Heart Strong: Nutrients That Build a Healthy Heart
Your heart is one of your most important organs. It requires good fuel to pump blood throughout the body and deliver oxygenation to all tissues. Historically, treatment of cardiovascular issues focused on reducing cholesterol and blood pressure.
This treatment often takes the form of pharmaceutical drugs and/or a reduction of dietary cholesterol intake. This is despite the fact that the most recently issued Dietary Guidelines for Americans removed cholesterol as a nutrient of concern. It said, “evidence shows no appreciable relationship between dietary and serum cholesterol”.
As far back as 2004, the Lancet and other sources identified optimal nutrition, healthy body weight, exercise, and smoking cessation as key factors in the prevention and treatment of heart disease. Estimations posit that 80% of all cardiovascular disease was preventable by addressing these lifestyle factors. So why, then, do we still consider statins, blood pressure medications, and lowering cholesterol in the diet to be frontline treatment?
You should address very high levels of cholesterol, but it also has benefits. A healthy cell membrane naturally contains some cholesterol. It is a component of bile, and many of your hormones are derived from it. Cholesterol helps build the sex hormones, Vitamin D, and adrenal hormones. For this reason, taking cholesterol to low levels may result in unintended consequences to health.
The current medical model encourages us to monitor our blood pressure when it begins to trend up. Without intervention, we then sit by and “watch” blood pressure levels until we finally need medication. But we may not actually need to wait. Many nutrients have been studied for lowering blood pressure. Other means for lowering blood pressure are weight loss programs, stress reduction, smoking cessation, and better nutrition.
Newer research focuses on chronic inflammation, oxidation, and immune dysfunction as key determinants of heart disease. Going forward, we will see nutritional and drug treatments focused on these issues. Below we discuss foundational heart nutrients that address these key issues, as well as cholesterol and high blood pressure.
It would be hard to list all of the benefits of omega-3 fats found in fish oil. At a very basic level fish oil bolsters the health of your cell membranes, ensuring proper absorption of nutrients and proper communication between cells. This helps not only with heart disease, but literally any condition that you have.
Fish oil boosts low HDL, reduces triglycerides and lowers C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish such as salmon, cod, mackerel, anchovies and sardines, and 100% grass-fed beef. But to get adequate amounts, you must consume these foods at least 3 times per week. Those with existing disease will need even more.
For simple “upkeep”, 500-1200 mg of supplemental omega-3 per day is adequate. If you already have heart disease or are at high risk, your practitioner may suggest 1200-5000 mg per day.
Other healthy fats include those found in flax seed, olive oil, avocado, chia seeds, hemp seeds and nuts. Trans- fats and hydrogenated oils should be strictly avoided as they provoke an inflammatory response.
Low magnesium levels are the greatest predictor of heart disease risk according to a 2013 study. The study reviewed cardiovascular research done over the past seven decades. A deficiency of magnesium is very common both in those with heart disease and the population at large.
Magnesium relaxes the blood vessels, has a calming effect on the nerves, assists in managing blood sugar (a factor in inflammation), and balances calcium. It is a part 300 biochemical reactions in the body and therefore is crucial to overall health!
Magnesium has a laxative effect because it relaxes the muscles, so start at a lower dose and build from there. Magnesium glycinate is a form that is easier on the stomach. It can help maintain normal blood pressure levels, especially when levels are affected by stress.
Foods that are high in magnesium include nuts, dark, leafy greens, kelp, avocado and dark chocolate.
Vitamin K2, particularly its MK-7 form, removes calcium from the arteries and directs it to the bone. Calcium that is not directed to bone can build up in the blood causing plaque, high blood pressure, stroke and even heart attacks.
Vitamin K has several different forms. The K1 form is in dark, leafy greens and is relatively easy to get through the diet. Vitamin K2 and its various forms are mainly present in a Japanese food called natto, some other fermented foods, and animal livers. Since the American diet is generally low in these food sources, supplementing with K2 can greatly benefit heart health. Dosages in the range of 45-150 mcg are usually recommended.
This coenzyme is a factor in the energy-making process in every cell of the body. It is very important to the pumping action of the heart. It is also a strong antioxidant, helping to clear toxins from the blood vessels.
Ironically, CoQ10 is depleted by several drugs used to treat heart disease. These include statins, beta blockers, and diuretics. CoQ10 has been shown in some studies to reduce blood pressure and improve congestive heart failure. It also reduces the inflammatory marker CRP that is commonly elevated in heart disease.
