February is American Heart Month, a time to inspire hope for progress in our fight against America’s #1 killer, heart disease. As a nation, we are still battling red-flag dietary and lifestyle factors that create the perfect storm for heart disease progression. A poor diet, excess weight, and risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar are among the flags that signal poor heart health. For the sake of your heart and your loved one’s health, they cannot be ignored.
These warning signs fall under the umbrella term metabolic syndrome, an all too common state of un-health that points to heart disease down the road:
- Excess fat, especially around the abdomen
- Triglyceride (blood fat) levels over 150 mg/dL
- Systolic blood pressure over 130 or diastolic blood pressure over 85 mm Hg
- Low “good” HDL cholesterol at less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 for women
- Elevated fasting plasma glucose (blood sugar) levels at over 100 mg/dL
These pre-warning signs of heart disease and diabetes are largely due to a central cause, inflammation. This is a chronic, “silent” inflammation that begins in the gut due to poor diet, inadequate intake of certain nutrients, poor digestion, gut imbalance, certain medication use, stress, and other triggers.
Heart Health Starts with Your Decisions
Each of us holds the power to undo any damage we may have done and maintain our healthy heart with the profoundly important decisions we make every day.
These tips do as much for your heart as they do your waistline and can transform your heart health:
- Lose weight, especially around the belly, with at least ½ hour of cardiovascular exercise each day.
- Stop smoking and reduce alcohol consumption to a minimum.
- Remove as many processed, high-sugar, high-carb and fatty foods from your diet as possible. Many of the foods in the Standard American Diet (SAD) are packed with these pro-inflammatory ingredients that continue the cycle of silent inflammation and contribute to heart disease risk markers such as high cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides. Eat a diet rich in whole fruits and veggies and low in saturated/trans fats. Opt for natural sweeteners such as lo han, xylitol or stevia and replace fat intake with healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
- Supplement your diet with heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which have been clinically shown to support heart health. Consume at least 35 grams of fiber daily to support healthy blood sugar levels and add probiotics to your diet to help replenish your levels of beneficial digestive bacteria and help offset the damage done by chronic inflammation.
- Know where you are on the scale of heart disease risk markers with regular screenings such as blood pressure and cholesterol tests and a fasting blood sugar level test. Your health care practitioner should be recommending these tests to you. If not, ask for them.
Most people know that a diet high in bad fats (saturated and trans fats), and low in dietary fiber, can lead to the development of heart disease. But did you know that air pollution is also a risk factor for heart disease? Of particular concern is the particulate matter (PM) or particle pollution, composed of solid and liquid particles in the air. PM comes from a variety of sources—vehicle exhaust, road dust, power generation, industrial combustion, construction and demolition activities, residential wood burning, windblown soil, pollens, molds, forest fires and volcanic emissions.
People exposed to higher levels of PM are at higher risk for cardiovascular events, including heart and stroke deaths. Reducing exposure to air pollution is one way to reduce these risks.
A recent study looked at the effect of using indoor HEPA (high efficiency particle air) filters on the reduction of indoor air pollution, and how that related to blood markers of heart disease. One HEPA filter was placed in the main living space of the home, and the other filter was placed in the bedroom. The filters ran for one week. About half of the homes in the study used wood burning stoves, a significant source of indoor air pollution.
The results? The average concentrations of fine particulate matter inside the homes was reduced by 60 percent, and wood smoke was reduced by 75 percent. Further, endothelial function improved, and the inflammation marker C-reactive protein (CRP) decreased. These improvements are indications of the short-term heart health benefits of reducing air pollution exposure.