Saturday, February 2, 2013

Food as Medicine, Part 2: The Heart

As you may or may not know, my father had his first heart attack at age 33, and had recurrent heart problems (including subsequent heart attacks, quintuple bypass surgery, heart failure, and so on) throughout his life.  Several friends of mine have died of heart-related illnesses around the age of 40, and others have had very near misses.  It is not a big surprise to me that heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, as well as one of the more common causes of disability. 

While heart disease is often, in part, inherited, there is much that can be done in your every day life to help prevent it.

In Chinese medicine, the heart houses the shen (spirit), which (although it is much more complicated than this) you can think of as your body's vitality, and what you can see when you look in to that person's eyes.  It governs the blood vessels, circulating qi and blood throughout the body so that all the other organs can function.  Traditional Chinese medicine say that you can see the reflection of the heart in the face-- if you have a healthy complexion, the heart is working well.  If your face is discolored or pale, it indicates a problem with the heart.  The heart is also said to lead into the tongue, so a very red tongue often indicates a toxic heat-type condition of the heart, while a very pale tongue can indicate a condition of "blood deficiency."

In Western medicine, the heart is the major pump of blood through the body.  On the left, it takes blood from the lungs and pushes this oxygen-rich blood through the body, and on the right, it brings blood back to the lungs for re-oxygenation.

In any event, you can see that however you look at it, the heart is extremely important to surviving and thriving, so caring for it is of utmost importance.

First and foremost, in order to keep your heart healthy, it is extremely important to keep stress levels down and emotions positive.  Quite a few studies demonstrate a link between anger and hostility and heart disease risk.  There are also studies that show that anxiety increases risk of heart disease, and depression is also a significant risk factor for cardiovascular incidents.  For resolving issues of anger, depression, stress, and anxiety, therapy may be extremely useful.  Breathing exercises (such as those outlined in the blog I wrote about lung health) can help considerably in the relaxation process.

Both strength training and cardiovascular training are not only great for the heart and significantly lower levels of inflammation (a major cause of disease in the body) they are also stress-busting, mood-elevating therapies (2).  Suffice it to say that a sedentary lifestyle is a very heart-unhealthy lifestyle.

Dietary fat is not necessarily a culprit in heart disease risk--  however, the type of fat in one's diet is.  Replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats seems to lower the risk of heart disease.  However, other factors must also be considered.

Despite their being lambasted by many of the "health experts" out there, a large and growing body of evidence suggests that a minimum of 5-10% of Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in one's diet is a good defense against heart disease risk.  (1) (2) (3) (4)

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are extremely important in heart health, and most people on a typical Western diet do not get enough of them.  There is an excellent chart showing some of the best sources of Omega 3 fatty acids here.  Other sources include chia seeds, hemp seeds, and microalgae (which is where fish actually get their omegas from).  You can supplement EPA/DHA as well (I use an algae-derived brand by a company called Deva). 

Virgin coconut oil seems to have a beneficial effect on lipid levels in the body because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  It is important to note that this should not be the only fat in your diet, and that it should still be used in moderation, but there is evidence that it can be beneficial.  (1)  (2)  (3)  (4) 

Edible mushrooms, in addition to being chemoprotective (anti-cancer), seem to be good for your heart as well.  This includes many different kinds of mushrooms, including the common white button mushroom!   (1) (2) (3) (4)

Broccoli sprouts have been observed to have a positive effect on cholesterol levels.  Consuming cruciferous vegetables of all kinds (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc) also produce better lipid profiles

It has been found that people with early arteriosclerosis tend to have lower lutein and zeaxanthin levels in their blood.  Lutein and zeaxanthin are types of caroteinoids-- pigments that are responsible for the color of red, orange, and yellow foods.  They're also in most dark green foods.  They protect the body from cancer, strengthen your immune system, and protect your reproductive system.  Lutein and zeaxanthin are particularly known for their ability to help prevent eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration.  Some sources of these nutrients include:

                     dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, chard, spinach, turnip greens, romaine lettuce (tend to be high in lutein but not as high in zeaxanthin, so be sure to add different color veggies in there, too!)
                     yellow corn
                     yellow and orange peppers
                     various kinds of winter and summer squash
                     orange sweet potatoes
Cooking detrimentally affects levels of these antioxidants in food, so be sure to eat them raw or lightly steamed.  If you boil them, you need to consume the cooking water, as many of the nutrients will leach out into it.

Celery, because it is high in potassium, another interesting nutrient called phthalide, as well as several other chemical components, seems to have an especially good effect on lowering blood pressure.  (1)  (2) 

Cacao/Cocoa/Chocolate is rich in flavanols and has many anti-inflammatory properties.  It has been shown in many studies to be very beneficial to the heart.  The key is to find high-quality chocolate of a minimum of 70% total content, with very little (or no) sugar added.  Check out the brownie recipe I posted for one really healthy use of cacao, as well as other very heart-healthy ingredients!  (1)  (2)  (3)  (4) 

Nitric oxide.  Nitric oxide taken naturally through food is extremely beneficial to the heart.  Some good sources of nitric oxide-promoting foods are beets (beet juice is excellent for endurance athletes!), hawthorne berry, beans, nuts and seeds, tuna, salmon, prawns, watermelon.

Don't smoke.  Smoking has been proven over and over to be a major cause not only of cancer, but of hardening of the arteries.  In women taking birth control pills, smoking is especially dangerous to the heart.

Take care of your teeth.  There is a direct link to gum disease and heart disease.  (1)  (2)  (3)

What about alcohol?  My take on alcohol and heart health is this:  First of all, beneficial heart effects of alcohol are for NO MORE THAN 1 to maybe 2 drinks per day.  However, there is a link to increased breast cancer risk in women who drink 2 drinks or more per day, and in my opinion, the side effects of alcohol far outweigh the benefits.  You can achieve all of the heart-healthy effects of alcohol through diet and exercise.  So if you don't already drink, there is no reason to start.  And if you do already drink, make sure you keep it to one drink or less per day.


It is important to note that any time you supplement, you need to make sure that you are getting what you are paying for.  The USA does little to regulate supplements, so it is up to you to do your research and make sure the company and product you're purchasing are reputable and delivering what they promise.  That having been said, here are some supplements you can try for heart health:

 Resveratrol, the suspected heart-healthy ingredient in red wine, is available as a supplement (so you can bypass the side-effects from alcohol consumption) and seems to have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system.   (1)  (2)  (3) (4)
CoQ10 is sort of like a vitamin.  It is in all of the cells in your body and helps to regulate many of your body's processes.  It has antioxidant properties, as well, so can protect your body from cancer and other diseases that come from oxidative stress.  Supplementation may help reduce the risk of heart disease.  (1)  (2)

Astaxanthin is one of my favorite supplements; you've probably heard me extoll its benefits in the past.  One of those benefits seems to be lowering risk of heart disease.  (1)  (2)  (3)  (4)

Questions?  Comments?  Post 'em here...


  1. We use nitric on our patients who suffer from pulmonary hypertension, a truly debilitating disease and I never knew one could get it from food! Just goes to show, we're never too old to learn something new!
    Now, I just wish I liked beets-with training for a 1/2 ironman coming up, I may have to start choking 'em down!
    Another great post!