Did you know that 80% of cardiovascular disease can be prevented and managed by living a healthy lifestyle? That includes those of us who have grim genetic risk factors. In fact, by “living right” (exercising moderately, eating a healthy diet heavy in fruits, vegetables and grains, and not smoking) people can tamp down even the worst genetic risk. Our DNA is not our destiny.
It’s Valentine’s Day (and National Heart Health month), so it only seems appropriate to lavish a bit more love on our hearts. Below are a few pleasant, lesser-known things that you can do to boost your heart health. And — to be honest — I included one that isn’t as pleasant as it is important.
Take a Forest Bath
The Japanese have a term, shinrin-yoku, that loosely translates to “forest bathing.” It involves walking among the trees and plants in a forest as a way to achieve relaxation. The thought is that the plant compounds circulating in the forest air provide a number of health benefits. Over the years, scientists have found evidence that supports this idea. The findings show that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments. Because of powerful results of studies like these, there is a burgeoning research field dedicated to forest medicine, which may be used as a strategy for preventive medicine. So city-dwellers like me, take note: Seek out time in nature.
Choose Wine (Over Other Alcoholic Beverages)
In 2015, a clinical trial confirmed that drinking wine could modestly improve heart health. The study, carried out over two years and involving 224 people with Type 2 diabetes, randomly assigned participants to drink a glass of mineral water, white wine or red wine with dinner nightly. At the end of the research, the people assigned to drink wine, especially red wine, had slight improvements in HDL cholesterol and other cardio-metabolic risk factors as compared with those assigned to drink only water. Most of the research on alcohol suggests that wine is the most beneficial type, perhaps because of the antioxidants and other plant compounds it contains. But if you do choose wine (or any alcohol for that matter), drink it in moderation. According to the American Heart Association, that means one drink a day for women, and no more than two daily for men.
We all know that eating plants is good for our hearts. But did you know that drinking them, in the form of tea, is good too? Many studies link regular tea consumption to cardiovascular benefits. Research suggests it has to do with the unique and potent compounds tea contains, especially varieties like green, oolong and herbal teas. These little compounds do powerful things like lower inflammation, boost insulin sensitivity, protect the cells that line the arteries, and positively impact blood lipids. Sipping tea throughout the day is an easy, pleasurable and health-giving habit to develop.
See Your Dentist
Have you heard about the connection between gum disease and heart disease? Many well-documented studies have found that periodontal disease increases our risk of coronary heart disease by about 30 percent. While the exact link between the two isn’t clear, one reason may be the presence of harmful bacteria in the mouth, which not only causes gum disease but also could be a symptom or cause of systemic inflammation throughout the body. Whatever the connection the message is clear: Get regular dental check-ups.
Everyone seems to be talking about the health benefits of meditation these days. In fact, there are many studies that support the hype, especially when it comes to heart health. Meditation has been shown to improve conditions such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus, dyslipidemia (related to cholesterol), and high cortisol levels. Meditation slows and softens the body’s response to stress and supports many aspects of health like sleep, focus and body awareness. There are some great meditation apps to get you started. Some good ones are Smiling Mind, Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm, or Stop, Breathe & Think.
Get a Pet
Having a pet -- a dog in particular -- could lower your risk of heart disease. There are a number of reasons why this is true but one is that people who own dogs are more likely to get outside and take walks. Studies have also found that the bond between dog and cat owners and their pets tends to lower the pet-owners’s heart rate and blood pressure and generally reduce their stress response. Obviously, this isn’t the only reason you should get a pet but it you’re considering adding a pet to your family, these go in the “pros” column of the debate.
Get Some Sleep
The importance of getting a good night’s sleep to protect your heart is often overlooked. Sleep disorders affect one-third of the country and can impair your quality of life. You may not know this but sleep disorders can have a significant impact on your cardiovascular health. Sleep apnea in particular – a condition in which a person experiences pauses in breathing at night – is strongly linked to heart disease. In fact, untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk of dying from heart disease nearly fivefold. If you don’t feel refreshed when you wake up or your partner says they hear you snoring, you should be evaluated by a doctor. These could be subtle warning signs that you should tune into.
Wishing you a love-filled day.