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Keep your heart happy and healthy

Hearts, hearts and more hearts everywhere you look today. Happy Valentine’s Day. Whether you are sending love anonymously, to a loved one or indulging in some self care, today is a reminder to consider your heart health: physically as well as emotionally. As a Medical Herbalist I am passionate about helping people keep their vital organs healthy. I’m a strong believer in prevention. This can be done with food and lifestyle changes. Many studies across various countries have found that changing diet and lifestyle can prevent at least 90 percent of all heart disease. Listed below are the main preventative measures you can take.

Make vegetables and fruit the stars of you daily diet

Did you know that the good ol ‘5 day’ is now outdated due to worldwide soil depletion and pollution. We actually need more like 8-10 a day! Focus on including daily:

Lots of green vegetables as these are anti inflammatory which lowers cardiovascular risk. Green leafy vegetables are also high in folate, which lowers homocysteine (high levels in the blood can damage the lining of the arteries, make the blood clot more and increase the risk of blood vessel blockages) and blood pressure.

Vegetables that contain high levels of nitrate because your saliva turns this into nitrites used to make nitric oxide, which dilates the blood vessels thus lowering blood pressure. Examples are dark green leafy vegetables, celery, lettuce, spinach, and radishes.

Fresh garlic and onions as the sulphur improves circulation preventing blood clots and the quercetin (also in chillies and peppers) helps lower cholesterol.

Berries, cherries and pomegranates as they contain anthocyanins and flavonoids (which are antioxidants). These can help lower blood pressure, dilate blood vessels and prevent hardening of the arteries.

Citrus fruits as the flavonoids and Vitamin C reduce the risk of heart disease. Caution: If you take a statin, grapefruit make interact with it so seek medical advice.

Apples as they contain a range of antioxidant properties which can help lower cholesterol.

Eat healthy fats

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of heart problems as they are anti inflammatory and lower cholesterol. Good sources include: Fish (salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, sea bass), sea weed, avocados, oils (specifically olive), nuts, seeds and legumes (especially kidney beans and chickpeas).

Eat foods with magnesium, potassium and calcium

Magnesium helps relax blood vessels and may lower blood pressure for those with mild hypertension. Good sources of magnesium are cooked spinach, pumpkin seeds and banana.

Potassium helps maintain a normal heart rhythm. Good sources include bananas, oranges, melon, apricots, grapefruit, dried prunes, raisins, and dates, cooked spinach, cooked broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, peas, cucumbers, courgettes, butternut squash and leafy greens.

Calcium regulates muscle contraction, including heart beats. It also regulates blood pressure and is necessary for blood clotting. Good sources include green broccoli, cabbage, soya beans, tofu, soy and nut milks with added calcium and fish with bones.

Aim to keep your blood sugar levels balanced

This means each meal should contain a form of protein (meat, fish, chicken, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds) a healthy fat and healthy complex carbohydrates (peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables) at every meal. Don’t eat carbohydrates alone. Avoid processed sugars with carbohydrates.

Drink heart healthy teas

This could be:

Green Tea – studies have found that four or more cups of green tea per day can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke by 20% due to the antioxidant catechins.

Hawthorn - reduces blood pressure by dilating blood vessels, lowers cholesterol, is an antioxidant and anti inflammatory.

Hibiscus - helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels that are already in the normal range.

For stress lowering teas, consider:

Lemon balm, chamomile, lavender, skullcap and passion flower.

Note: to be therapeutic you need to drink 2-3 cups of the tea per day.

Stay hydrated

A lack of water causes an increase in sodium level inside the cells thereby raising blood pressure.

Use the Omni calculator to find your total water values per day, that is, water from food and drink. Or as a quick rule of thumb you should aim for 35 ml of water per Kg of body weight per day. For example if you weigh 90Kg you should be drinking at least 35 X 90 = 3150ml or around 3 Litres.

Move your body daily

This doesn’t have to be extensive or exhausting, even house work counts. If you sit at a desk all day, try to go for a walk at lunch time, even if it’s just a around the building and take the stairs when you can. Simple walking helps lower blood pressure, strengthen muscles and control your weight.

Get some sunlight

Sun light helps keep the heart healthy. Sun exposure increases nitric oxide levels which relax arteries. The Vitamin D from sun is also anti inflammatory. The UV rays stimulate keratinocytes (cells in our skin) to produce beta-endorphins which reduce stress.

Implement a stress reducing activity into your daily schedule

The hormone cortisol is released when we are under stress. This “fight or flight” hormone makes our heart beat faster, increases blood pressure and releases sugar into the blood stream. Constant release of cortisol can damage to heart and blood vessels.

You can try a regular yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, mindfulness, visualisation or meditation practice. Or take up a hobby that relaxes you such knitting, model building, baking or doing a jig saw. Consider implementing a ritual into your daily routine, such as a morning stretch sequence, 10 mins of quiet to sip a tea after lunch, or a wind down routine at night.

Things to avoid or minimize

Smoking - damages your blood vessels, reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, makes your heart beat faster and raises blood pressure.

Hydrogenated fat found in margarine, shortening, processed oils and many baked goods and processed foods like biscuits and crisps raise cholesterol.

Alcohol - reducing or eliminating alcohol will help keep inflammation low and balance blood sugar.

Added sodium from processed foods, ready meals and table salt can lead to water retention and cause your heart to work harder. This leads to swollen legs, ankles and feet and shortness of breath.

Being conscious of adding the above foods and factors into your daily life will help keep you heart healthy. If you already have a heart condition, herbal medicine and nutrition can help and work in harmony with your orthodox medication.

Always seek a qualified Medical Herbalist before using herbs.

Always check how the herb or supplement interacts with any medication you are taking.

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