The heart is undoubtedly one of the most important organs of the body. It pumps blood throughout the body, an essential aspect that delivers nutrients and oxygen to all the tissues and cells.
Despite how important the heart is, cardiovascular disease, or disease that affects the heart and blood flow, remains the primary cause of death worldwide. Being Heart Health Month, February is an excellent time to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease, and learn and adopt heart-healthy habits.
What you eat can directly affect the health of your heart, so you will want to make sure that you are eating heart-healthy foods while avoiding foods that increase the risk of heart disease.
This includes focusing on a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein-rich foods (fish, lean meats, eggs, legumes), and fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
The four main things that you will want to limit for heart health include:
One diet which is commonly associated with heart health is the Mediterranean diet because it focuses on lean sources of protein, such as fish, and plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Research has repeatedly seen the connection between this diet and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Exercise acts as a direct way to strengthen your heart muscle because, when exercising, your heart pumps blood throughout the body faster to keep up with oxygen demands. By exercising regularly, you are not only strengthening the muscles of your arms and legs, but also the important heart muscle.
Not only that, but regular exercise also lowers your “bad” LDL cholesterol and raises your “good” HDL cholesterol levels. In addition, exercise is also an excellent way to lower high blood pressure, which is one of the highest risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
The benefits of exercise for your heart do not end there. When exercising, your body also releases endorphins, which are the “happy” hormones that give your brain a boost. This helps to lower stress levels, another risk factor for heart disease.
It is recommended to strive for at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, which includes exercises such as brisk walking, swimming, and cycling.
Research has shown that not getting enough sleep can increase your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, this study of 60,586 adults found that it isn’t just how much sleep you get, but also the quality of the sleep you get that can impact your health. Short sleep duration and poor sleep quality both increase the risk of heart disease.
Not only that, but your body uses the time that you are sleeping to repair any damage to the heart and blood vessels. So, by not sleeping enough, your body cannot as effectively heal itself.
Sleep also plays an essential role in balancing the hormones that regulate when you feel hungry or full, so not sleeping enough may lead to overeating. Overeating, in general, can lead to obesity, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Depending on what you overeat, such as sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, and added sugars, you can also increase the likelihood of other risk factors. To help encourage healthy eating, it’s important to get enough sleep.
Stress, specifically chronic stress, can be a significant hazard to the health of your heart. Chronic stress can cause extra strain on the heart while also increasing inflammation, which is linked to risk factors that harm the heart, such as high blood pressure, and a decrease in “good” HDL cholesterol.
In addition to this direct link, stress can also indirectly affect your heart health by impacting other areas of your life. For example, those who are stressed are likely to sleep poorly, make unhealthy food choices, and be less inclined to exercise. All three of these can contribute to poor heart health.
For those who need to lower their stress levels, activities such as meditation and breathing are helpful. Exercise can also help reduce stress levels, with yoga, in particular, focusing on the connection between mind and body. Seeking support from friends and family or a therapist can also be beneficial for managing chronic stress.
Your blood pressure is the force exerted by your blood against the walls of your arteries as it is pumped by the heart. While it is normal for blood pressure to rise periodically, blood pressure that remains consistently high can damage the heart and blood vessels while also leading to plaque buildup. Plaque that builds up too much can block the blood vessel, resulting in a heart attack.
In addition to medications that can help lower blood pressure, you can also implement some lifestyle changes such as losing weight, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, reducing sodium, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and reducing stress. High blood pressure is one of the most significant risk factors for heart disease, so it should be no surprise that the lifestyle habits to lower high blood pressure also help promote a healthy heart.
When looking through the above tips to improve heart health, you likely noticed the many connections between each category. By improving one area, you are likely to improve all the others more easily. However, this also means that having one area that negatively affects you more strongly, such as chronic stress, can affect many other areas such as sleep, diet, and exercise. To truly promote better heart health, it is important to implement all of these healthy habits to see a reduction in all risk factors.
Heart-Healthy Living | NHLBI, NIH. (2022). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-healthy-living
Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). (2021). https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cardiovascular-diseases-(cvds)
Nassef, Y., Lee, K., Nfor, O., Tantoh, D., Chou, M., & Liaw, Y. (2019). The Impact of Aerobic Exercise and Badminton on HDL Cholesterol Levels in Adult Taiwanese. Nutrients, 11(3), 515. doi: 10.3390/nu11030515
Igarashi, Y., & Nogami, Y. (2017). The effect of regular aquatic exercise on blood pressure: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. European Journal Of Preventive Cardiology, 25(2), 190-199. doi: 10.1177/2047487317731164
Martínez-González, M., Gea, A., & Ruiz-Canela, M. (2019). The Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation Research, 124(5), 779-798. doi: 10.1161/circresaha.118.313348
Schoenfeld, T., & Swanson, C. (2021). A Runner’s High for New Neurons? Potential Role for Endorphins in Exercise Effects on Adult Neurogenesis. Biomolecules, 11(8), 1077. doi: 10.3390/biom11081077
Lao, X., Liu, X., Deng, H., Chan, T., Ho, K., & Wang, F. et al. (2018). Sleep Quality, Sleep Duration, and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Prospective Cohort Study With 60,586 Adults. Journal Of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 14(01), 109-117. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.6894
Mattioli, A., Nasi, M., Cocchi, C., & Farinetti, A. (2020). COVID-19 outbreak: impact of the quarantine-induced stress on cardiovascular disease risk burden. Future Cardiology, 16(6), 539-542. doi: 10.2217/fca-2020-0055
Habib Yaribeygi, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI Journal, 16, 1057. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/