Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives than the other top 4 leading causes of death combined in the U.S., and yet the average person isn’t aware that as much as 80% of heart disease conditions are preventable.
What does a functional medicine doctor recommend for a healthy heart? Find out what causes heart disease, the best heart-healthy diet, supplements you can take for heart health, and most importantly, what you can do to protect your heart starting right now.
What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease doesn’t refer to just one problem but an umbrella term for various problems that involve the heart muscle itself, your blood vessels, and the way your heartbeats.
Types of cardiovascular diseases include:
- Arrhythmia is a heartbeat abnormality where the heart beats too slow, too fast, or with an irregular rhythm.
- Atherosclerosis is a hardening of the arteries through the buildup of cholesterol and other substances inside your artery walls, called plaque. Atherosclerosis can affect arteries anywhere in your body.
- Cardiomyopathy is a disease affecting the muscle of your heart, making it harder to pump blood to the rest of your body. Cardiomyopathy can lead to heart failure.
- Congenital heart defects include any condition present at birth that affects the way your heart works.
- Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the narrowing or blockage of arteries around the heart, usually caused by atherosclerosis.
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What Causes Heart Disease
Each type of cardiovascular disease is a complex and multifactorial condition. And while heart disease has many causes, it typically begins with a dysfunction in lipid metabolism (cholesterol), heart rhythm, or the functioning of the arteries around the heart–triggered by one or more of the following risk factors:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Hyperlipidemia (high levels of lipids such as fats, cholesterol, and triglycerides)
- Genetic anomalies
- High-stress levels
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Systemic inflammation
- Chronic infections
Why Prevention is Better Than Treatment
It’s estimated that nearly 80% of cardiovascular disease cases are entirely preventable through diet and lifestyle measures (1).
Almost all of the risk factors for heart disease can be reduced by making changes to your food choices, daily habits, and lifestyle choices.
And as is the case with other types of chronic disease like type 2 diabetes and autoimmunity, preventative measures are much less costly and more convenient than most treatment interventions that occur after your doctor has already identified a problem.
That said, if you have heart disease, all the more reason to live a heart-healthy life to support the function and vitality of your cardiovascular system.
So what would an integrative doctor recommend to keep your heart healthy that you can start right now? We’ll focus on three main categories of lowering your risk:
- Food and diet recommendations
- Lifestyle factors
- Early testing and detection methods
Then, you’ll learn what role cholesterol plays and nutrients you can increase to make sure your heart can keep performing its best, even as you age.
Heart Healthy Diet Rules
Eat whole, fiber-rich foods.
Nutrient-dense whole foods like vegetables, nuts and seeds, minimally processed grains such as quinoa, oats, and flax help to provide your body with the fiber and phytonutrients it needs to keep cholesterol metabolism functioning optimally.
Fiber helps transport excess cholesterol out of the body through your stool. Fiber also fuels healthy gut bacteria, which help your body make nutrients and keep inflammation to a minimum.
Reduce (or eliminate) processed grains and sugar.
Excess sugars and carbohydrates in the diet promote insulin resistance and blood sugar imbalance, which can result in fatty deposits in the blood (known as triglycerides) and an unhealthy ratio of HDL cholesterol to triglycerides.
Eat more omega-3s and healthy fats.
Omega-3 fats from fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines modulate inflammation within the body and have been shown to support healthy levels of triglycerides (2).
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Limit refined grains and vegetable oils
A diet high in processed grains like white flour, and vegetable oils, sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup lead to increased inflammation in the body and higher cholesterol levels.
Limit red meat to twice per week, and when you do consume animal products, choose grass-fed or pasture-raised. Grass-fed beef has been shown to have higher levels of omega-3 fats, plus vitamins A and E (3).
Lifestyle Changes to Lower Cardiovascular Disease Risk
Avoid smoking and don’t drink to excess.
Smoking decreases blood flow and oxygen capacity in the blood, and drinking to excess can raise blood pressure and weaken the heart muscle over time.
Manage stress levels.
High blood pressure, systemic inflammation, and heart health are all negatively affected by high-stress levels. Take inventory of your capacity to meet the demands of your daily life and make a conscious effort to incorporate activities that benefit your wellbeing, happiness, and relaxation.
If you need a break, book a massage, or find the relaxation you need in the CentreSpringMD Spa.
Take care of your mental health.
Emerging research shows a decline in mental health places stresses on the cardiovascular system. Depression creates systemic inflammation, which can cause plaque deposits within arteries to harden, contributing to atherosclerosis (4). Stress hormones brought on by mental health issues can weaken the response of the heart to demands for increased blood flow.
One study showed that women with depression were twice as likely to experience a cardiovascular event within the next 18 years, compared with women who did not have depression (5).
Don’t be sedentary.
The human body was meant to move! Aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, divided however you like. This increases blood flow and strengthens the muscle of the heart. The “disease of sitting” is responsible for claiming 3.2 million lives per year. Spending an average of 12 hours per day sitting decreases blood flow to the limbs, and promotes weakening of the heart muscle over time (6).