For preventative benefit or to replace what is lost with prescription drugs, dosages of 100-300 mg are typically recommended. If your doctor is using CoQ10 to treat congestive heart failure, dosages may be much higher.
Low levels of vitamin D are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. It acts as a hormone, regulating more than 200 genes throughout the body. Vitamin D is protective against diabetes, a huge factor in the risk of heart disease. Since Vitamin D is an immune system modulator, it could provide a buffer for damage to the arteries that originates in an immune response.
A deficiency of this Vitamin can be detected by an at-home test. Natural doctors recommend levels of 50-80 ng/ml. If you are deficient, you can take 5000 IU’s per day and retest your levels after 2 months. Daily doses for others who are not getting sun exposure are usually 1000-2000 IU’s per day.
The best way to get vitamin D is from the sun, but eggs, salmon, mushrooms, and milk are also good sources. Always choose dairy products from grass-fed, organic sources.
Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It also assists the liver in detoxification. Many recent studies support the benefit of curcumin in fighting chronic inflammation. We can expect to see more use of this herb in the treatment of the underlying inflammation and oxidation associated with heart disease.
D-Ribose and taurine can be used to provide energy to the heart where advanced disease has occurred. Since heart disease takes a toll on the tissues of the heart, it impairs the production of ATP, the body’s main source of energy. D- ribose is a simple sugar that can speed up healing by increasing the energy available to the heart. The recommended dose is 5 grams.
Taurine is an amino acid found in large concentrations in the heart. It can be used to support congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. The recommended dose is 3 grams.
Fiber is a superstar for heart health. At least 30 grams fiber consumption each day is important to heart and overall health. A typical American gets about 12-14 grams a day. Fiber reduces cholesterol, lowers triglycerides, and reduces CRP. It binds heavy metals and other toxins in the digestive tract that can cause damage to blood vessels. Using a fiber supplement each night before bed is a great way to boost fiber intake and manage your blood sugar.
Fruits and vegetables, a high quality fiber supplement, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp, or nuts, are all great ways to add fiber to your diet. Apples are considered a superfood for the heart due to the pectin fiber they contain, along with being high in potassium.
The B vitamins help us break down our food, produce energy, and nourish the nerves, thus reducing stress. Certain B vitamins are also directly related to the management of heart disease risk. High homocysteine, an inflammation marker, can be reduced by supplementing with vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid. Pantothenic acid, or vitamin B5, lowers cholesterol by blocking an enzyme involved in the production of cholesterol in the liver. It is also an excellent nutrient for the adrenal glands and thus counters a negative response to stress.
Next to magnesium, potassium is probably one of the best nutrients for managing blood pressure. Potassium and sodium work together to maintain water balance, a factor in blood pressure. In a typical American diet, the potassium/sodium ratio in the diet is out of balance. It should be 2:1, but in most people is more like 1:1, or even 1:2.
Since supplements are only available in doses of 99-300 mg, it is best to get potassium from food sources. The best sources are coconut water (400-600mg), avocado, potato, and many fruits. To reduce sodium levels in packaged foods, carefully monitor what you are taking in. A high quality salt that is high in minerals can then be added to whole foods in the diet.
Be Aware of Drug Nutrient Depletions
If your doctor has decided that a drug best addresses your heart condition, be aware that drugs can deplete nutrients in the body. Ironically, these nutrients are often beneficial for heart health. If you are unaware what class of drugs you are on, a google search is an easy way to find out:
- Diuretics—Decrease potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, sodium, chloride, zinc, iodide, CoQ10, folate, B12, B6, thiamine and selenium. Using herbs like uva ursi and dandelion can decrease water in the system and also have nutritive benefits.
- Beta blockers—Decrease CoQ10. As noted above, CoQ10 is crucial to heart health and supplementation is necessary to make up for the depletion.
- ACE Inhibitors—Decrease zinc, leaving you vulnerable to immune illness, low testosterone, slower wound healing and anxiety.
- Angiotensin Receptor Blockers—Decrease zinc, with the same risks as noted above.
- Statins—Decrease CoQ10, selenium, omega-3s, Vitamins E, A, & D, carnitine, and free thyroid hormone. The warnings on this drug say it all—muscle issues, liver problems, increased blood sugar and dementia—there’s got to be a better way!
Above are just a few of the nutrients that can lead to better heart health in the long term. If you need help determining what nutrients are appropriate for you, please contact our nutritionist, Lynn Bednar, to make an appointment. She can assist you with what nutrients are right for you as well as help with weight loss, improved diet, and committing to an exercise program.
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