A lot of people think of heart disease as a men’s health issue. We picture the middle-aged man, clutching his chest during a heart attack, or painfully trying to stay away from bacon after being diagnosed with high cholesterol. But did you know that heart disease causes 1 in every 4 female deaths? That makes it the #1 killer of white and African American women; it’s tied with cancer for women of hispanic descent.
Sadly, 66% of women who suffer from heart disease don’t show symptoms before it happens. Still, the risk factors for an unhealthy heart can show up years before a heart attack or stroke, so it’s essential to manage them as early as possible. Smoking is, of course, a leading risk factor, and quitting will greatly reduce your risk for heart disease. Three other controllable factors are high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and prediabetes.
Sometimes Medications Aren’t the Answer
These conditions are often treated with medications, but all drugs come with risks. Statins lower cholesterol, but can also cause memory loss and liver issues. Blood thinners help prevent clots, but some, like Xarelto, have no antidote in the case of deadly bleeding. It’s actually led to some pretty serious lawsuits, because people have died from the bleeding!
Similarly, meds for prediabetes, like Metformin, are great at helping to reduce insulin resistance. Except it can also cause a deadly condition called lactic acidosis. And while diuretics for hypertension aren’t dangerous on their own, the ACE inhibitors they are often prescribed with can lead to angioedema, a swelling of tissues that can quickly become dangerous. (Think throat swelling.)
If those facts scare you, I have good news. Of course, there are times when medication is unavoidable. But the truth is, you’re in control of your heart health, and you can make the choice to not let things go that far. You can choose natural ways to help your heart-- and unlike medications, they don’t come with strings attached.
Your Diet Plays a Huge Role in Heart Health
What’s the number one factor in real estate? Location, location, location! Well, there’s one for heart health too: nutrition, nutrition, nutrition! Your body relies on what you put in it. The fuel you choose can have major impacts on your health, so it makes sense that choosing a healthy base of foods will lead to greater overall health.
Generally speaking, a “heart healthy” diet will be low in saturated and trans fats. You’ll also want to be sure to avoid sugar-packed, processed items, and opt for lots of veggies, fruits and lean meats. Beyond that, the recommendations get more specific depending on your heart disease risk factor.
For instance, there is a specialized diet for people with high blood pressure. It’s called the DASH diet, and that literally stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension. DASH encourages you to eat lots of potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein, while minimizing your sodium intake. Check out more information and specific guidelines here. It’s so effective that it’s been shown to lower blood pressure in as little as two weeks!
The goal for folks with high cholesterol is to lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) while also maintaining a high amount of HDL (the “good” cholesterol). Diets for cholesterol management call for foods high in soluble fiber, like apples and other fruits, and want you to choose polyunsaturated fats, rather than saturated ones. You’ll also want to eat a lot of foods high in plant sterols and stanols, which directly lower your cholesterol by preventing its absorption! You can find these helpful molecules in lots of nuts and legumes. Read a full list of cholesterol-friendly foods here.
For prediabetics, it’s all about the glycemic index. It’s a handy tool that ranks foods based on how much they raise blood sugar, when compared to glucose or white bread. Naturally, to avoid blood sugar spikes, it’s important to choose foods on the low end (under 50) of the index. Diabetes may not be reversible, but prediabetes and insulin resistance can be when using this tool in conjunction with exercise!
Goals for a Heart Healthy Year
You may have thought the time for “resolutions” was over, but it is always a good time to make a positive change for your body! Adjusting your diet is one big change you can make, but so is getting out and exercising. And if you, like me, groan at the idea of weight lifting machines and Zumba classes, remember that it doesn’t take much. The American Heart Association recommends 5 days of exercise a week, with only 30 minutes a day. That’s only a mile and a half of walking at 3MPH.
The most important part of heart health is staying positive. Keep encouraging yourself to make the right choices, and remember that you only get one body in this life. Give your heart some extra love; it deserves it!
About the Author
Lindsey is an investigator and writer who focuses on public health and safety issues. Through her work, she's become an avid advocate for consumers, fighting for their right to safe products. In her spare time, Lindsey enjoys reading and spending time with her cat, Lava.