to the healthy function of blood vessels. While the exact mechanisms of how the two are linked is not known, we do know that laughter helps to improve mood, reduce stress and release endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s feel- good chemicals that help to promote a sense of well-being and temporarily relieve pain. Find a way, each day, to make sure you take at least one dose of “the best medicine.”
7. Amp up your fiber intake. Most of us do not get enough fiber in our daily diet, even though it's very important to our health. Not only does a diet high in fiber help to eliminate waste and flush toxins, it increases feelings of satiety and helps to keep cholesterol levels in check. So, choose fiber rich fruits and vegetables daily, and add in some whole grains and lentils to support your heart. And remember, with an increase in fiber, it's important to stay hydrated, so increase your water intake accordingly.
6. Magnesium is key for cardiac health. It plays a significant role in preventing cardiac disease, yet many of us are lacking in this nutrient. Magnesium is involved in more than 300 reactions in the body and it plays a role in maintaining cardiac rhythm, preventing angina and maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. Studies indicate that most North Americans have an intake that is less than half of what is recommended for good health. So, eat your leafy greens, other green vegetables, nuts, whole grains and seeds. And remember that magnesium may be depleted by diuretics, such as caffeine, so up your intake or magnesium rich foods, if this applies, or talk to your nutritional consultant about supplementation considerations.
5. Stop smoking. You know this already. You don’t need to hear the statistics again. But, realize, you don’t have to go cold turkey. There are various resources and tools available to help you, from acupuncture to hypnosis. If you’ve tried to quit before, without success, maybe it’s time to enlist the help of a pro. Talk to friends, family and co-workers who have quit to see what’s worked for them, and then if it seems like it will work for you, give it a try.
4. Physical activity guidelines suggest that we get thirty minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity daily. However, any activity is a good start. Many of us are unable to squeeze in a straight 30 minutes of activity at a time. And for others, 30 minutes of continuous movement seems impossible and would be something to work up to, not go at straight away. Fortunately, a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise indicated that incidental activity is positively associated with cardiorespiratory fitness. So, if you can’t do a full workout, park a little farther away, take the stairs and sneak in a 10 minute work out here and there and know that when it comes to heart health, it all adds up.
3. Probiotics, the health-supporting critters in your intestinal tract are currently being studied for their connection to lowered cholesterol levels. While all the hows and whys have not been established, evidence suggests that people with healthy gut flora levels tend to have lower cholesterol levels. So, enjoy your yogurt and fermented products and look forward to more evidence to be unveiled as the studies progress.
2. Take your fish oil. Omega 3s are great for heart health, but we rarely get enough through diet alone. Fish oil is a great supplement source to support our cardiovascular system. Besides being anti-inflammatory in nature, Omega 3s found in fish oil serve to lower triglycerides and raise our level of good cholesterol. Other studies have shown that Omega 3s reduce systolic blood pressure and increase vascular resistance, thus contributing to overall heart health. And if the thoughts of fish oil puts you off, don’t worry, oils today are not like the stinky cod liver oil you grew up with. Most products today taste great and are very well-tolerated.
1. Get your blood pressure checked regularly. Annually is fine, if you've had no problems. But, if you have moderate-high readings or if your on birth control pills (or other estrogen containing medications) testing more often is imperative. Synthetic estrogen can raise your blood pressure, so even if you had a good reading when you started the pills, follow up. If you wait for your next annual, you could spend several months with un-detected high blood pressure.
Hi, I'm Shara Vickers, a Nutritional Health and Fitness Specialist located in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Please have a look around to find out more about my approach to health and the coaching and consulting services I offer to both local and long-distance clients.