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Top 3 Determinants of Heart Disease
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Sep 12, 2016
The latest statistics on heart disease indicate that about a third of us will find out that we have heart disease just before we're about to die from it. Fortunately, modern medicine provides us with a number of tools to assess and monitor our cardiovascular health. And more importantly, we are aware of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Here's a look at the top 3 determinants of the health of your heart and blood vessels, and what you can do to keep your cardiovascular system as healthy as possible.
1. How Much Stress You Experience
Your body is well designed to handle temporary spikes of physical and/or emotional stress. Chronic emotional stress is an entirely different beast, one that dramatically increases your risk of heart disease.
When you're stressed, your nervous and endocrine systems work together to cause many of your blood vessels to narrow and your blood to clot quickly - these physiological changes serve you well if you're fighting a grizzly bear, but they increase your risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke over the long haul.
Chronic emotional stress is also likely to accelerate the buildup of plaque in your arteries, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy your diet is. This contention is supported by studies conducted by Kaplan et al. in the early 80's.
It's also well established that chronic emotional stress can induce irregular heartbeats. In some cases, stress-induced arrhythmias can be fatal.
Of all the emotions that fit under the umbrella of chronic emotional stress, studies indicate that chronic depression and anger are the emotional states that are most strongly correlated with an increased risk of experiencing blockage in your coronary arteries and an unexpected heart attack or stroke.
Perhaps the best example of the potential that chronic emotional stress has to damage your heart - even while the arteries supplying your heart are strong and healthy - is a condition called stress cardiomyopathy, sometimes called broken heart syndrome. Stress cardiomyopathy is a state of severe cardiac muscle weakness, brought on by extreme emotional stress (grief, worry, anger, fear, surprise), and when triggered, stress cardiomyopathy can temporarily disable heart function.
So the obvious question is this: What can you do to effectively manage stress to keep your cardiovascular system healthy?
First, you simply have to be aware of how damaging chronic emotional stress is to your heart and overall health.
As Dr. Dean Ornish says, "we sometimes view the time we spend relaxing, meditating, and hanging out with our friends and family as luxuries that we do only after the important stuff in our lives is done...studies make it clear that this is the important stuff."
Put another way, make time to engage in relaxing activities that you enjoy.
On a moment-to-moment basis, tune your focus in on your breathing to gauge your emotional state. Quick, shallow breathing is indicative of a stressed state, while slow, deep breathing reflects a relaxed, emotionally balanced state.
Whenever you notice that you're feeling tense, you can consciously decrease stress by taking deep, slow breaths. You can further promote deep relaxation by closing your eyes while you engage in mindful breathing, as a good deal of nervous system stimulation happens courtesy of your vision.
Some people find relaxation CDs to be helpful in systematically tuning out stress and promoting an emotionally balanced state. If you have interest in using such a tool, one that I recommend is EarthRain, but nowadays, you can find a number of lovely soundtracks for relaxation at YouTube - here is one of my favourites:
As you go about your daily activities, strive to be aware of the undeniable connection between your stress levels and the health of your heart - this awareness is critical to following a heart-healthy lifestyle.
2. How Active You Are
Contrary to popular belief, über-athletes whose hearts and lungs have extraordinary pumping power and stamina do not have a significantly lower mortality rate than people who lead sedentary existences.
A study published in JAMA in 1989, led by Cooper et al. looked at more than 13,000 people over a period of more than eight years, and found that the greatest benefit from exercising occurred in people who went from being mostly sedentary to engaging in moderate exercise for about 20 to 30 minutes a day. Simply walking at a relaxed pace for a short while each day led to significant improvement in longevity.
The take-home lesson here is that if you're not doing a little exercise every day because you don't think it will make a difference, you might reconsider. You can improve cardiovascular function and extend your lifespan by going for a walk or engaging in any other type of moderate exercise for just 20 to 30 minutes each day.
3. Your Food Choices
Conventional advice for a heart-healthy diet typically involves lowering intake of foods that are rich in saturated fats and cholesterol. The problem with this advice is that it doesn't take into account factors like food quality and cooking temperature. Why do these variables matter?
Consider this: Poached organic eggs and pan-fried bacon both contain significant amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. But the relatively low cooking temperature that's required to make poached organic eggs is likely to leave the saturated fatty acids and cholesterol found in eggs in healthy states. To pan-fry bacon, a higher cooking temperature is typically used, which increases the likelihood of ending up with damaged saturated fatty acids and damaged cholesterol, along with free radicals, heterocyclic amines, and other disease-causing compounds thrown into the mix.
The truth is that you need a steady supply of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol to be at your best. If this fact is hard for you to accept, and you'd like more information on how your body uses saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, please view: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats.
Food quality and cooking temperatures matter. This is why I don't tell all of my clients that they need to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol. In fact, over the years, I've probably recommended increasing intake of these nutrients more often than I've recommended decreasing their intake, with the understanding that food quality and cooking temperatures must be taken into account.
Steaming and boiling are the healthiest cooking methods for animal foods because they require relatively low temperatures. Pan-frying at high temperatures, deep-frying, barbecuing, and broiling should be avoided most or all of the time, especially when animal foods are involved.
By the way, none of the studies that I have reviewed - dating back to the early 80's - that link saturated fat and cholesterol to heart disease have taken into account food quality and cooking temperatures. It amazes me to repeatedly observe highly respected physicians and scientists not take these variables into account in supporting low-fat, low-cholesterol diets.
Thankfully, most people in self care circles understand that low-fat, low-cholesterol diets that are high in sugar and other highly processed carbohydrates are sure paths to diabetes mellitus type 2 and other forms of cardiovascular disease. Cookies, cereals, and other highly refined foods that are labeled as having low or zero fat but have several grams of sugar per serving are highly damaging to the cardiovascular system. A number of studies indicate that that such foods increase blood levels of the small, dense variety of LDL (sometimes called pattern B), which are more likely than other lipoproteins to contribute to plaque formation in your arteries.
The best foods for your heart include nutrient-rich plant foods like vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fruits, as well as nutrient-rich animal foods that are not charred to a crisp and that your body can tolerate without discomfort - organic eggs and wild fish are generally well tolerated by the masses.
For more of a comprehensive look at healthy and unhealthy food choices for your heart, please feel free to view: The Best and Worst Foods For Your Heart.
What About Genes?
It should be noted that your genes are also a determinant of your cardiovascular health, but your genes mainly mark predispositions, and we know that you can influence how your genes are expressed with your food and lifestyle choices. So ultimately, unless you have a rare genetic condition, your genes are not as important as the factors listed above in determining the health of your cardiovascular system.
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