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Healthy Heart Tips

Written by Wael El-Mallah, M.D., PhD, FACC, FSCAI, Cardiology

The heart is an ingenious organ that starts working at 28 weeks intrauterine life. It pumps at least 60 beats per minute for an average 80 years. It is self sufficient with it is pacemaker, electrical wiring and ability to adjust for the body requirements. It serves us tirelessly. Our job is to help the superb structure continue to work at its ultimate capacity.

The first step to maintaining a healthy heart is maintaining a healthy diet. Increase the quantity of fruits and vegetables and include a variety of whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, as much as possible into your diet. We should also depend more on non-red meat for our protein intake. The main sources of protein should be chicken, fish, tofu and other plant-sourced products like beans and lentils.  A third important adjustment to diet should be to limit the intake of sodium content (salt and preservatives) to less than 1.5 grams per day.

Hydration is important for many functions in our body, and that includes the functioning of our heart.  Increase the intake of water to at least 2 liters per day and cut down on sugary drinks and drinks with sugar substitutes.  The final dietary adjustment to keep in mind to maintain a healthy heart, and perhaps the most important, is watch the size of the portions you consume, as large portions will result in weight gain regardless of the quality of food. These dietary changes should be made gradually and should be lifelong.

Beyond diet, there are additional lifestyle habits that can be modified to keep your heart strong.  Moderating alcohol consumption has been proven to be a significant factor in heart health. One drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, has been shown to potentially have a protective effect on the heart. However, excessive alcohol consumption can have negative effects on the heart, including Increasing blood pressure, inducing cardiomyopathy which is a disease that impairs the heart pump and leads to heart failure, and increasing the risk of stroke. Moderate alcohol consumption is one of the explanations of the French Paradox. The French Paradox refers to the observation that the French have a relatively low incidence of cardiovascular disease despite having a diet that is high in saturated fats. This paradox was first documented in the late 1980s and has since been the subject of numerous studies and discussions.

One of the most significant lifestyle changes that should be made to protect your heart is to quit smoking. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease. Smoking releases chemicals into the air and into the smoker’s body affecting both the smoker and others in the vicinity. These chemicals induce narrowing of the blood vessels by building up plaque in the coronary arteries, form blood clots, induce cardia arrhythmias, and increase blood pressure. All these effects can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Once someone experiences a heart attack, even if they survive, the heart attack weakens the heart.

Quitting Smoking is not an easy task, and the success rate is low.  Seeking assistance from doctors is important as it may require nicotine replacement therapy, behavioral counseling, and other resources to help with successful long-sustained smoking cessation.

One side effect of smoking cessation to be aware of is weight gain. Nicotine is an appetite suppressant and when you quit smoking, the loss of nicotine can lead to an increase in appetite and food cravings. Additionally, quitting smoking can lead to changes in your metabolism that can contribute to weight gain.  Nevertheless, smoking cessation advantages far outweigh the potential for weight gain. Taking a holistic approach to your entire lifestyle will help mitigate the problem with weight gain.

Regularly exercise is an important part of a holistic lifestyle and keeps our bodies and heart strong. All you need to do is exercise 30 minutes at a moderate pace three times a week to have good health benefits. Exercise helps maintain adequate weight, burn extra calories, improve mental health, and reduces stress anxiety and depression. All will help in executing a healthy lifestyle and reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. To maintain a long-term exercise plan, choose an activity that you enjoy and can practice regularly with no added stress.

Finally, getting proper rest and regular quality sleep is very important to maintaining a healthy heart. Quality sleep helps regulate blood pressure, decrease stress, improve insulin sensitivity, and decrease inflammation. All of these things work in reducing the risk of heart attack. It also energizes you to follow up on your lifestyle. If your sleep quality is affected ask for help from your doctor.  Your doctor can help you find a sleep consult or a sleep study to identify any concerns such as sleep deprivation or obstructive sleep apnea.

All of these steps complement each other and support the maintenance of a strong and healthy heart. This all-inclusive approach will help mitigate most of the factors that can harm the heart. Be sure to regularly follow up with your doctor so they can identify any other potential diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol.  Identifying issues early and getting proper treatment will protect the health of the heart.