Preventing heart disease, for most of us depends largely on our lifestyle, which means there is much that’s in our power to improve our odds of living long and well. Here are 9 key steps for improving heart health naturally.
Healthy changes in the way we live, particularly diet and exercise, have been proven to:
In the past, physicians were trained in the diagnosis and treatment of coronary artery disease after it occurred.
However, the present epidemic of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and their complications of heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and sudden death have necessitated a change of focus to prevention.
Prevention is emphasized in the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology’s statement “2013 ACC/AHA Guideline on the Assessment of Cardiovascular Risk.”
Medications Vs Lifestyle
Certainly, the use of medications like statins, when appropriate, can be beneficial, but they should be an adjunct to lifestyle improvements rather than a replacement of personal responsibility for our health.
As a cardiologist, I have prescribed medications to lower cholesterol, blood glucose, and other heart disease risk factors, particularly for patients who will not change their lifestyle or for whom this change is not enough.
But time and time again, I have seen that my patients who take steps to improve their heart health naturally – with a healthy Pritikin lifestyle – look and feel better. Their quality of life is far superior. They’re thinner, more physically fit, more energetic, and happier.What we can achieve, in short, from natural, lifestyle-based approaches like Pritikin has no drug substitute.
The Pritikin Program essentially involves:
1. An Eating Plan
based on natural whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nonfat dairy products, seafood, and limited lean meat
2. Daily exercise
with a three-pronged approach – cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, and flexibility
3. Lifestyle Education
that focuses on practical real-world training such as cooking healthfully, as well as skills for stepping around stress and achieving optimal mental/emotional health.
How to Improve Heart Health Naturally
Here are 9 key steps for improving heart health naturally:
1. Spend Less Time Sitting and More Time Moving
In hundreds of studies, regular exercise has been proven to have profound – and numerous – health benefits. States the Centers for Disease Control: “Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health.”2 It can help:
Below are key recommendations of the Pritikin Exercise Program as well as a summary of exercise tolerance testing at the Pritikin Longevity Center. Particularly if you are at risk for a cardiovascular event like a heart attack, exercise tolerance testing is strongly advised before you begin an exercise program.
3 Key Types of Exercise
The Pritikin Program recommends a combination of all 3 plus additional steps throughout the day as part of your activities of daily living.
Daily, a minimum of 30 minutes and optimally 60 to 90 minutes, alternating moderate-intensity days with vigorous-intensity days
2. Resistance (strengthening)
Full-body resistance routine 2 to 3 times weekly
3. Flexibility (stretching)
Stretching exercises daily to enhance overall flexibility and ability to exercise more freely.
2. Lose Excess Body Fat, Particularly Belly Fat
As our body weight rises, so does our risk for plaque build-up in our arteries and a heart attack. Being overweight is linked with several major risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and bad forms of cholesterol. Obesity also can lead to heart failure, a very serious condition in which the heart is incapable of pumping enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
Numerous studies have found that belly fat is particularly dangerous. In fact, in one recent study, a pot belly even in people who were otherwise normal weight dramatically increased the risk of dying.
Fat in the belly doesn’t just sit there, taking up space. It pumps out chemicals like cytokines that trigger chronic inflammation throughout the body. That is a big problem because chronic inflammation is thought to be one of the major factors linking obesity to various life-crippling diseases, including heart disease. Fat cells in the belly also produce chemicals, including steroid hormones, which make you more likely to gain fat. Yes, it’s a vicious cycle. The more belly fat you have, the more fat-storage hormones you produce, and the harder it is to lose weight.
There are more hormonal horrors. When belly fat reaches abdominal obesity levels (a waist greater than 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men), another very important fat-storage hormone called insulin is often negatively affected, creating more problems for our metabolism.
The Optimal Way To Shed Fat
The optimal way to shed fat, including belly fat, and keep it off is with a healthy eating and exercise program like Pritikin.
With the Pritikin Eating Plan, you’re focusing on foods like whole fruits, vegetables, water-rich whole grains, and beans that naturally keep daily calorie intake low. You’re achieving satiety, or fullness, without going overboard on calories. With Pritikin living, you’re also stay physically active, helping create a calorie deficit.
