You already know the heart is an incredible organ. But dig a little deeper and you discover just how truly miraculous it is.
For example, a typical heart beats more than 100,000 times a day and pumps 1.5 gallons of blood each minute. It’s also largely responsible for getting all that blood — which delivers essential nutrients and oxygen to organs and tissues near and far — through more than 60,000 miles of blood vessels.
As strong as it is, though, your heart is also extremely sensitive to diet and lifestyle factors; treat it poorly, and it’s at high risk for problems. Just consider that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., and about three-quarters of a million people will suffer a heart attack each year.
Luckily, many of the problems are wholly preventable. Regular physical activity, stress management and adequate sleep are all excellent ways to preserve cardiovascular health. But, as the old saying goes, the quickest way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. In other words, one of the absolute best ways to protect your ticker — and your health as a whole — is through what you eat and herbal supplements you can take.
A generally healthy and balanced diet is the first step, of course. “When it comes to the body, you can’t look at things in isolation — so anything that’s good for your body will be good for your heart, and vice versa,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan.
That said, there are certain eating patterns and specific foods, herbs, and other natural substances that hold specific and potent powers for promoting heart health. They do it by targeting the main factors that keep your heart and entire circulatory system strong and healthy and blood flowing optimally.
6 Key Factors for Heart Health
This refers to how thick and sticky blood is. Blood is naturally pretty thick and viscous thanks to everything it contains, like white and red blood cells, platelets and other coagulants, and more. Certain foods, herbs, and other remedies improve blood viscosity, making it slightly thinner so that it can travel more smoothly and easily through blood vessels, Dr. Rawls says.
“Your heart pushes blood through all these really narrow arteries and vessels, and if your blood is very thick, it creates a lot of friction on the vessel walls that can cause damage,” he explains. “Getting a rug burn is a good example. The friction damages skin and skin forms a scab — that’s what can happen inside vessels.” The “scab” then makes it harder for blood to pass, causing even more friction and setting the stage for blockages that may contribute to heart disease.
Blood Cholesterol Levels
While doctors used to think that fat and cholesterol in food were the major contributing factors to cholesterol levels in your body, it’s now known that those things account for only about 25 percent, Dr. Rawls says. That’s not a green light to eat lots of saturated fat — doing so can make blood thicker, which causes its own problems.
But when it comes to cholesterol, most is made in the liver and in response to eating too much sugar and starchy carbs, not fat. Your body can only burn or store so much of the glucose from these foods at a time, so all the excess goes to the liver, which turns it into fat. The liver then makes lipo-proteins (aka LDL cholesterol) to transport that fat into fat cells. The LDL particles make blood more viscous, but they can also easily get stuck in the “scabs” that may form on vessel walls due to friction, setting up a vicious cycle.
Oxidative Stress and Free Radicals
What’s interesting is that LDL particles aren’t that big of an issue unless they become oxidized, Dr. Rawls explains. Meaning, if you have a lot of free radicals in your system due to a poor diet and other unhealthy habits, they oxidize the LDL and turn them especially toxic and inflammatory.
“When oxidized LDL particles get stuck in the fibrin — what your body uses to make the ‘scab’ — that’s when you get plaque formation,” Dr. Rawls says. And that puts you on the path to cardiovascular disease. That’s also why free radical-fighting antioxidants are especially vital to heart health. “Antioxidants do the most good in the blood by reducing oxidative stress in blood vessels,” he says.
Heart Cells’ Mitochondria
“There are hundreds to thousands of mitochondria in each cell in the body, but heart cells have some of the highest concentrations because they have so much work to do,” Dr. Rawls says. Mitochondria, as you may know, is a cell’s power plant; it generates energy the cell needs to function. But the process itself generates free radical byproducts that your body must neutralize with electrons.
“That means you’re constantly burning out the components of what are called electron chain transport machines, so mitochondrial DNA is constantly working to replace them,” Dr. Rawls says. That’s why healthy, nutrient-dense foods, herbs and other remedies that protect and assist mitochondrial function are especially beneficial to the heart.
