Feed Your Heart: Top Nutrients for This Vital Organ
As Valentine’s Day approaches, we remember to focus on our heart. What we want, what we can put out to make the world a better place, and taking care of the physical heart at our center. An article in the Lancet dating back to 2004 concluded that exercise, optimal nutrition, healthy body weight, moderate red wine consumption, and smoking cessation could reduce cardiovascular disease by a whopping 80%. Numerous papers and directives since that time have reiterated this, including those by the American Heart Association, the CDC, and others. Yet we still use medication as our primary means of managing heart issues; statin drugs for high cholesterol and blood pressure medications.
The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services just released its most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a publication that comes out every 5 years. Notably, it has removed cholesterol as a nutrient of concern and no longer suggests that Americans should avoid cholesterol as part of a healthy lifestyle. The reason is because “evidence shows no appreciable relationship between dietary and serum cholesterol”.
Cholesterol is made by the liver. It is important to the health of the cell membrane, is a constituent of bile, and forms the basis on which our hormones are made. Very high cholesterol should be addressed, but the over-emphasis on cholesterol as a risk of heart disease may not be warranted. What do we do in the gray area where cholesterol is trending up or moderately elevated? Some think statins are the only answer. Yet statins have serious side effects. They have long been known to cause muscle and liver issues. In the last several years the FDA has added warnings for increased blood sugar and dementia. Do we still think statins are worth the risk?
Blood pressure is another conundrum. 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” until we finally need medication. Many nutrients have been studied for the lowering of blood pressure, as have weight loss programs, stress reduction, smoking cessation, and better nutrition. Our focus here will be on optimal nutrition.
Newer research focuses on chronic inflammation, oxidation, and immune dysfunction as a key determinants of heart disease. Going forward, we will see nutritional and drug treatments focused on these issues. Below we discuss the most important nutrients for maintaining a healthy heart. These nutrients focus on traditional risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol, but also address the root cause of these issues.
Omega-3 & Other Healthy Fats. It would be hard to list all of the benefits of the omega-3 fats from fish oil. At a very basic level fish oil bolsters the health of your cell membranes, ensuring proper absorption of nutrients into the cell 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, but you must eat them at least 3 times per week. Grass-fed beef is another good source. For those that do not these foods into their diet, 500-1200 mg of supplemental omega-3 per day is adequate. If you already have some risks for heart disease, your practitioner may suggest 3000-10,000 mg per day.
Other healthy fats include those found in flax seed, olive oil, avocado, chia seeds, hemp seeds and nuts. While saturated fat should be limited, it is okay to have red meat that is organic, grass-fed and pasture-raised 2 times per week. Trans- fats and hydrogenated oils should be strictly avoided as they provoke an inflammatory response.
Magnesium. Low magnesium levels are the greatest predictor of heart disease risk, according to a 2013 study that reviewed cardiovascular studies over the past seven decades. A deficiency of this macronutrient is very common in those with heart disease and the population at large. For blood pressure that is trending upward (greater than 120/80), this is the first nutrient you should look to. Magnesium relaxes the blood vessels, has a calming effect on the nerves, assists in managing blood sugar (a factor in inflammation), and balances calcium. Magnesium is used in 300 biochemical reactions in the body and therefore is a nutrient that you don’t want to be deficient in! Doses of 250-800 mg per day are safe, depending on your size, diet, and conditions you are trying to address. Magnesium can have 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. Foods that are high in magnesium include nuts, dark, leafy greens, kelp, avocado and dark chocolate.
Vitamin K2. Vitamin K2, particularly its MK-7 form, removes calcium from the arteries and deposits it in 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. Vitamin K1 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.
CoQ10. 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 including 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. 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.
Vitamin D. 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. It is protective against diabetes, a huge factor in the risk of heart disease, and it tempers damaging inflammatory responses. 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 from the 25-hydroxy vitamin D 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 decent sources. Always choose dairy products from grass-fed, organic sources.
Curcumin from turmeric. 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, and 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. D-Ribose and taurine can be used to provide energy to the heart where advanced disease has occurred. Heart disease takes a toll on the tissues and impairs the production of ATP, the body’s main source of energy. D- ribose is a simple sugar that is not stored by the body 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. Fiber consumption of at least 30 grams a day is important to heart health. Most Americans get 12-14 grams a day. Fiber is a superstar for heart health. It 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, or 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.