The best Recommendations are the following:
3. Lower Non-HDL Cholesterol
For years, we in the medical community taught that lowering LDL (often called the “bad” cholesterol) was the primary treatment target for reducing cardiovascular events. And certainly, improving LDL is still very important.
But there is now growing consensus that non-HDL cholesterol is a better predictor of cardiovascular disease risk because non-HDL contains not only LDL but other “bad” particles that contribute to the build-up of cholesterol-filled plaques in the artery wall. Nowadays, most standard lipid panels will tell you what your non-HDL cholesterol is.
Lower non-HDL cholesterol to 80 or below for people with clear evidence of coronary artery disease, or 100 or below for healthy individuals wanting to prevent the development of cardiovascular disease.
4. Stop Smoking and Start Living
Did you know that in the U.S. alone, tobacco kills the equivalent of three jumbo jets full of people crashing every day, with no survivors.
Here is a sampling of the serious, life-threatening conditions that are the direct result of smoking:
- Heart disease
- Breathing problems
- Lung cancer
- Kidney cancer
Moreover, the science is strong and consistent that when you smoke, the people around you, especially children, are at risk for developing serious health problems.
If you smoke, talk to your doctor about various scientifically-proven ways to quit smoking, including prescription medications as well as nicotine replacement therapies in the form of patches, gums, sprays, inhalers, and lozenges. Also, register for a smoking cessation program.
5. Lower Your Resting Blood Pressure To Below 120/80
It is vital to keep your blood pressure under control because the higher your blood pressure, the greater your risk of heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, kidney disease, impotence, loss of mental function, and dementia.
What’s more, dramatic increases in heart attack and stroke risk do not begin with readings of 140/90, the numbers that used to define high blood pressure. We now know that serious, life-threatening risks begin at much lower readings like 130/80. That’s why newly published U.S. guidelines state that high blood pressure is now defined as 130 and higher for systolic blood pressure (the top number), or 80 and higher for diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number). To lower your blood pressure, start with a heart-healthy, lifestyle-based approach like Pritikin.
Most people with high blood pressure, also called hypertension, can control their blood pressure without the need for medications by following the Pritikin Program. Those who still need pills usually require lower dosages and/or fewer pills.
Key guidelines we recommend for lowering blood pressure naturally include:
Eat at least 5 servings of vegetables and 4 servings of fruits daily
A vegetable- and fruit-rich eating plan helps ensure that you’re eating plenty of foods full of stomach-filling volume, yet low in calories, enhancing your weight-loss efforts. Losing excess weight is one of the most effective ways to lower blood pressure. Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables also means you’re eating rich sources of potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Many studies have found that foods abundant in these minerals help blunt some of the toxic effects of sodium.
Limit consumption of sodium to a healthy level
The physicians and other faculty at Pritikin agree with sodium guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and American Heart Association. Both recommend an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day for most adults.
Limiting salt intake really works, especially for those most in need. Many studies have shown that the higher blood pressure is and the more salt is restricted, the greater the fall in blood pressure.
Cut back on calorie-dense foods loaded with fat, sugar, and/or refined grains
Doing so will also enhance your weight-loss efforts.
6. Prevent or Control Diabetes
Preventing or controlling diabetes could save your heart – and life. Heart attacks occur two to four times more often in people with diabetes compared to non-diabetics. Strokes occur two to four times more often.
Other conditions, many life-crippling, caused by diabetes include blindness, kidney failure, peripheral artery disease (blockages in the major arteries that feed the legs), erectile dysfunction, diabetic neuropathy (burning pain and loss of feeling in the feet and hands), poor wound healing, gangrene, and amputations. The sad news is that many countries worldwide are now suffering epidemic rates of type 2 diabetes because many people live in food toxic and sedentary environments.
The hopeful news is that since diabetes is largely a lifestyle-related disease, there is much we can do in the way of lifestyle changes to prevent the onset of this horrible, life-robbing disease.
