Heart disease is unfortunately on the rise in western countries and represents the leading cause of death in Canada but also globally for men and women, but did you know that it is largely driven by diet and lifestyle choices?
This means that the way we choose to live can directly influence the degree of our risk of cardiovascular disease and that we can do a lot to prevent it.
Cardiovascular disease includes different types of conditions such as atherosclerosis, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and heart disease.
Just because heart disease is on the rise doesn't mean it is inevitable, in fact it's largely preventable for most of us when we start to make healthy living a priority. Even for those who have a history of heart problems or genetic predisposition you are not destined to necessarily encounter problems again.
Cardiovascular disease is typically associated with and driven by inflammatory processes in the body such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, chronic stress, and hyperlipidemia.
This is where epigenetics come into play.
Epigenetics influence our cells to respond to environmental changes. Basically this means your behaviors and the environment you are exposed to can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.
It's no coincidence that the prevalence of cardiovascular disease has dramatically risen over the last 100 years with a shift towards a dominantly sedentary lifestyle characterized by ever rising stress and a standard diet lacking in nutrition.
Factors that can modify epigenetic markers and influence our genes and cardiovascular risk include nutrition, smoking, exercise, pollution, stress, and dysregulation of the circadian rhythm (1)
For a healthy heart it really does overwhelmingly depend on your everyday choices. Fortunately there is a lot that you can do, and it can be easy!
Load up on fruits and vegetables
An anti-inflammatory diet revolving largely around whole fruits and vegetables with plenty of plant protein sources, such as the Mediterranean diet, has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease (2).
Fruits and vegetables are rich in minerals such as potassium and magnesium that help to counteract the effects of excess sodium and ensure healthy cardiac function (3).
Excess sodium, typically obtained in the diet from processed foods, and low potassium intake is a risk factor for developing heart disease (4).
What's more, brightly coloured fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants which can help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. Oxidative damage is strongly associated with heart disease risk because the generation of reactive oxygen species or free radicals damage blood vessels and raise inflammation (5)(6).
You can read more about heart healthy foods to include in your diet on our blog.
Reduce your stress
When faced with chronic stress, this can influence all systems of the body including the heart. In fact, up to 80% of doctors visits are said to be related to stress.
High levels of cortisol related to chronic stress can promote the risk of heart disease by increasing levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure.
It's safe to say we are all impacted by stress on some level yet stress management is rarely taught. Instead we tend to reach for unhealthy coping mechanisms that can increase the risk of chronic disease and illness even more like alcohol, processed foods, sugar, smoking, and TV (7).
Though we can't escape all types of stressors, we can control how we respond to stress and reduce its impacts. This is really what stress management is all about.
Different modalities of stress management that utilize the mind-body approach have been associated with lowered blood pressure but also a reduced risk for mortality, myocardial infarction, and stroke in coronary heart disease patients (8).
Finding ways to decrease stress levels should become a priority in your daily life in order to live a more balanced lifestyle and promote good health and longevity.
We all know exercise is beneficial, but how is it heart healthy? Exercise promotes good heart health by improving various health markers such as blood sugar, weight loss, stress hormones, inflammation, blood pressure, and blood lipids (9).
And it doesn't have to take much to make a difference. Mortality risk may decrease with just 50 minutes of vigorous exercise every day (10).
That being said too little exercise can be just as detrimental as too much exercise. In our society today we tend to see a teetering between a completely sedentary lifestyle and taking it too far to the extremes.
It's important to implement movement into your day whenever you can but while also listening to your body when it needs to slow down and rest.
Remove the processed stuff
Processed foods have become the norm nowadays and are found everywhere, however they are contributing to the growing health crisis we are now facing.
One of the main culprits is the high intake in sugar associated with a diet high in processed foods.
Highly processed vegetable oils are also influential on heart health outcomes and chronic disease. Found abundantly in the Standard American Diet they are linked to increased inflammation and contribute to unhealthy lipid levels and oxidative stress (11). These oils may include canola, peanut, corn, cottonseed, soybean, safflower, and sunflower oil. This is especially problematic when there is overconsumption of these fats high in omega 6 fatty acids and low omega 3 fatty acid intake (12)
Include healthy sources of fats instead, vital for a healthy heart, such as avocado, walnuts, chia seeds, and olives.
They say a broken heart can kill you, and in a way they may be right. Humans are designed and wired for connection. We need one another in order to be truly healthy and happy. Loneliness, loss and isolation are risk factors for heart disease as psychological stress and associated emotions such as grief, anger, and sadness can take a toll on your heart (13)(14)(15).
Physical touch and intimacy can be effective tools to help reduce cortisol levels as well as inflammation which can influence heart health. This can be as simple as hand holding, kissing, hugging, a pat on the back or more intimate physical touch such as sex.
Healthy sexual activity has been shown to benefit heart health, while low sexual activity frequency has actually been associated with increased cardiovascular risk (16).
The act of touch has a calming and soothing effect on the nervous system by increasing our feel good hormones such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
Whether it be within your intimate relationship, family, or friends, making time for the people you love in your life and finding ways to connect with others daily is an important part of maintaining health and preventing chronic disease risk.