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Woman jogging to improve her heart health

Your guide to a healthy heart

8 MIN READ • 25th March 2021

We don’t tend to think too much about our ticker until we get heartburn, or we’ve done intensive exercise. But our heart, like a lot of other organs in our body, needs care and attention. Here’s our heart health check to keep you in great shape. 

Ways to improve heart health

Include more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet

Looking at the food you eat is one of the easiest ways to make long-lasting improvements to your health, and introducing more omega-3s into your diet has multiple benefits for your wellbeing. “Omega-3 is great for maintaining a healthy heart by helping to reduce blood pressure, cutting the risk of blood clotting and also decreasing the likelihood of strokes and heart failure,” explains Dr Josh Cullimore, GP at Bluecrest Health Screening. “Omega-3s can be found in flaxseed, rapeseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, fish and algae oils and capsules.”

Steer clear of sugar

“I know that any sugar is an overload to my system,” says Dr Aamer Khan, Harley Street Skin Clinic co-founder. “Sugar not only provides empty calories but also creates an addictive cycle of high-energy followed by plummeting blood sugar levels. It compromises the pancreas, sets the scene for diabetes and weakens heart function.” So, keep your sugar intake in check.

Practice meditation and try mindfulness

Several studies have suggested a link between heart disease, heart attack risk and constant stress. Not only is stress connected to a higher likelihood of taking up health-damaging activities such as smoking or overeating – which can lead to heart disease – but it’s thought it also causes higher activity in the brain linked to processing emotions, and this could lead to heart problems.  “Here at the clinic, we see so many patients who are suffering from stress,” says Dr Aamer. “It has a direct knock-on effect on heart function, so I do my best to be aware of my own responses. You can’t control life, but you can control how you deal with it. I am a great believer in taking a few minutes out of a busy day to re-centre my focus and empty my mind. So yes, mindfulness and heart health are very much linked.”

Consider occasionally fasting

“Weight loss for heart health has long been talked about and fasting has often been used by people to help them lose weight, but it could also improve overall health,” says Dr Aamer. “Fasting generally involves eating two meals totalling 500 calories on fasting days, and a normal diet on non-fasting days – for a short period. Research suggests it can lower blood pressure, reduce your cholesterol level, control diabetes and lower weight.

“Intermittent fasting tackles the problem of visceral fat around your heart and internal organs effectively and promotes healing and cell renewal,” says Dr Aamer. “But I avoid yo-yo dieting. This kind of eating regime, especially in cases of extreme weight loss or gain, leads to signs of bad heart health. Plus, it has been strongly linked to heart disease, heart attacks and other fatal heart conditions.”

Include turmeric in your diet

This wonder spice has been in the spotlight in recent years – and for good reason. Studies have found that it can relieve pain and swelling caused by arthritis, and experts suggest it can help with a range of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and pre-menstrual tension. And research also indicates that turmeric could help reverse steps in the heart disease process by reducing inflammation and oxidation damage. “Turmeric contains many wonderful compounds, including curcumin, that have an anti-inflammatory effect by blocking pro-inflammatory enzymes,” explains nutritionist Henrietta Norton, who’s the founder of food-grown supplements brand Wild Nutrition. “Turmeric also relieves oxidative damage. Other antioxidant-rich foods which can help protect the heart include berries, artichokes, dark leafy greens, green tea, figs, apples and oily fish.” Fish oil supplementation could also be a good option. 

Look after your teeth and mouth

You might not naturally associate your oral hygiene routine with the health of your heart but research shows it is vitally important. “Poor dental hygiene increases the risk of bacterial infections to the bloodstream, which can result in damage to the heart and valves,” explains Dr Cullimore. “The American Heart Association has also found that stroke and atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) can be linked back to inflammations caused by oral bacteria. By improving your oral hygiene and regularly visiting a dentist, you can reduce the risk of developing heart-related diseases.” 