Testing for Cardiovascular Disease
There are many different tests available to measure different risk factors for the various types of heart disease. Your functional medicine doctor will help you determine which of these are right for you and help you interpret your results.
Find out which tests are available at CentreSpringMD to help you protect your heart.
- Lipid panel to measure total cholesterol, ratio of HDL to triglycerides, and LDL levels.
- An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) records the electrical signals in your heart.
- Genetic testing such as for an MTHFR variant, which affects your ability to properly convert some forms of B vitamins to the active form the body can use. Vitamin B12, folate, and B6 play a major role in cardiovascular function, the production of red blood cells, and the ability to reduce the inflammatory amino acid, homocysteine.
- Homocysteine, which is a toxic amino acid produced as a byproduct of normal metabolism. Elevated homocysteine levels damage LDL cholesterol, causing its oxidation. Oxidized LDL leads to plaque formation in arteries (7).
- Metabolic stress test measures the performance of your heart and lungs during exercise.
- Fasting insulin and A1c – While your yearly physical may include measuring fasting blood sugar (glucose) and possibly even hemoglobin A1c, elevated fasting insulin is likely an early indicator of insulin resistance, which increases risk for hyperlipidemia, diabetes, and hypertension (8).
- High-sensitivity CRP (hsCRP) detects low levels of CRP specific to inflammation located in the bloodstream, which could be the cause of heart disease (9).
- Testosterone levels – For men, testosterone deficiency is associated with an increased risk of heart disease (10). If this is the case, replacing testosterone may not be the only answer. Nutrients like zinc, magnesium, L-carnitine, and methylated B vitamins support healthy levels of testosterone naturally.
If your testosterone levels are low, work with an integrative provider at CentreSpringMD to get to the root cause
- Chronic infections – Many pathogenic bugs have been shown to have a significant correlation with the development of heart disease, including H. pylori and C. pneumoniae (11).
Should Women Worry About Heart Disease?
During the reproductive years, women seem to be at much lower risk for heart disease than their age-matched male counterparts, and this is thanks, in part, to the production of estrogen.
Estrogen is cardio-protective in that it aids in the production and healthy dilation of blood vessels, and decreases things like oxidative stress and damage to tissues (12).
As women progress into menopause, though, these factors change and can place most women at the top of the list for heart disease risk.
Does Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease?
Current research, along with long-term and ongoing studies don’t support a link between intake of dietary cholesterol alone, and heart disease (13). However, various cardiometabolic factors are influenced by diet and food quality.
75% of your body’s cholesterol is produced in the liver, and its production is significantly influenced by insulin levels, so maintaining a healthy blood sugar balance is imperative to healthy cholesterol (14). This is one reason why people with diabetes have an increased risk of heart disease
Elevated cholesterol can sometimes be a result of digestive or liver dysfunction, as cholesterol is absorbed in the gut. Having a healthy, humming gut is a major part of an overall cholesterol management plan.
And remember, cholesterol is essential for life. Without cholesterol, your body wouldn’t be able to:
- Make cell membranes
- Produce hormones (estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, etc.)
- Provide fuel for the heart
- Make brain cells
If you’d like to learn more about the kinds of cholesterol present in your body, and how diet and lifestyle can affect their ratios, read more here.
Supplements for Heart Health
As you age, and due to the changing demands of your body, your cardiometabolic system needs certain nutrients to function optimally. Because some of these are difficult (or impossible) to obtain in sufficient quantities from diet alone, leveraging the right supplements for heart health can be helpful.
- Magnesium (in the glycinate/malate/chelated form) supports healthy blood pressure and heart rhythm because it is vital for proper muscle contractions. Medications like diuretics can lead to depletion, and recent studies show that American’s may need as much as 600 mg per day for optimal health (15)
- Coenzyme Q10 helps the cells around your heart make energy, and also has potent antioxidant effects. As we age, the levels of this essential enzyme begin to drop (starting as early as your 20s!)
- Omega-3 fats support healthy levels of triglycerides and help your body modulate inflammation. If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or allergic to fish, omega-3 from algae is another option.
- Berberine – In numerous studies, berberine has been shown to upregulate an enzyme called AMPK which displays benefits similar to exercise, including supporting mitochondrial function and fat oxidation, promoting healthy levels of lipids and triglycerides. Berberine has also been shown to have a positive effect on insulin resistance (16).
Work With a Functional Medicine Doctor
Heart disease is a very complex and multifaceted condition with a collection of risk factors that is unique to every person. However, everyone has the ability to make small but impactful changes to their diet and lifestyle to lower your risk of heart disease.
Working with a functional medicine doctor to protect your heart health can give you peace of mind, and the individualized guidance you need to improve your heart health and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Do you know someone who could benefit from the integrative medicine approach to heart health? Forward this valuable information to a friend or family member!