When it comes to heart health, much of the power is in your hands. Lifestyle choices can be so helpful that they may protect you even if, as I write about here, you’re genetically predisposed to developing heart disease. One study found people who ate more fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease even if they carried copies of the gene that increases risk of heart problems, effectively “turning off” the gene. Here are four simple ways to improve heart health.
1. Make Good Food Choices
You’ve heard about unhealthy foods causing heart problems—some restaurants even give decadent menu items names like “the Heart Attack Burger”. But did you know diet can also positively affect heart health? Tweaking your eating habits can improve your blood pressure and cholesterol, and it’s a powerful weapon for heart attack and stroke prevention, as I explore in detail here. Foods known to improve heart health include:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables: These contain soluble fiber you need every day to reduce your risk of heart disease. You can eat these in smoothies, but not juices, because juicing gets rid of most of the fiber.
- Kale: Topping the index of nutritionally-dense foods created by Joel Fuhrman, MD, bestselling author of Eat to Live, this powerhouse plant contains a protein called Nrf2 that can prevent plaque from sticking to your arteries.
- Salmon: According to the Mayo Clinic, the omega-3 fatty acids found in cold water fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna have been shown to be protect the heart.
2. Keep Stress Under Control
Since chronic stress has been linked to heart disease, it’s important to find ways to manage it. I love meditation for stress relief, as I explain here. This practice of focusing on the present has tons of science supporting its efficacy. In one study, people with generalized anxiety who followed a stress-reduction program based on mindfulness were considerably less anxious than those in a control group who were taught other stress management techniques. Another study found health care professionals who participated in a mindfulness program reported significantly less stress and more self-compassion compared to a control group. For other ideas about how to lower your stress levels, see my one week stress management plan that’s available here.
3. Hit The Gym
Exercising regularly is one of the best things you can do to improve heart health. You should aim for thirty minutes a day, five times a week of physical activity—the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of the two). In addition to getting your heart pumping, exercise also lowers your levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. One study found physical activity can even re-organize your brain so it responds less to stress. When mice were divided into two groups—one with free access to a running wheel and one without—and exposed to stress, the brains of mice who were allowed to run experienced a jump in neurons responsible for shutting down excitement in the the part of the brain known to regulate anxiety. Neurons in the runner mice also released more gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a calming neurotransmitter.
4. Don’t Forget Testing
While I firmly believe in the ability of lifestyle modification to reduce your risk of disease, I also appreciate the power of testing. Here are some of the top tests (other than cholesterol) for heart attack prevention that could save your life. (See this post for more information on the importance of testing for heart health.)
- Stress test: This test is often used to detect coronary heart disease, or the buildup of plaque in the arteries that supply blood to your heart.
- Homocysteine: Homocysteine is a dangerous amino acid when it comes to heart disease risk. Many people have a gene (called MTHFR) that can make it harder to clear homocysteine, but taking activated folic acid can help if you are one of those people.
- C-reactive protein (CRP) test: CRP is a protein that plays a role in your body’s inflammatory response, and research suggests a link between high CRP levels and heart attack risk.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.