With February being Heart Health Month, it makes sense to discuss what that means and how to achieve and maintain that state. Nominally, having cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the reference ranges along with normal heart rate and blood pressure levels would indicate a generally healthy heart.
Another valuable measure of cardiovascular health, and one of which few are ever aware, is the VO2 Max. This test measures the maximum volume of oxygen that can be utilized in one minute during intense exercise. While this measurement is usually reserved for elite athletes, the fact is that we all have one and the higher it is the healthier our heart. After all, even the least athletic of us may find ourselves running to catch a train or shoveling the driveway after a blizzard. These and other unexpected bouts of intense exercise occur in life, and the ability to perform them without collapsing in a heap or calling 911 is dependent upon your heart’s ability to efficiently bring blood to your lungs, get it filled with oxygen and deliver it to the rest of the body.
Now, you need not call your physician and request this test. For the average person it is completely unnecessary. Moreover, you can get a good idea of where your fitness level is just by climbing a flight or two of stairs. If you are breathing normally, your VO2 max is probably in the normal range for your age. If you are sucking wind and marveling at the deep shade of red in your face, it’s time to make some changes. Either way, building and maintaining a stronger, more efficient cardiovascular system is a simple thing to do and ultimately good for your overall health and vitality. In fact, these simple changes are probably the best thing you can do to achieve vibrant longevity.
The first thing you need to do is change your life. I said it was simple – not easy. Actually, it is just certain aspects of your lifestyle that may need to be adjusted. It boils down to two things:
- What you do with your body – For a healthy cardiovascular system you must exercise regularly. Most experts recommend 30 minutes per day of vigorous exercise with 50% of that time being spent on strength training and 50% on aerobic conditioning. This rule applies to any age and any stage of life, with the understanding that the definition of vigorous varies with age, fitness level and mobility.
- What you put into your body -A healthy heart and body have very simple requirements for daily nutrition: fresh whole foods prepared at home with plenty of fruits and vegetables in the mix, and a balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates. To quote Michael Pollan’s advice on diet from his wonderful book In Defense of Food, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Having offered this advice, it is prudent to acknowledge that few, if any, Americans can adhere rigidly to a lifestyle that meets the above recommendations all of the time. As Woody Allen once said, “You can live to 150 if you give up all of the things that made you want to live to 150 in the first place.” So, given this reality, it is worthwhile to supplement these lifestyle changes with nutritional interventions (aka vitamins) that can help protect your heart from your indiscretions and maximize the nutritional benefits to your body. Here are a few of the best heart-healthy specific nutritional supplements to add to your pharmacopoeia:
- Fiber – helps lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. It is found naturally in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, and helps lower heart disease risk. Common sources of fiber used in supplements are oat bran and psyllium.
- Essential Fatty Acids – also known as Omega 3s, they come in two forms: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) found in cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, and menhaden; and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which, it too, is found in cold water fish, but also has plant sources such as flaxseeds. EFAs help reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and may improve blood pressure. They also help to reduce systemic inflammation.
- Antioxidants – prevent the formation of free radicals in the blood which attack and damage tissues throughout the body, including the heart and blood vessels. Found in fruits and vegetables, the body needs a lot of these compounds on a daily basis, which is why they are one of the most common recommended supplements for heart health. Examples include ellagic acid (found in berries, pomegranate), vitamin C, resveratrol (found in grapes, fruits, berries, red wine), bioflavonoids, carotenoids and alpha lipoic acid.
- Anti-inflammatories – natural anti-inflammatories such as turmeric root have wide ranging health benefits and no side effects. There is a growing belief in the healing community that systemic inflammation is the source of all or most disease processes in the human body, including cancer and heart disease.
You really can’t go wrong by supplementing your daily diet with these nutrients. But, remember, these recommendations are meant as supplements, not silver bullets. One should never rely on nutritional supplements to create and maintain his or her health in place of a wholesome lifestyle. To paraphrase the words of a renowned Vedic healer, “The supplements are 20% of the healing and the lifestyle is 100%.” Words to live by.