Heart health doesn’t happen by itself and it usually doesn’t happen overnight. There are some decisions you can make today that can start you on a path towards having a healthy heart. Here are 10 things you can do today to improve heart health so you don’t fall victim to heart attacks, strokes, or peripheral vascular disease.
1. Look through your fridge & pantry
Diet obviously plays a significant role in heart health. There are things you can eat that will increase your risk for heart disease, just as there are things you can eat that will reduce your risk of heart disease.
Processed foods can be high in trans fats and typically offer very little nutrient value. Look for any foods that are high in dietary sugar and replace them with low or no sugar foods. Sugar not only can cause total body inflammation (which can contribute to heart disease), it also can rob the body of key nutrients important for immunity and all sorts of bodily processes. Read more about how sugar affects the body here.
Instead of cakes and cookies, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with whole fruits, which are high in dietary fiber and antioxidants, and have health benefits you can’t get through eating low fiber, high sugar foods.
There is mixed science on the effects of consuming red meat. I personally eat it about once or twice a week, depending on how I'm feeling. Alternatively I recommend choosing fatty fish, whenever possible, which are high in omega 3 fatty acids (the heart-helpers). Grilled or air-fried chicken is also a good choice… and you might consider doing something like a “Meatless Monday” to focus on veggies and whole grains for a meal instead of including a meat.
2. Sip on some heart-healthy hibiscus tea
A study presented by the American Heart Association in 2004, found that participants could lower their blood pressure by drinking three cups of herbal tea containing hibiscus each day.
Overall, drinking hibiscus tea blends lowered systolic blood pressure by an average of 7 points, which was significantly more than the 1-point drop observed in people who were given a placebo in the form of hibiscus-flavored water.
While a 7-point drop in blood pressure might not seem like much, study presenter Diane L. McKay, PhD, says studies have shown that “even small changes in blood pressure … when maintained over time … will reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack.”
Past AHA president Robert H. Eckel, MD commented that the degree of blood pressure lowering associated with tea drinking in the study was as much as would be expected with standard blood pressure drugs. (source)
3. Start an exercise program
I know. I know… I don't need to tell you again how good exercise is for you. I know I'm preaching to the choir here!
But just as a reminder… Aerobic exercise is particularly good at increasing your heart rate, increasing your respiratory rate, and lowering your blood pressure.
Experts suggest aiming for aerobic activity for about 30 minutes per day on most days of the week. Aerobic exercises you can do include brisk walking, running, jogging, using a stair-stepper, bicycling, and swimming. Swimming is especially good for people who want to exercise but need a lower impact activity to reduce wear and tear on joints.
Weight training is also helpful for heart health. It tones muscles and increases your basal metabolic rate so that you can burn calories more effectively, even without aerobic exercise.
Consider making exercise a family affair so you can do things as a group and reduce all of your family’s risks of heart disease!
4. Reduce your stress level
Science has clearly documented how stress can negatively impact your health. Stress can raise your blood pressure and your heart rate, both of which increase the risk of stress on your heart.
Obviously you can reduce stress by avoiding those things that cause you to be stressed… easier said than done right? But, most of us will likely need to learn how to cope with what stress we are faced with.
Learning the art of stress-reducing practices, including prayer, deep breathing, meditation, and stretching can be life changing. Some of these can even have more benefit to your body besides just reducing stress, such as increasing flexibility, strength, and balance.
5. Enlist the power of aromatherapy
Another proven way to reduce stress is utilizing the benefits of aromatherapy. Essential oils, such as lavender, have incredible medicinal benefits and can help to keep stress in check when it's unavoidable.
There is some evidence that aromatherapy can improve sleep and lower anxiety and stress, which are risk factors for high blood pressure.
A 2012 study found that aromatherapy using essential oils can lower blood pressure through relaxation.
6. Listen to classical music
A study published in 2004 found that “listening to music may serve to improve cardiovascular recovery from stress. […] Participants who listened to classical music had significantly lower post-task systolic blood pressure levels.”
Not all music had the same effect, jazz and pop for instance, they found didn't have much better effect than that of sitting in silence.
7. Schedule a blood sugar screening
You can reduce your risk of heart disease by having your blood sugar checked for the presence of diabetes or pre-diabetes. Both conditions can be detected by doing a simple fasting blood test.
A fasting blood glucose level between 100 and 125 could be indicative of pre-diabetes and your primary healthcare provider will likely recommend that you follow your blood sugar more closely so you don’t develop diabetes.
Fasting blood sugars of 125 or more could mean you have already developed Type 2 Diabetes and getting your blood glucose levels under control is important to reduce the risk of having any cardiac complications in the long run.
Reducing sugar intake, along with other dietary changes, increasing your activity level, and possibly taking medications to reduce your blood sugar can be helpful in getting diabetes or pre-diabetes in check. Diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease but it is a risk factor you can often reverse with simple (although admittedly sometimes challenging) lifestyle changes.
8. Get more zzz's and consider a sleep study
Not getting enough sleep is associated with increased risk of developing cardiac disease.
American Heart Association researchers found that a lack of sleep is associated with increased calcium buildup in the heart’s arteries. […]
When calcium builds up in your arteries, this causes plaques that can put you at risk for a heart attack. In the study, just one hour less of sleep each night increased risk of calcium build-up in arteries by 33%. And people who slept less than six hours per night had the greatest risk of developing changes in the arteries of the heart.
Not getting enough sleep also reduces your body’s production of certain appetite-suppressing hormones, which may lead to weight gain. Have you ever been tired and pulled yourself through the day with sugary snacks? Several studies have linked not getting enough sleep to a rise in ghrelin and a reduction in leptin — hormones that regulate your metabolism, compared with those who enjoyed a full night’s sleep.(source)
There are many factors to getting better sleep, one factor I personally take note of is avoiding blue light in the evening. Studies have shown that light from computer, tv, and phone screens can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. If I can't avoid screens at night I wear my blue light blocking glasses to help.
If you are told that you snore, you may be suffering from a condition called sleep apnea, which is a known risk factor for heart disease.
If you have sleep apnea, you stop breathing during your sleep and wake up suddenly, gasping for air even though you don’t remember it in the morning. Sleep apnea can affect your ability to be awake and alert throughout the day and can raise your blood pressure.
If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea and undergo treatment (which can mean using continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP, or make steps to reduce your weight), you can lessen your risk for heart disease and can significantly improve the quality of your life.
Laughter, along with an active sense of humor, may help protect you against a heart attack, according to a new study by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. The study, which is the first to indicate that laughter may help prevent heart disease, was presented at the American Heart Association's 73rd Scientific Sessions on November 15 in New Orleans. (source)
Turns out laughter really IS the best medicine!
10. Eat chocolate
A study published in the BMJ “Heart” journal showed “cumulative evidence suggests that higher chocolate intake is associated with a lower risk of future cardiovascular events.” The evidence wasn't conclusive, as science rarely is… but leans in the direction of supporting what past studies have already shown. That chocolate consumption can actually be good for you!
In this study, published in 2008, “the daily consumption of flavanol-containing dark chocolate was associated with a significant mean reduction of 5.8 mmHg in systolic blood pressure. Together the results of these human dietary intervention trials provide scientific evidence of the vascular effects of cocoa flavanols and suggest that the regular consumption of cocoa products containing flavanols may reduce risk of CVD.”
Dark Chocolate is also a good source of many other minerals helpful for maintaining cardiac health including magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper and manganese.
Check out our Herbal Hot Chocolate Recipe for a delicious way to get the heart-healthy benefits of cacao!