B Vitamins. 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 related to heart disease, 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. If you are taking individual B vitamins to help with specific issues, then you may need to take a high-potency B complex.
Potassium. 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 sodium /potassium ratio is out of balance. Since supplements are only available in doses of 99 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 your salt intake restrict packaged foods, most of which are loaded with sodium. A high quality salt that is high in minerals can then be added to whole foods that you eat.
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. Herbs like uva ursi and dandelion can be used to 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, exposing you to immune issues, low testosterone, slower wound healing and anxiety.
- Angiotensin Receptor Blockers—Decrease zinc, same issues 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!
Remember the “Four Ps” that will begin to define our health care system going forward; Predictive, Preventive, Personalized, and most importantly Participatory. If you want to prevent disease, you need to take an active role in your health. There’s no more going to the doctor with a “fix me” attitude. We all need to advocate for our own health and make decisions based on all of the information we have, not just what the doctor ordered. I hope we have given you some information that you can incorporate into your diet to ensure a healthy heart. Have a wonderful Valentine’s Day!
Backwards Healthcare: Where a Prescription Fixes Everything
Have you ever gone to your doctor with a problem, talked for 10-15 minutes, and have them write you a prescription and send you on your way? Or tell you that there is nothing wrong, without any suggestions for healing what ails you? If so, you are no different than 95% of all people that go to the doctor. Doctors are on very tight schedules and there are lots of sick people out there. Our current system is crisis-based and if you are not the crisis of the moment, what are you to do?Go to your local health food store, that’s what. A high quality, family owned health food store will have lots of information and advice for you. They can arm you with information and products that are useful and possibly eliminate the need for a prescription.
I can’t tell you the number of customers that come to our store AFTER they have taken multiple drugs, AFTER they have had surgeries, or AFTER they have been to multiple doctors that gave them no answers. If you are not about to die, know what your issues are, and you will not be harming your long term health, go to the health food store FIRST. A quality health food store will hire employees that are well-trained in nutrition, have lived a natural lifestyle for many years, and can suggest foundational nutrition and specific nutrients that can help your condition. Health food stores cannot give you a diagnosis. Your doctor must do that. But if you have a diagnosis, they can recommend nutrients that will support your recovery.
We all want a quick fix. But if it has taken years to get in the shape you are in right now, it will likely take some time to improve upon it. Natural products can begin to repair the body at the most fundamental level. All disease relates back to fundamental dysfunction in the body, whether it is the inability to properly digest your food, a breakdown of the immune system, or an overload of your body’s detoxification mechanisms. Vitamins, minerals and herbs can help you to recover these functions. Can this be done with proper diet alone? Perhaps, but usually if disease is already present there is an increased need for certain nutrients. If those nutrients are provided in supplements then recovery will be faster.
It is difficult for me to understand why anyone would take a drug to fix what a drug did to them. That is a red flag to me. People need to use their common sense and not put their health fully in the hands of their doctors. After all, it is YOUR body. You feel the sensations, you know if the drug is making you tired or slowing down your metabolism. Don’t let someone else tell you it isn’t. And don’t accept side effects as being “normal”. There is nothing normal about getting a new problem from something that is supposed to help you.
According to research done by Jeffrey Bland, PhD, author of The Disease Delusion, the following are true about prescription drugs: 1) Prescription drugs do what they are designed to do for about 40% of the people who take them 2) Side effects are listed for a reason–you will likely get one or more of them 3) No drug has ever been studied for long term use and 4) No drug has ever been studied for safety in combination with another drug. So read between the lines: YOU ARE THE EXPERIMENT. If I had a dime for every time someone says that they are on “the lowest dose” of a medication, I would be a rich woman. I once looked up the supposed low dose that someone told me they were prescribed and it turns out to be the typically recommended dose. Sure, it was .5 mg, which seems low, but a small dose doesn’t mean it is a low dose.