A Healthy Balance Of Microbes
Pathogenic bacteria have been found in cardiovascular plaque itself, Dr. Rawls says, and researchers have also linked changes in the composition of gut microbiota with aspects of cardiovascular disease and contributing risk factors. Which isn’t surprising when you consider the role gut microbes play in the body as a whole, and their ability to produce bioactive metabolites that impact your health in a number of ways, according to a paper in the journal Circulation Research.
“So many illnesses are being linked to microbes and the resulting immune dysfunction that can occur,” Dr. Rawls says. Bottom line: For optimal heart health, be sure you also pay attention to your gut health.
Blood Vessel Integrity
Another piece to the heart puzzle is the health of your blood vessels. The stronger, healthier, and more flexible and resilient your vessel walls are, the better they will be able to withstand or manage natural friction in order to circumvent blockages, Dr. Rawls says.
10 Foods, Nutrients, and Herbs for Heart Health
While there are many different factors involved in keeping your heart healthy and blood flowing well, the good news is that there are even more foods, herbs, and natural ingredients that help support and protect those factors and heart function. Here are some of the best.
1. All the Veggies
A diet that consists of 50% vegetables is as good as it gets for your heart, Dr. Rawls says. Veggies are loaded with antioxidants that help tamp down inflammation and oxidative stress, plus they’re high in fiber, which works to control cholesterol and keep the good bacteria in your gut flourishing and the bad bugs in check.
Eating more vegetables also means there’s less room on your plate for starchy grains and other carbs that your body will turn into fat, and that triggers increases in cholesterol. There’s also less room for the meat and saturated fats that make blood thick and sticky.
Studies are unequivocal on the benefits of eating produce: The more you follow a plant-based diet and the more produce you consume, the healthier your heart, and the lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and a whole host of other diseases.
Need some guidance on where to begin in the produce section? There are some veggies that are heart health all-stars, according to research. They include:
- Leafy and cruciferous greens: Spinach, kale, broccoli, and cabbage contain vitamin K and nitrates, both of which are known to be natural blood thinners. The veggies may also help control cholesterol by being able to bind to bile acid. A review in the journal Cardiovascular Disease, for example, found that consuming these veggies reduces the risk of heart disease by 16 percent.
- Garlic, onions and leeks: They belong to a group known as allium vegetables, which are high in organosulfur compounds. Specialized antioxidant phytochemicals, these compounds are anti-inflammatory and prevent the production of free radicals. They also help maintain healthy blood viscosity and increase the availability of nitric oxide, a natural chemical produced by the lining of blood vessels that helps them expand and may lower blood pressure. Research has shown that consuming allium veggies may lower your risk of a number of different heart problems. Garlic is also well known for his anti-microbial powers, which could help maintain balance among gut bacteria, Dr. Rawls says.
- Avocados: These cult classics are brimming with nutrients, fiber, and heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, which may help decrease blood viscosity, Dr. Rawls says. Consumption of avocados has also been shown to increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, according to a review in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. HDL particles are the antithesis to LDL; they scavenge for damaging cholesterol in the blood so it can be recycled by the liver, Dr. Rawls explains.
- Olives and olive oil: They fill you up with lots of healthy monounsaturated fat, plus olives are a well-known anti-inflammatory food thanks to their antioxidant polyphenols. People who consumed the most extra virgin olive oil, for example, had an almost 40% reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, according to a study in BMC Medicine.
- Edamame and tofu: Packed with fiber, they also contain specialized protein with bioactive peptides known to help lower cholesterol. One analysis of 46 different studies concluded that consuming soy reduces total cholesterol as well as dangerous LDL. Soy is also rich in antioxidants and may help improve the function of blood vessel linings.
Like veggies, all types of fruit will help your heart by providing plenty of antioxidants and fiber while crowding out foods that do cardiovascular damage. But there’s something special about blueberries — namely specialized polyphenol antioxidants. Studies suggest consuming these richly colored berries helps improve endothelial function (the lining of blood vessels), arterial stiffness, and even blood pressure.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Whether you get them in fish like salmon and sardines, flaxseeds, or from krill oil or fish oil supplements, these polyunsaturated fats have a number of beneficial qualities. They’re anti-inflammatory and fight oxidative stress, Dr. Rawls says, plus research suggests they raise your HDL cholesterol and may help improve your body’s cholesterol profile in other ways. Omega-3s also help improve blood viscosity, according to a report in the journal Open Heart, and they’re associated with lower risk for obesity, a major co-factor for heart problems.
