Whether you’re 25 or 55, it’s never too soon, or late, to start thinking about the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Since most heart diseases develop over a number of years, paying close attention to known risk factors during regular checkups will allow you to take charge of your heart health.
1. Watch your waist-to-hip ratio (WHR)
Where you carry body fat is just as important as how much you carry. People who tend to accumulate fat around the waist (apple shape) have a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure than those who carry excess weight on the hips and thighs (pear shape). Calculating your WHR will determine if the weight in your abdomen exceeds that of your thighs. Take the measurement of your waist divided by the measurement of your hips.
Heart healthy tip: Measure your waist at the level of your belly button. Waist circumference greater than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men is associated with increased risk. Aim for a WHR less than 1 for men and 0.8 for women. Or simply enter your numbers into this online calculator.
2. Keep your blood pressure in check
Optimal blood pressure is 110/70, while 120/80 is still very good. While anything below this is fine, anything above and you should begin to take steps to bring your numbers closer to optimal. If you’re concerned, try taking your blood pressure a few times over a period of three days. Remember to take it after being seated for at least 3-5 minutes. Blood pressure readings above normal can be categorized into different stages: pre-hypertension (120-139/80-89), stage one (140-159/90-99), and stage two (160/100 or more).
Heart healthy tip: In my practice I’ve found that weight loss, diet modification and stress reduction techniques are the most effective ways to lower blood pressure.
3. Favour your good cholesterol
Balance is key and there’s no greater physiological example than that of cholesterol. While you don’t want it too high, too low isn’t ideal either. High levels of cholesterol in the blood can cause the inner walls of the arteries to become lined with fatty deposits, a condition known as atherosclerosis, or coronary heart disease (CAD). The initial cause of cholesterol deposits on the arterial wall is believed to be your body’s natural attempt to repair inflammation. When the arteries become clogged, blood flow to the heart, or other areas, may become restricted leading to a heart attack or other problems related to insufficient blood flow.
High-density lipoprotein, or HDL cholesterol, has earned the nickname “good cholesterol”. It’s produced in the liver and sent out to remove cholesterol from the blood. The “scavenged” bad cholesterol is then processed through the liver and discharged in the bile to the digestive tract for excretion. High levels of HDL in your blood may help reduce your risk of coronary heart disease while a low level can increase your risk of heart disease.
Heart healthy tip: High levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) often result from a diet high in saturated fats and trans fats (i.e. margarine and hydrogenated oils). Reduce, or eliminate, your intake of these inflammatory fats as they not only increase LDL (bad) levels, but they also reduce HDL (good) levels. Other ways to improve your cholesterol ratio include adding a daily fibre supplement, increasing the monounsaturated fats in your diet (think olive oil, avocados, nuts), quitting smoking, and exercising 3-4 times a week.
4. Hone in on homocysteine
Homocysteine is a common amino acid found in the blood. At high levels it causes cholesterol to change into oxidized LDL which is more damaging to the arteries. It also increases the risk of blood clots and therefore blood vessel blockages. Homocysteine is measured using a simple blood test requiring no prep. The ideal homocysteine level is less than 6.3 millimoles/litre.
Heart healthy tip: Eating more fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, can help lower your homocysteine level by increasing sources of folic acid. Supplementing your diet with folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 can also be beneficial.
5. Cool down your CRP levels
C-reactive protein (CRP) is produced by the body as part of the process of inflammation — a major contributing cause of cardiovascular disease. Elevated concentrations of CRP may indicate a risk factor for heart disease, even when cholesterol levels are normal. The test you should request is called highly sensitive C- reactive protein (HS-CRP) and an optimal number is less than 0.8.
Heart healthy tip: If your CRP is on the high side, you can reduce it daily with exercise, weight loss and supplements like proteolytic enzymes, proanthrocyanadins (particularly from grapeseeds), essential fatty acids and vitamin C.
6. Reduce your triglycerides
Triglycerides are the main type of fat transported in your bloodstream. After eating, fats in your foods are digested and released into your bloodstream as triglycerides to give you energy, or to be stored as fat. Between meals hormones regulate the release of triglycerides from fat tissues to meet the body’s energy requirements. Excess triglycerides in the blood while fasting are related to an increase in the occurrence of coronary arterial disease. An acceptable triglyceride level is 150 mg/dL (1.7 mmol/L) or less. Unless there’s a family history of high levels, or a problem processing carbohydrates, they’re typically within normal range.
Heart healthy tip: Keep levels healthy by lowering your intake of starchy carbs, reducing/eliminating sugar and processed foods, supplementing your diet with fish oil, and boosting your intake of healthy fats.
7. Take vitamin K2
There’s convincing evidence to support that vitamin K2 inhibits, and possibly reverses, arterial calcification — hardening of the arteries — which is possibly the best overall measure of heart attack risk. Take 45 to 60 mg per day with food. Do not take this supplement if you are currently on a blood thinning medication.
Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Her newest release, The Carb Sensitivity Program, is now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.