Boost your magnesium for heart health

As Henrietta explains, magnesium helps to support healthy blood pressure – something which is key for maintaining your heart. “As high blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease, adding more magnesium-rich foods and a magnesium supplement could be very beneficial. Good sources of this mineral include leafy greens such as spinach and kale, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, kefir, and dark chocolate that’s at least 85 percent cacao.”

Have a positive outlook

“I love to have fun and enjoy life, and as one of the world’s optimists, I try to find joy in small places and make every day count,” says Michaela Nuttall, cardiovascular nurse specialist and chair of the healthcare committee at Heart UK. “Depression and loneliness increases your danger of having a heart attack, and both can lead to poor lifestyle habits such as smoking, which in turn can increase your risk. Our attitude can be a powerful force to help make the behaviour and lifestyle changes we need.”

Try aerobic exercise 

“While I’m not the biggest fan of aerobic exercise, I know that it’s really good for me, so I try to go to the gym or for a run two to three times a week,” says Michaela. “Incorporating physical activity into every day, or simply moving around and getting your heart rate up, is the single best thing you can do to keep your heart, mind and body healthy.”

Follow the 80/20 rule

“Although there is a lot of noise about paleo and heart health, I would follow healthy lifestyle recommendations 80 percent of the time and allow myself some treats 20 percent of the time,” explains Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa, GP and director at online health service Your Doctor. “My father is Italian, so good food is extremely important to my family and me. While I eat lots of vegetables of all different colours, minimise my meat intake, cook from scratch and never buy ready meals, I allow myself a couple of squares of dark chocolate at night. I’m human after all!”

Aim for seven hours of sleep each night

“A 2011 study by the American Heart Association showed a plausible link between sleep duration and cardiovascular risk in people who have high blood pressure, so I try to go to bed at the same time each night and get seven to eight hours as recommended,” says Dr Riccardo. “It’s my job to make sure I’m on the ball and feeling bright and alert, so I can give my patients the care and attention they deserve. Good sleep also encourages us to do more exercise and eat well, so it’s a good way to improve heart health.”

Try to avoid processed food

“As a working mum, my family does have processed foods every week, and of course I feel guilty about it, but elsewhere we try to eat fresh food as much as possible,” says Michaela. “For good heart health, it’s all about a balance of nutrients, from fresh greens to fresh fish. I’m a huge advocate of vegetables, particularly leafy green vegetables, and I couldn’t imagine a day without them. I also adore oily fish, particularly sardines on toast, and eat this three times a week for breakfast. The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids may help to keep your heart healthy.”

Eat more protein

One of the biggest risk factors for heart disease is extra weight – so doing what you can to reduce weight gain and sugar cravings seems sensible. “A great way to do this is to eat more protein,” says Henrietta. “Make sure all your meals include protein and healthy fats, as these food groups take much longer to break down in the stomach and provide a slow and steady source of energy, reducing the need to snack. Foods like avocado, hemp, chia, flax seed, nuts and seeds, eggs, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised beef, free-range chicken and turkey and beans and pulses, such as aduki beans, mung beans, lentils and chickpeas are all good sources of protein,” she adds.

Get your homocysteine levels checked

“Homocysteine is an amino acid in our body that must be kept within a healthy range,” explains Henrietta. “Risks associated with high homocysteine include coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke and deep vein thrombosis, and your levels can be measured with a simple blood test.” If you’re worried about your levels, you can talk to your GP about getting tested – or you can also opt to pay privately for an at-home test kit, such as the ones offered by York Test Laboratories. “Folate, B6 and B12 deficiencies are associated with high homocysteine levels so ensure you’re eating foods that contain these vitamins as part of a balanced healthy diet. Vitamins for heart health are found in plenty of different foods,” Henrietta adds.

For more heart-healthy advice, Dr Hazel Wallace, a practising doctor and blogger, definitely knows a thing or two about looking after your ticker. Try her five simple tips to boost your heart health.

