Heart disease is responsible for around one in five deaths in the developed world. And yet the majority of those deaths could have been prevented had the individuals concerned changed their lifestyle. The problem with heart disease is that most take the heart for granted. People dread and fear cancer and Alzheimer’s and will go to great lengths to avoid them, but heart disease is often dismissed as something that threatens only the lazy and obese. This is simply not true.
- Get to know your heart.
First, you must know how to test the health of your heart. Place two fingers on the vein on the thumb side of your inner wrist. If your heart is healthy, it should beat around 60 to 70 times in a minute. If it is weak, it will need to beat more often. This is known as your “resting pulse”. As you age, it takes more effort for the heart to do its job and your resting pulse will increase, though plenty of 70-year-olds have the resting pulse of someone half their age.
- Get moving.
If you have been diagnosed with a heart condition, you should first speak to your physician. Exercise is very important, but it needs to be the right sort and the right amount. Do not take up a brutal, punishing regimen. The best forms of exercise are walking, swimming, and yoga combined with light gym work. If you have never followed an exercise routine before and are out of shape, begin with a 30-minute walk each day. Stride out (don’t stroll along with your hands in your pockets) and maintain regular, deep breaths as you go. Above all, make your exercise regular but gentle. It is far better to take a brisk two- or three-mile walk each day than overdo it in the gym at the weekend, then sit at your desk all week.
- Stop smoking.
Everyone knows that smoking causes lung and throat cancer, but fewer seem to realize that it also causes heart disease. Smoking when young is foolish, but smoking beyond your 30s is suicidal. Chemicals found in cigarette smoke oxidize the cholesterol that forms plaque in the arteries. It also increases the chances of clotting. Not only should you quit if you are a smoker, you should also avoid second-hand smoke.
- Stop eating fried foods.
If you ever encounter a heart surgeon, ask them which foods you should avoid. They will almost certainly reply “fried food”. Frying damages the fat once a certain temperature is reached, turning it into dangerous fat which heart surgeons often find in the arteries of their patients.
- Avoid saturated fats.
This can be trickier than people imagine. Obviously, you could reduce the quantity of meat, cheese, cream, and butter you consume. But many so-called low-fat foods also contain large amounts of sugar, which are then converted into fat.
- Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The health benefits of a raw, plant-based diet can hardly be exaggerated. Above all, increase the amount of fruits and vegetables containing carotenes and antioxidants, such as asparagus, broccoli, watercress, cabbage, sweet potatoes, French beans, and Brussels sprouts. The fibre obtained from such a diet will also help reduce your risk. If possible, buy organic, locally grown produce. It is estimated that around a third of the population in the richest nations is malnourished because the food available in the local megastores, though abundant, is of poor quality.
- Snack on nuts and seeds.
Walnuts and Brazil nuts, for example, if eaten regularly, can lower the amount of LDL cholesterol in the body. Pumpkin, linseed, and sesame seeds are all good sources of essential fats. Those who regularly consume linseed oil, for example, are known to have a lower risk of developing heart disease.
- Add herbs and supplements to your diet.
Garlic is very good for the heart. If you would prefer not to eat it raw (and lose all your friends!), you could try odorless capsules. Fish oil supplements are also a good idea. Ginkgo biloba is also highly recommended. You could take it as a tincture, capsule, or even in tea. Mountaineers often use this herb to thin the blood, improve circulation, and prevent migraines.
The key to fighting heart disease, as with so many health issues, is to hit it from all sides. It would be futile to change your diet if you never exercise and continue to smoke, just as you gain little if you stop smoking but continue to eat fried food every morning. You should always seek the advice of a physician before making any radical changes, and it is never wise to take anything to an extreme. But the above tips would be a good place to start.