When it comes to cardiovascular health, prevention is much better than cure. Catching the disease in its early stage can help halt its progression and may even help reverse any damage done.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in New Zealand, accounting for 30% of deaths each year. This is a gloomy statistic, particularly when this high number could be reduced by simple diet and lifestyle adjustments. The challenge is heart disease has few obvious symptoms, and many people are unaware they have a problem until it has moved to a serious stage. There are a number of genetic and congenital causes of heart disease that require specialist diagnosis, however, most people can have their health risk assessed by a qualified physician.
Carrying excess fat, particularly visceral fat, is a serious red flag for cardiovascular disease. Visceral fat is stored underneath the skin in the abdominal cavity where it wraps around the internal organs. As it builds up it pushes out of the abdomen, creating a firm, protruding belly. Although people may joke about pot-bellies, visceral fat is dangerous as it is capable of producing hormones and chemicals that increase inflammation in the body and raise the risk of heart disease. While it is most pronounced in obese people, visceral fat is not always obvious and can be in thin people too. While levels can be estimated using weight and waist measurements, a more accurate measure can be obtained using a body composition monitor.
High blood pressure causes extra pressure to be placed on your blood vessel walls as blood flows around your body. This increases the likelihood of the delicate lining of the blood vessel walls becoming damaged and inflamed, which in turn raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. Hypertension has been coined the silent killer as it often has no warning signs or symptoms. So if it’s been a while since you had yours checked, it might be an idea to book in a wellness check with your doctor or naturopath soon.
Cholesterol is a waxy fat-like substance found in all cells of your body. It is necessary for healthy cell membranes, hormone production, vitamin D synthesis, and digestive function. However, too much cholesterol can increase your cardiovascular risk. Cholesterol imbalances can be improved through diet and lifestyle changes, as well as professionally prescribed supplements and herbs that address what’s behind a person’s high cholesterol levels.
Weight gain, poor cholesterol balance and blood pressure can all be exacerbated by elevated blood sugar levels. This may be the underlying driver of heart disease for many people. Symptoms of high blood sugars are often masked until they become severe, so it is important to have these checked regularly. When caught early, elevated blood sugars can usually be remedied by diet alone.
Inflammation is often overlooked when it comes to assessing an individual’s cardiovascular health, yet if prolonged this can dramatically raise the risk of cardiovascular problems. Addressing inflammation may include investigating and supporting adrenal and thyroid function, hormone balance, allergies and autoimmune conditions as well as checking specific inflammatory markers in the blood such as homocysteine and high sensitivity C-reactive protein.
Nutritional deficiencies such as B12, folate, iron, vitamin D and zinc are also important to check. Imbalanced levels of these can vastly increase your risk of cardiovascular problems and yet are usually simple to address.
The good news is that your cardiovascular health can be greatly improved – and preserved – through following a healthy diet and lifestyle. If caught early it is much easier to manage cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, cholesterol imbalances and inflammation naturally, and thus avoid the need for medication.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”, as Hippocrates’ ancient saying goes. Following a Mediterranean-style diet has been consistently proven to be one of the most effective steps you can take to prevent heart disease. There is no calorie counting, but rather simple guidelines around the best foods to eat, including an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, regular servings of oily fish, cold pressed oils such as olive and avocado, fresh nuts and seeds, and wholegrains rather than refined carbohydrates.
However, for those with existing cardiovascular disease, or a higher risk of heart disease, there are a number of nutrients that may be beneficial to take in a supplement form alongside enjoying a heart-healthy diet including the powerful antioxidant co-enzyme Q10. This assists with maintaining healthy cholesterol levels as well as blood vessel health and supports optimal heart function and energy production. Magnesium, taurine and omega 3 essential fatty acids will also help reduce risk factors for heart disease.
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Follow a heart- healthy Mediterranean-style diet by including:
- An abundance of fruits and vegetables rich in heart healthy antioxidants, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
- Lean and plant-based proteins such as fish, poultry, beans, nuts and seeds.
- High quality oils and fats such as cold pressed olive oil and avocado.
- Whole grains including brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and oats.
- Fibre, in the form of fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds.
- Heart protective herbs and spices such as turmeric, garlic, ginger and cinnamon.
- Daily exercise of 30 minutes or more.
- Stress management, and good social support.
Andrea Frires is a qualified naturopath, nutritionist and medical herbalist from The Holistic Medical Centre, 48 Ponsonby Road. To make an appointment for a consultation with Andrea or any of the holistic GP’s call T: 09 370 0650.