If you’re looking for heart-healthy recipes, try Pippa Middleton’s tasty ideas as ambassador for the British Heart Foundation

Heart health myths 

Up to 3.5 million women are living with cardiovascular disease in the UK, so it’s important to know how to care for your ticker. Luckily, Dr Luke James, Medical Director at Bupa Health Clinics, is on hand to dispel the myths and educate on the confusions surrounding heart health.

Myth 1: “I’m a woman… heart disease only affects men, right?”

Heart disease kills the same amount of women as it does men, but women are more likely to develop problems later in life. People often perceive cardiovascular disease as something that mainly affects men because of high levels of oestrogen in the female body protect them from many heart problems until menopause. Just like men, smoking, weight gain, high cholesterol and low activity levels throughout life all contribute to endangering heart health. We would recommend everyone assesses their risk, but men and women around the age of 45 really do benefit from undertaking a review of their risk factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol. Getting a coronary calcium CT, which can identify potential issues and allow patients to manage their risks in a much more personalised way, could also be worthwhile.

Myth 2: “I’m OK as none of my family have ever had heart problems”

We often see patients dismissing the risk of heart disease because there is no family history. While there is no denying the role of hereditary factors, lifestyle also plays an enormous role in developing a cardiovascular condition. There are great opportunities available for people to really understand their own risk, and manage their lifestyles accordingly. A coronary assessment is an obvious option, but even a general health assessment that looks at lifestyle influences is a good place to start. Regularly checking cholesterol levels and blood pressure are also great ways to keep on top of your heart health, whether you have a family history or not.

Myth 3: “I’ll worry about heart disease later, it’s a problem for elderly people”

Over a quarter of people who die from cardiovascular disease every day are under the age of 75. With heart disease being the UK’s single biggest killer, heart health is not something we should be putting off until we’re older.

If you’re looking for a full heart health check, head to Bupa health assessments for more information on assessing your heart health.

Easy ways to cut cholesterol

Over half of adults in the UK and Ireland have raised cholesterol – cardiovascular disease is still Britain’s most common cause of death – yet high cholesterol is often termed the ‘silent killer’, as it doesn’t necessarily result in obvious symptoms. Here, nutritionist Barbara Cox offers seven tips for reducing cholesterol levels within weeks.

Boost your breakfast with oats 

Studies show that oats’ beta-glucan content can reduce bad cholesterol levels, while good cholesterol levels remain unaffected. Just 3g of oat beta-glucan per day is enough to actively reduce the amount of blood cholesterol and protect us from the risk of heart disease.

Eat nuts as a snack

If you fancy a snack at work, then choose nuts! Those that are higher in unsaturated fat (mono and poly fats) and lower in saturated fat are best. These include almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and pistachios. Try making up a trail mix with your favourite raw and unsalted nuts, dried fruit and a mix of seeds such as chia and flax.

Don’t fear all fats

Monounsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol levels. These fats are found in many oils that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil. Choose them over fats that are solid at room temperature, like coconut, butter, and lard.

Try to limit or reduce saturated fats – things like cheese, red meat, butter and full-cream milk can raise your total cholesterol. Avoid artery-clogging processed foods, fast foods and fry-ups. If you eat meat, it’s best to eat lean meat, or poultry such as chicken. 

Another option is to try a plant-based diet instead. Eating beans and other fibre-rich foods can reduce how much cholesterol gets absorbed in your bloodstream. Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, beans and peas are good for people with high cholesterol levels because they’re low in fat and rich in nutrients such as B vitamins, iron and unsaturated fats. They’re also a rich source of soluble fibre, which helps to lower cholesterol levels.

Add spices and herbs to your diet 

Give your food flavour by using less salt (try to keep your salt intake to under 6g a day), and using more herbs, spices and garlic. Studies show that garlic lowers levels of bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol. It also helps to thin the blood, which reduces the risk of heart attacks.

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