My father died of heart disease in his late 60s. He lived what he considered “a very good life,” but his lifestyle wasn’t exactly ideal for his heart. He smoked. He drank. He ate as he wished and always with gusto. He rarely exercised.
When I think of the triple bypass and the valve replacement he endured, all the medications that stole his spirit and energy, I wish he had known what we know now: Lifestyle choices not only can prevent heart disease. They can reverse it.
And that holds for women as much as for men. The disease is the leading cause of death for both.
Surprised? According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, women are 6 times more likely to die from heart disease as from breast cancer. More than a quarter of a million women die each year from heart attacks alone. Eight million women currently live with heart disease – 35,000 under the age of 65. Four million have angina.
“Despite stunning improvements in cardiovascular deaths over the last decade, women still fare worse than men and heart disease in women remains underdiagnosed, and undertreated, especially among African-American women,” said writing group chair Laxmi Mehta, M.D., a noninvasive cardiologist and Director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Program at The Ohio State University.
Regardless of gender, we’d all do well to take better care of this truly vital organ.
7 Keys to a Healthy Heart
1. Risk assessment
Awareness is the first step in wellness. Find a physician with whom you resonate and can honestly communicate. They can get the important statistics —blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, CRP, and A1C levels — for assessing your overall risk.
And educate yourself so you can ask intelligent questions and be a partner in your own care. An especially good place for women to start is with the Woman’s Heart Alliance, an organization started by Barbra Streisand and Ronald Perelman to do something about the discrepancies when it comes to heart health and gender.
2. Eat Delicious, Whole Food You Cook Yourself
A heart-healthy diet is the most important factor in overall well-being. This means vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, nuts, and, if you choose animal products, non-endangered fish and grass-fed meats. Avoid processed foods, soft drinks, white flour, and white sugar.
As Hippocrates taught, food is medicine. There’s nothing more important to health and longevity. And more physicians are now recognizing this. (Some medical schools are, too, and are even teaching doctors-to-be how to cook.) Many have also written outstanding books on food and health. A few of my favorites:
3. Spice It Up
Heart disease is an inflammatory disease, and one of the best ways to reduce inflammation is to regularly use herbs and spices that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. Some of my favorites: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. Garlic is unique in that it helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure while also having antiviral and antibacterial properties. When using turmeric, also use half as much fresh ground black pepper. It makes the turmeric more bioavailable.
4. Stress Reduction
Cutting out stress completely isn’t an option. If you’re alive, you’ll experience stress. Managing it is the key. Some of the tools I recommend:
- Mindfulness meditation – one of many types, explained beautifully in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic Wherever You Go, There You Are. Others include mantra practice (repeating a word or prayer) and simply focusing on the breath.
- HeartMath, using a small device called an emWave or an iOS app called Inner Balance that gives you instant biofeedback as you practice creating inner calm. Once you see how quickly you can change your physiology, you’ll develop the confidence to practice regularly with or without the technology.
- Yoga – which is not synonymous with “workout.” Gentle yoga – a slow, mindful practice – does wonders for nurturing resilience. Sessions typically include deep relaxation practice at the end. To find a teacher, try Integral Yoga’s international directory.
- Coloring – a practice that long-time meditation and yoga teacher Diana Meltsner says is centering and grounding. She created this beautiful mandala as a sample to play with. Print it and color in with pencils, crayons or ink.
More and more doctors are recommending interval training as a powerful way to improve heart health and boost metabolism. You start slowly, then increase intensity, then rest as your heart recovers before you begin again. Typically, the exercise periods are 1 to 4 minutes, with a total session lasting 15 to 20 minutes tops.
If you’ve never done interval training before or aren’t already exercising regularly, check with your doctor before starting out, then work with a qualified trainer or exercise physiologist for safety.
Research has shown that less than 7 ½ hours nightly is associated with an elevated risk of heart disease. While it’s not easy to change established sleep patterns, there arethings you can do to help – and improve the overall quality of your sleep. We literally need a certain amount of energy to sleep well. If poor sleep is a long-standing problem, don’t let it become a long-standing health deficit. See your health care provider to assess the obstacles.
There was a time when the thought of gratitude influencing health was considered “woo.” No more. Science shows that those who practice it regularly are not only happier but healthier. Feelings of appreciation increase levels of DHEA, which is associated with renewal, improved immunity, and vitality. The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley offers some excellent suggestions for cultivating gratitude. One of my favorites is writing – and delivering – a Gratitude Letter.
Sound overwhelming? No worries. Start small. If any of these areas could use a tune-up in your daily routine, pick just one or two to work on. Small change leads to big change!