The Role of Inflammation
For too long, cholesterol has been vilified as the cause of heart disease, but our body requires cholesterol to function well. It is the building block of almost every cell in our body, plays a role in the synthesis of hormones, and is a key player in brain health. (Basics of Heart Health)
In order to prevent – and treat – cardiovascular disease, inflammation must be addressed. Inflammation plays a role in each stage of formation of atherosclerosis (a build-up of plaque within arteries that decreases blood flow) and can lead to atherothrombosis, the occlusion of a blood vessel by a clot. (1)
Reducing inflammation in patients that have already had a heart attack significantly decreased their risk of another cardiovascular event, independent of a change in cholesterol. (2) A lot of research into the treatment of inflammation is focused on the use of anti-inflammatory medications; however, chronic inflammation is typically driven by lifestyle choices, particularly, the foods we consume and the stress we experience.
By removing the triggers of inflammation and emphasizing protective nutrients and lifestyle habits, you can prevent cardiovascular disease without the use of medications.
1. Eliminate processed carbohydrates and sugar.
Sugar is a far greater threat to your health than fat. Sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as breads, pastas, and baked goods, trigger inflammation in the walls of arteries and the cascade of events that can lead to atherosclerosis. (3) Additionally, refined carbohydrates promote a rapid increase in blood sugar that leads to elevation in the hormone insulin. Insulin increases blood pressure (4) and promotes fat storage, both of which are considered risk factors for heart disease.
Cut out sugar, as well as packaged, processed (white) carbohydrates. Whole grains are a better option – however, they still raise blood sugar and contain gluten, which can be high inflammatory for some of us.
2. Reduce sources of Omega-6
Your body needs a certain ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. An excess of omega-6 promotes inflammation; unfortunately, a typical Westernized diet is high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 fatty acids, the anti-inflammatory fatty acids that help to balance out their effects. (5)
Scrap the corn oil, safflower oil, canola oil, and soybean oil; all of these are high in omega-6. Instead, emphasize omega-3 rich foods such as wild salmon, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, cod liver oil, sardines, anchovies, and egg yolks. Additionally, choose grass-fed beef as it contains a more optimal balance of omega-3 to omega-6 than conventional livestock. (6)
3. Eliminate trans fats
Not all fats are created equal; trans fats are a dangerous type of fat. Trans fats are typically found in fast food, non-dairy creamers, most margarine, soup cups, and many other packaged goods. Trans fats increase LDL and decrease HDL cholesterol. (7)
Consumption has been strongly linked to an increased rick of heart disease. (8) The danger is so great that Health Canada has banned the use of one of the major sources of trans fat – partially hydrogenated oils. The ban took effect in September 2018. (9)
4. Include healthy fats
We need healthy fats. Unfortunately, for a while, we got it wrong and fat was vilified, leading to a low-fat revolution. As a result, we began to fear fat and our bodies suffered. (1) Luckily, the tide has changed and as acclaimed food journalist Mark Bittman declared in the New York Times, “butter is back.” (11)
Nuts, olive oil, wild salmon, grass-fed beef, avocado, eggs, and coconut oil are all excellent sources of healthy fats. Unlike processed carbohydrates and sugar, healthy fats, along with protein, stabilize your blood sugar and keep you feeling full, longer. That’s a double win for your heart health and waistline.
5. Emphasize nutrient-dense foods
Fruits, vegetables, and sources of healthy fats are high in nutrients, many of which help to decrease inflammation in our body. High fruit and vegetable intake is protective against cardiovascular disease. (12) Increased intake of fiber, folate, and antioxidants are associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, components that are all found in fruits and vegetables. (13, 14)
Particularly helpful foods for cardiovascular disease?
- Leafy greens such as spinach and kale
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower
- Dark (sugar-free) chocolate
The Paleolithic diet, a nutrition plan that emphasizes many of these nutrient-dense foods while eliminating sugar and grains, has been shown to decrease blood pressure, improve glucose tolerance, decrease insulin, and improve lipid profile, and promote weight loss. (15,16)
6. Practice stress management habits
Chronic psychological stress is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. (17) Excess stress hormones can increase blood pressure and blood sugar, atherosclerosis, and weight gain. (18) Inevitably, surprises, and potential stressors pop up in life. However, what matters most is how we respond to unexpected events. Letting go of conflict, breathing deeply, and finding humor, even in tough times, can allow us to manage situations that would otherwise be considered stressful. Consistently building in self-care practices such as writing in a journal, time in nature, meditation, can help create resiliency against the effects of stress.
Sleep deprivation negatively impacts cardiovascular risk factors, increasing the risk of death due to cardiac incidents. (19) Even one week of sleep deprivation significantly decreases insulin sensitivity. (20) Ensuring that you’re getting adequate sleep is an easy way to improve your heart health. Create a routine to help you unwind before bed – turn off the TV, put away your phone, and relax with a warm bath or an easy-read. Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends, to create a routine.
8. Get moving
Naturally, physical activity is linked to good health. Regular physical activity improves lipid profiles, blood flow, blood pressure, and decreases the potential of clot formation.(21) If you’re not currently exercising, start small and be consistent. Slowly build up your endurance and incorporate strength training and mobility exercises such as yoga or stretching, in addition to cardio. Even better, get outside in the sunshine and exercise while getting a healthy dose of vitamin D.
9. Supplement with CoQ10
A deficiency in CoQ10 affects our ability to create energy. This is particularly important in the heart as heart tissue uses a significant amount of CoQ10. Unfortunately, we synthesize less of it as we age, and statins, a medication commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol, depletes CoQ10 (hyperlink to first cardiovascular article). Supplementing with CoQ10 is helpful for most of us, but for those on statins, it is essential.
10. Make friends with magnesium
Magnesium is an important mineral that plays a role in hundreds of biochemical processes in our body. In the cardiovascular system, magnesium plays role in how much calcium deposited in arteries, relaxes blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, and decreases platelet aggregation. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to endothelial dysfunction. (22) Unfortunately, many of us are deficient due to a lack of dietary magnesium sources; additionally, consumption of sugar increases excretion of magnesium by the kidneys.(23,24) There are many ways to increase the magnesium in our body. Spinach, chard, almonds, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, and avocado are all rich in magnesium.
Epsom salt baths and topical magnesium oil provide magnesium to be absorbed through the skin. Trained healthcare professionals can also provide intravenous magnesium, supplying a hearty dose straight into the bloodstream.
There are many other supplements, and treatments, that promote heart health such as intravenous chelation, D-Ribose, L-carnitine, curcumin, vitamin C, and fish oils. Depending on the status of your heart health, current medications, and health history, these may be indicated for you. Chat with your naturopath to determine an individualized heart health plan.