Beat it: Top tips to protect your heart's health
As the days grow colder, we layer on the clothes and hide a multitude of sins that stem from comfort eating. Winter may not seem the most natural time to start a fitness regime, but even moderate exercise has been shown to significantly boost the heart’s health.
Invest in a Fitbit or pedometer or download a health and fitness tracker for your phone. As little as 20 minutes of exercise a day can make a difference.
About 80 per cent of cardiovascular disease is caused by poor lifestyle choices. “Some risk factors – high levels of fat and sugar in the blood and being overweight – can be improved by fasting,” says nutritionist Amanda Hamilton.
She recommends the 16:8 plan, where you eat only within an eight-hour “window”, such as between 10am and 6pm or from midday until 8pm. “It’s a simple, no-cost way to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes,” she says.
“Your body naturally regulates cholesterol with the aid of vitamin D, bowel flora and bile. Vitamin D helps break down cholesterol and acts as an anti-inflammatory,” says nutritionist and author Sarah Flower. “If you are unable to get at least 15 minutes of natural sun per day, you will benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement, specifically vitamin D3.”
Love your liver with sulphur-rich broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts. The British Heart Foundation recommends a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and starchy foods such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta (wholegrain where possible), plus some milk and dairy products.
If your diet lacks any of these, consider taking a supplement, such as CardioMato, a tomato-nutrient complex of phytosterols, lycopene, vitamin E, beta carotene and thiamine.
Although eggs are high in cholesterol, they are powerhouses of nutrients and are full of protein, energy, fat, vitamins and minerals. They contain saturated fats and cholesterol but help convert the body’s unhealthy LDL (low density lipoproteins) to HDL (high density lipoproteins). Cholesterol is then moved from cells to the liver to be broken down or converted into hormones.
By tweaking our diets and swapping the saturated fat in red meat for unsaturated fat, such as that found in oily fish, we can lower our cholesterol levels and dial back blood pressure. Cut calorie and salt intake and reduce cholesterol levels by ditching ready meals and the stodgy carbohydrates in white bread, cakes and pies.
“Fish oil has been shown to lower triglycerides, helping to prevent cardiovascular disease,” says Sarah. “Studies have shown that krill oil, a premium form of omega-3 fatty acid, works far better for health than standard fish oils.”
Include a good daily probiotic, either in a supplement or a yoghurt drink, to keep your gut healthy and balanced. This boosts the immune system and helps digestion, breaking down unwanted cholesterol so it cannot be reabsorbed.
Get a free NHS Health Check from your GP. You’ll be able to monitor your vascular health and your risks of getting a disabling vascular disease. You can also find your heart age online at nhs.uk/conditions/nhs-health-check.
According to ASH (Action On Smoking and Health), smoking accounts for 14 per cent of deaths from heart and circulatory disease with the risks substantially reduced within two years of giving up smoking. Smokers are two to four times more likely than people who don’t smoke to have a heart attack or a stroke.
Magnesium and calcium are vital for heart health. “The heart thrives on magnesium, helping the muscles relax,” says Sarah. “Include in your diet green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, which are magnesium-rich and good sources of calcium. They’re a more usable source of calcium than dairy.”
It may not be possible to change your life to totally wipe out stress, but the sort of positive mindset needed for meditation or mindfulness can help reduce it. Even writing to-do lists and reminding yourself what you can do, rather than what you can’t, is a step in the right direction.
According to researchers at the University Of North Carolina, having good friends is as beneficial to health and life expectancy as exercise. They claim people with supportive friendship networks have a lower risk of heart disease. Throw in some dark chocolate (a great antioxidant) and get double the heart benefits.