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Heart Health

The Heart of the Matter: The Impact of Nutrition and Lifestyle on Heart Health

functional medicine functional nutrition Feb 06, 2023

By Jennifer Engels, MD

Maintaining a healthy heart is essential for overall well-being, and proper nutrition and lifestyle habits are key factors in preserving heart health. Let's delve deeper into the impact of nutrition on heart health and discover ways to strengthen and care for your heart.

Cholesterol and Fats: One of the primary factors that impacts heart health is cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease. To reduce the risk of high cholesterol, it's important to limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, which are commonly found in fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and processed snacks. Instead, choose healthier unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados.

Fiber: Fiber is essential for heart health, as it helps to lower cholesterol levels and maintain healthy blood pressure. Foods high in fiber include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Aim to eat at least 25-30 grams of fiber per day to help keep your heart healthy.

Sodium: High levels of sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. To reduce sodium intake, limit the amount of salt you use in cooking and choose low-sodium options when available.

Antioxidants: To reduce cardiometabolic risk, it's important to eat a diet that has a lot of antioxidants. Antioxidants can help keep inflammation under control, keep your blood sugar at a healthy level, and prevent damage from harmful substances in your body.

When you're eating, try to make sure that half of your plate is filled with colorful vegetables and fruit that have a low glycemic index. Also, make sure you're eating plenty of nuts (unsalted), fiber (like beans and peas), and omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, edamame, seaweed, flax, and chia seeds). It's also a good idea to cut back on foods that are high in refined carbohydrates (like white flour and pasta) and simple sugars (like soda and fruit juice). These types of foods can be bad for your heart and metabolism.

Alcohol: While moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, excessive alcohol consumption can have the opposite effect. To minimize the negative impact on heart health, it's recommended to limit alcohol intake to one or less drinks per day for women and two or less drinks per day for men. Let’s face it, alcohol is a toxin, an enjoyable one at times, but still a toxin.  It can impair the brain’s ability to function, raise your blood pressure, cause cardiomyopathy (heart enlargement) and arrhythmias, increase cancer risk, cause liver damage, ulcers, worsen depression and anxiety, and the list goes on.  

Exercise:  Physical activity offers a multitude of benefits beyond cardiovascular and metabolic improvements; including enhancing cognitive function, promoting weight loss, reducing the risk of cancer, and regulating hormone levels. Making exercise a part of your daily routine through scheduling can increase the likelihood of consistently engaging in physical activity.  To reduce the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle, make an effort to break up long periods of sitting. You can use your Apple Watch or Fitbit to set reminders to stand and move every hour, or consider using a standing desk to incorporate more movement into your workday.

Stress: Stress can be incredibly damaging to your health, as it has a range of negative effects on the body. Chronic stress can raise blood pressure, trigger heart arrhythmias and even heart attacks, increase fat storage, and impair insulin sensitivity. However, mindfulness can help combat these harmful effects and improve your overall well-being.  By practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, tapping, or simply taking walks in nature, you can regulate your heart rate variability, lower cortisol levels, improve brain function and focus, reduce anxiety and depression, and enhance your ability to handle life's challenges. Experiment with different methods and stick with what works best for you to reap the full benefits of mindfulness and lead a healthier, more balanced life.

In conclusion, nutrition and lifestyle factors play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy heart. By incorporating heart-healthy foods into your diet, increasing your movement, and limiting the intake of harmful substances, you can take an important step towards maintaining a healthy heart.

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“I was absolutely fascinated,” Engels says, “by this new style of medicine that saw the patient as a whole biological system rather focusing on only one organ system at a time, such as Cardiology. This was a complete paradigm shift from conventional medicine and how I was trained.”