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Pumping over 7,000 litres of blood around the body each day and in an average lifetime reaching around 2.5 billion beats, carrying essential nutrients, oxygen, cells and hormones, while removing by-products of metabolism, the heart is the power horse of the body. Doing what we can to support it to remain healthy can be vital to avoiding a whole host of health issues.
Research has concluded up to 90% of cardiovascular diseases could be prevented through diet, exercise, lifestyle and nutraceuticals. This empowering information gives us the ability to make changes that potentially will lead to a healthier, happy life for years to come.
Functions of the cardiovascular system
The cardiovascular system is made up of the heart, blood, arteries, veins and capillaries. It has several main functions:
- Pump blood from the heart to the cells
- Send deoxygenated blood from the heart to the lungs to absorb oxygen
- Supply oxygen and nutrients to tissues of the body
- Remove waste products and carbon dioxide
The pumping action of the heart occurs due to it contracting (systole) and relaxing (diastole). It is controlled by electrical activity from the automatic nervous system, its own network of nerves, and the amount of electrolytes in the blood: potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium. These need to be kept within the correct balance to prevent heart arrhythmias and increased blood pressure.
The red blood cells carrying oxygen are made in the bone marrow and contain haemoglobin, a protein that binds with oxygen. They have a lifespan of 120 days and therefore need to constantly replenish. Iron forms part of haem, with copper and vitamin A both having indirect supportive roles. In addition vitamins B6, B9 and B12 are required to activate the enzymes responsible for its healthy formation.
The vessels make up the final component of the circulatory system. Made up of arteries carrying mainly oxygenated blood, veins carrying mainly deoxygenated blood and capillaries which are much smaller vessels.
There are two circuits; the systemic that takes the blood round the body, and the pulmonary taking deoxygenated blood from the heart to the lungs for gas exchange, then back to the heart once oxygenated. The vessels of the body help to maintain blood pressure with the ability to contract and relax. The veins have valves so the blood is able to get back to the heart once the pressure from the beat has diminished. The valves are lined with a thin layer of cells called the endothelium and keeping them in good health helps the vessels remain flexible, toned and elastic.
Heart disease is responsible for a vast array of ill health and is the No.1 cause of death in the UK. Research consistently shows that through lifestyle and dietary choices the disease is largely preventable. By reducing risk factors and choosing healthier options you can do your bit in supporting your heart to good health.
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Overweight and obesity
- Ethnic background
- Family history
We may not be able to control some of the risks, however the difference can be made by keeping your body in a healthy BMI, getting moving, stopping smoking, keeping blood sugar under control, reducing alcohol consumption and keeping blood pressure within recommended levels.
Heart disease may occur due to conditions that affect the cardiovascular system. One of the most common is atherosclerosis; the build-up of plaque and fatty deposits in the arteries. These narrow the blood vessels causing the blood flow to be restricted. The narrower the blood vessels become blood pressure increases, one of the common causes of hypertension. If the problem is not addressed the valve becomes severely obstructed and the blood supply to the heart can be reduced greatly, leaving it oxygen deprived and creating symptoms of shortness of breath, chest pain and ultimately angina. If one of the plaques ruptures a blood clot can form, that can then completely block an artery of the heart or brain, resulting in a heart attack or stroke.
The Fat Debate
Saturated fat has been deemed the culprit for being a leading cause of heart conditions, however a meta-analysis of over 350,000 people concluded no link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Results have been criticized by some health professionals, and dietitians still recommend following a low saturated fat diet. Although as more studies are published, increasing evidence suggests that although saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol, it is the particle number and type of LDL cholesterol that is a more accurate indicator.
In conclusion, cholesterol levels may rise with saturated fat, but the problem lies with trans-fat and refined sugars, that increase the small dense LDL particles that build up as plaque in the arteries.
Heart Harming Foods
- Refined carbohydrates and simple sugar foods
- Fizzy drinks
- Processed Meats
- Salty food and snacks
Heart Healthy Foods
- Salmon and oily fish
- Leafy Green Vegetables
- Oats and wholegrains
- Dark Chocolate (>70% cocoa solids)
Reduce Your Risk
Following a diet low in trans-fat, simple sugars and processed foods, while eating wholegrains, plenty of vegetables, small amounts of fruit, omega 3 fats from oily fish, flax and walnuts, free range grass-fed meat, beans and pulses. This will provide plenty of fibre, a low omega 3:6 ratio, reduce sodium intake and increase potassium and magnesium consumption.
Magnesium- relaxes and dilates blood vessels, contributes to muscle functioning including your heart, supports blood sugar regulation and reduces calcium uptake. Best sources are leafy green vegetables, raw cacao, avocado and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin D- studies have found having optimal Vitamin D levels can dramatically decrease the risk of heart disease; with links to a decrease in vascular calcification whilst increasing anti-inflammatory cytokines. Skin exposure enables the body to produce Vitamin D, good food sources come from cod liver oil, fish and eggs. Living in the northern hemisphere The Department for Health recommends those with limited sun exposure and darker skin to supplement 10micrograms (mcg) daily but many studies have shown supplementing with 25mcg to be of more benefit to achieving optimal health.
Vitamin K2- along with vitamin D prevents calcification of the arteries by activating a protein called Matrix-GLA which guards against calcium crystal deposits. Additionally K2 may reduce plaque build-up that has already occurred. Great sources come from fermented foods such as Natto, sauerkraut, kimchi and raw grass-fed goat’s cheese.
CoQ10- powerful antioxidant and essential for efficient energy production in the heart muscle. Studies have shown when supplementing with CoQ10, significantly more successful recovery and survival rates in those with congestive heart failure. CoQ10 reduces with age and additionally is depleted in those taking statins. Food sources are richest in fish, meat, poultry and organ meats. If supplementing use the ubiquinol form, as gives higher bioavailability than the alternative ubiquinone.
EPA- the omega 3 oil is particularly beneficial for the heart. If supplementing with a fish or algae oil, ensure the EPA level is high, as this is the fatty acid that research has linked to be the most effective for cardiovascular health.
Beetroot juice and L-Arginine- precursors to nitric oxide which cause the blood vessels to dilate and relax; supporting a healthy blood pressure.
Hawthorn- long history as a heart tonic, packed full of phytonutrients, reduces resistance in the arteries and supports a healthy blood flow to the vessels around the heart muscle.
B6, folic acid/B9 and B12- help reduce homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is a by-product of protein metabolism and if not cleared from the body adequately can led to atherosclerosis.
Plant Sterols- help reduce absorption of cholesterol in the gut and therefore more is lost in the faeces. Good sources are wholegrains, legumes and nuts.