4. “Better” Whole Grains
Grains aren’t totally banned from a heart-healthy menu, just be sure to consume them in moderation and make smart choices. That means ditching bread and other wheat-based, packaged foods and instead consuming small amounts of true whole grains like oats, barley, quinoa, and brown Basmati rice, Dr. Rawls says.
The fiber in these grains helps keep blood sugar levels stable — e.g. they won’t flood your system with more glucose than it can burn or store — plus it removes excess cholesterol from your system. In fact, one large-scale review published in the journal BMJ found that three servings of whole grains a day (half a cup of cooked quinoa, oatmeal, or brown rice is one serving) reduced the risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
A great source of healthy fat as well as fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients, nuts such as almonds and walnuts have repeatedly been shown to affect healthy changes on cholesterol, including increasing healthy HDL and lowering LDL, plus improving endothelial function. They also help lower blood viscosity, Dr. Rawls says.
Multiple studies have also found that those who eat nuts have lower risk of cardiovascular diseases. For example, one study in the journal Circulation Research reported that those with type 2-diabetes (a known risk factor for heart disease) who ate nuts had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.
6. Hawthorn Leaf Extract
A member of the rose family, the hawthorn plant has been used for centuries for medicine, and its extract is often referred to as a “heart tonic” thanks to its myriad benefits. “It causes mild dilation of coronary blood vessels, which helps increase and ease blood flow and lowers blood pressure,” Dr. Rawls says.
There are actually multiple compounds in the extract that exhibit properties that help improve blood viscosity, a study in the journal Food & Function found. “Hawthorn also increases integrity of blood vessels and the contractility of the heart — meaning it helps the heart beat better and reduces abnormal rhythms,” Dr. Rawls adds.
7. Antioxidant Herbs
Herbs are a great way to reap the heart-protecting rewards of antioxidants. Japanese knotweed, for example, contains high concentrations of an active form of resveratrol. A potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant also found in grapes, its been shown to protect the heart and improve endothelial function.
French maritime pine bark is another herb with antioxidant properties that may also improve blood viscosity, according to a review in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacological Therapy. Rutin and hesperidin are two others known for antioxidant and cardiovascular benefits. “These herbs do a lot of beneficial things in the body, but one of the most significant is how they help protect and promote the health of blood vessels,” Dr. Rawls says.
8. Adaptogen Herbs and Fungi
Reishi mushroom, cordyceps, ashwagandha, and rhodiola are all well-known adaptogens. “Adaptogens all have really nice heart effects, because they help the body adapt to stressors,” Dr. Rawls says. That includes both physical and mental stress, both of which can impact heart health. Rhodiola, for example, helps promote healthy oxygen delivery to the heart and other tissues, while ashwagandha helps manage stress and anxiety.
Used for thousands of years in Chinese and traditional medicine, this bitter extract that’s found in multiple different barks, roots and plants is best known for its gut-balancing properties. That alone may help promote a healthy heart given the gut-heart connection, but now researchers are finding berberine may exert direct beneficial effects on the heart. A review in the journal Chronic Diseases and Translational Medicine, for example, reports that berberine extract may do everything from help regulate blood pressure and cholesterol to improve circulation and blood viscosity.
10. Liver-Supporting Herbs
Over time, toxins and free radicals can cause liver damage that may inhibit the organ’s ability to manage blood cholesterol levels, Dr. Rawls says. So consider looking to herbs such as milk thistle and dandelion, two that are commonly used to promote healthy liver function.
Working the right herbs, foods, and nutrients into your daily routine can go a long way toward keeping your heart in tip top shape. But consider it just the beginning: If you also feed your heart plenty of exercise, give it lots of restful and quality sleep, and protect it from stress and toxins, it will beat loud and strong for you for years to come.
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