Drugs do damage to the body over time. When I suggest to someone that an issue may be caused by a drug they are on, their reply is “But I’ve been on this drug for years and never had a problem”. Isn’t it logical that something can cause damage over time? The body has many compensating mechanisms. It will use these mechanisms until it no longer can, and that’s when the real problems begin. Many drugs cause nutrient depletions and here are a few examples: Statin drugs for cholesterol control deplete CoQ10, Metformin for diabetes depletes B12, Birth control pills deplete B6, and PPI’s used for acid reflux severely deplete magnesium. Ironically CoQ10 is ultra-important to heart health, B12 deficiency can cause anxiety (which can also occur with blood sugar swings), B6 is needed to make many of our calming neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and magnesium is used in 300 biochemical reactions in the body. No wonder so many people are walking around feeling strung out! So why then, aren’t doctors recommending supplementation to buffer against these known depletions? Simple, because they are not trained in nutrition. Often they are not aware of these depletions and the fact that they can be directly related to side effects.
Many people do not want to know what is wrong with their drugs. It is just too overwhelming for them to get information about their own health. But if you’re not willing to educate yourself about your own health then who is? With the state of the current health care system you need to be your own advocate. Your local health food store is an excellent resource for this. It’s a place to learn about foundational nutrition, support for specific conditions, and information you can discuss with your doctor if need be.
Some view supplements as “just another pill” but the main difference between a supplement and a drug is that a supplement contains substances that are normally found in your body. A drug is a chemical that your body must treat and process as a toxin. A local MD that I know likes to say that when she gives her patients a prescription drug, frequently one thing gets better and something else gets worse. When she uses a supplement or homeopathic medicine, one thing gets better, and something else gets better too.
Another common misconception is that we should be able to get all of our nutrients from food. If I thought our food supply was excellent, and that we were eating diets rich in vitamins and minerals as our ancestors did, then I might agree with this. You could have the “perfect” diet and still benefit from certain supplements. If you are already ill, trying to become well just by eating a good diet could take a long time. Supplements speed up the healing process. Just remember they are called supplements for a reason–they are intended to be an adjunct to a healthy diet.
The RDI, or recommended daily intake, also causes confusion. When people see that a supplement provides 200% of the RDI, it often scares them away. What they dont’ know is that the RDI was designed only to prevent overt deficiencies and by no means reflects optimal levels of the nutrients. Quality supplements provide well-absorbed forms of the vitamins and minerals at a level that can correct dysfunction in the body. Taking in the RDI level of nutrients may prevent certain diseases like scurvy and pellagra, but does little to promote optimal health.
Foundational supplements are great for preventing issues before they arise. Many diets are deficient in key nutrients that are needed for numerous functions in the body. Fatty acids like omega-3, found in fish oil and flax seeds, have so many benefits that it would be hard to list them all. They fight inflammation, improve the integrity of every cell membrane, lubricate the joints and other tissues, fortify the skin, provide the building blocks for brain tissue development and repair, protect the nerves, and more. Probiotics, the good bacteria in our digestive systems, bolster immunity, assist in the digestion of our food, help with cholesterol control, help us make certain vitamins, assist in neurotransmitter production, and more. A multivitamin provides vitamins and minerals to make sure our bodies have a base level of nutrition to perform optimally. A multi can help with everything from hormone balance to digestion to response to stress. Get a good health food store brand, not Centrum or the like. These brands do not have the correct forms of the vitamins, contain dyes, have fillers like corn starch, and are very low quality overall. The only decent thing in many is the Vitamin D3, so save your body the processing of all the other garbage and get a bottle of Vitamin D3.
If you want good health, the best place to start is with good nutrition, not a prescription. Many of us do not get the nutrients we need to function optimally through our diets. That is where supplements can make all of the difference in the world. I personally would love to think that everything I eat is nutrient-rich and that each and every day I get all of the vitamins and minerals I need. And while my diet is better than most, the demands of daily life sometimes prevent it from being so. Like many people I grew up eating the wrong foods, and that takes its toll over time. Not to worry though, we start where we are and give ourselves the best chance at vibrant health going forward. Changing to healthier diets and adding the right supplements can put us back on track. So visit your local health food store and start asking some questions. That’s what we are here for and if we don’t have an answer we will try to help you find one!