Daily exercise and healthy eating, as our guests learn at Pritikin, can greatly improve blood glucose levels as well as help shed excess body fat, a major risk factor for diabetes.
Research published on people with type 2 diabetes who came to Pritikin illustrate how profoundly beneficial lifestyle changes can be. One study followed 243 people in the early stages of diabetes (they were not yet on medications). Within three weeks, their fasting glucose fell on average from 160 to 124. Research has found, too, that the Pritikin Program can reverse in two to three weeks the clinical diagnosis of a pre-diabetic condition called the metabolic syndrome.
Strive for a fasting blood glucose below 100 and/or an A1C below 5.7. A1C (Hemoglobin A1C) is a measure of how well your blood glucose is being controlled over time – 120 days.
7. Reduce Inflammation
Chronic inflammation in our bodies is often brought on by excess bad cholesterol and other lifestyle-related insults like high blood pressure, high blood glucose, being overweight, and smoking. We want to quell these inflammatory “flames” because they often lead to the formation of fatty streaks throughout our arteries, which can eventually lead to plaque build-up, heart attacks, and strokes.
One key marker of chronic inflammation is high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, or hs-CRP. Your hs-CRP score measures a protein produced by the body when blood-vessel walls are inflamed. In several studies, the Pritikin Program has been proven to lower hs-CRP in men, women, and children.
Other markers of chronic inflammation include noxious chemicals released by both white blood cells and fat cells called inflammatory cytokines. In research on children at the Pritikin Longevity Center, scientists at UCLA found that within two weeks, levels of inflammatory cytokines dropped markedly.
8. Lower Triglyceride Levels
Triglycerides are fats in the blood. Immediately after eating a fatty meal, most triglycerides are temporarily packaged in particles called chylomicrons. If fact, blood drawn shortly after a fatty meal will appear creamy, like a strawberry milkshake. It takes hours for these fat-rich particles to be cleared from the bloodstream. Research has found that high levels of chylomicrons nearly triple the risk of heart problems. Scientists refer to chylomicrons as “silent but deadly” because by the time we have a fasting blood test, their dirty work is done and they’re gone, and therefore undetected by the standard fasting blood lipid test.
High triglyceride levels (greater than 150) are considered an additional risk for cardiovascular disease, especially when part of a cluster of conditions called the metabolic syndrome, which includes:
If you have at least three of the above five criteria, you have the metabolic syndrome.
Key lifestyle actions to lower triglyceride levels are:
Lower triglyceride levels to below 150. Ideally, aim for levels less than 100, according to the latest guidelines from the American Heart Association.
9. Keep a Lid On Stress
The neighbour’s dog is barking at 3 am. The checkout line at the grocery store is 12 people deep. Your car battery just died. Your mother called with troubling news about her health.
How do you react to each of the above? Are you calm or crazy? When life’s hurdles get the best of us, it can contribute to everything from high blood pressure to irritable bowel syndrome.
The link between stress and our hearts is real. Studies have shown that earthquakes and Mondays double the incidence of heart attacks, and that heart disease kills men three times as frequently in the year following a wife’s death.
Feeling stressed can also lead to behaviours that increase heart disease risk, such as smoking, skipping exercise, and skipping out to our favourite fast food joint.
Do your best to manage stress naturally. Exercise, enjoy a healthy diet, get plenty of restorative sleep, don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, and maintain a positive attitude.
Focus on your lifestyle. Pills tend to have minimal benefit for stress relief. True, some people take tranquilisers to calm themselves when they are feeling acute stress, for example, before boarding an airplane if they fear flying, or in the days and weeks immediately following the death of a loved one.
But in the long term, it is far better to learn to manage stress through lifestyle-based interventions, including relaxation techniques like meditation, and yoga.
Look for stress management classes in your community, for instance, in hospitals, in cardiac rehab programs, at community colleges, or by calling a licensed therapist.
Lifestyle changes are the key to living a healthy, happy life.
It may be tempting to take small steps. Maybe you’re thinking of altering just one aspect of your life. But I strongly encourage you to embrace all nine steps in this article.
Now is your chance. Take care of your heart. And launch a whole new life, a better life.