For some, the month of February is defined by candy hearts, crushes, and valentines, but for many other people in our country, February is more important as the Heart Month. Did you know that heart disease is the second leading cause of death of adults in Canada per year? According to Health Canada, “Heart disease affects approximately 2.4 million Canadian adults.” Because of this harrowing statistic and others like it, we celebrate Heart Month in order to educate citizens on the dangers of heart disease and share prevention methods to lower these statistics, thereby reducing people’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
What really IS heart disease?
People talk about heart disease a lot, but many don’t actually know what it is, or what it means for a person’s health. To start, heart disease is often associated with other cardiovascular issues and is closely related to angina and strokes. But what makes heart disease so horrible is that its part of a process called atherosclerosis. Coronary heart diseases allow plaque, a dense substance made up or fat, cholesterol, calcium and other nutrients, to build up in the blood vessels.
As atherosclerosis progresses, the plaque leaves less and less room for the blood to flow through the vessels. If left untreated, this can lead to two major issues. First, the plaque can build up so much that it creates a full blockage of the vessel. When this happens, blood can no longer get to where is needs to go; blood cells lose oxygen, and you can have a heart attack. Alternatively, some of the plaque could break off, flowing through your body and possibly getting stuck in a narrower spot. Depending on where the plaque gets stuck, you could have a deep vein thrombosis, a stroke, or if the clot travels back to the heart, a heart attack.
Could you be at risk for heart disease?
Risk factors that often contribute to someone developing heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and prediabetes or diabetes. These factors can increase because of someone’s family history, lifestyle choices, or environmental surroundings. Weight and diet are often at the root of heart disease risks because they are risk factors for all the disorders that lead to heart disease. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type II diabetes are all highly associated with obesity.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure occurs when the force of blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels is consistently too high. In 2014, Statistics Canada found that 5.3 million people over the age of 12 were diagnosed with high blood pressure. If you do not take active measures to lower your high blood pressure, you will increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
High blood pressure can be a genetic issue, but it can result from a significant weight gain as well. The reason is pretty simple. When you gain weight, your body gains mass, which means your cardiovascular system has to travel greater distances and support a larger system. In response, your heart has to work double-time, and your blood vessels have to push harder to get the blood everywhere it needs to go.
Prediabetes and type 2 diabetes both result from high blood sugar levels. Most adults with prediabetes don’t realize that they have the condition. If left untreated, prediabetes can become type 2 diabetes. People with diabetes have a higher risk for heart disease as well as a greater risk for high blood pressure.
Regarding weight, when your body’s fat level increases, two things happen. First, your current fat cells will expand, often to as much as 6 times their original size. When they run out of room to grow, they will begin to multiply. Increased fat makes it difficult for your body to process insulin correctly, leading to insulin resistance, and eventually, diabetes.
Diabetes also directly impacts cardiovascular health, because the presence of too much insulin in the blood, a condition known as hyperglycemia, actually damages the blood vessels. One well-known symptom of diabetes is also the nerve damage. Most people associate this with damage to their feet, which is common, but diabetes can also damage the nerves that control your heart, allowing it to function improperly.
High cholesteroloccurs when cholesterol builds up in your arteries causing the hardening of your arteries. Recent reports show that 41% of Canadian adults have high cholesterol levels.
High cholesterol is directly impacted by your diet. Now, some people are genetically predisposed to having cholesterol issues, but for the most part, the level of cholesterol in your body comes from what you eat. Diets high in fatty foods, especially butter, can greatly raise the cholesterol levels in your blood. This matters for heart disease because cholesterol is one of the main components of the plaque. So the more you have in your body, the easier it is for the plaque to develop.
Why are Medications the Standard?
A good doctor, whether they are an internist, a family medicine practitioner, or an alternative or functional medicine physician, should always discuss lifestyle changes that can improve health. However, there are millions of people taking drugs with great potential dangers who haven’t made these lifestyle changes, and many haven’t been offered guidance on that path.
It happens all the time, with everything from blood thinners to statins, ACE inhibitors and diuretics. When push comes to shove, many physicians reach for their prescription pad, because they feel the medication will give a guarantee and will fix the problem fast. And when symptoms are alleviated, both practitioner and patient feel vindicated in that decision.
It’s important to remember that no medication comes without risks. For example, Pradaxa (a common blood thinner) might hinder the blood clots, but it can also cause deadly bleeding from something as simple as a minor cut. In contrast, there is never a downside to eating healthily, and exercising properly, especially when you have guidance from a professional.
Diets for Heart Health
Depending on your health conditions, different diets may be recommended. If you’re already on a medication or looking to make a major lifestyle change, it is important to talk to a professional before beginning a diet and exercise program. Here are a few suggested diet types for those at risk for the heart disease and its associated conditions.
Apart from medications, the most highly recommended treatment for high blood pressure is the DASH diet, otherwise known as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This diet incorporates foods high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein. It avoids foods high in saturated and trans fats as well as sodium. This diet has been reported to have reduced the blood pressure of those following the diet in just two weeks.
High cholesterol is actually easily treated with dietary changes. If you suffer from high cholesterol, it’s important toavoidtrans fats, saturated fats, and refined sugars & grains, all of which contain high cholesterol levels already. Experts at Harvard Medical School suggest eating foods “high in soluble fiber, polyunsaturated fats, which directly lower LDL, and plant sterols and stanols, which block the body from absorbing cholesterol.” These foods include beans, nuts, apples, strawberries, citrus fruits, fatty fish, and fiber supplements.
For people with prediabetes, it is recommended that you eat foods high in fiber and avoid processed or canned foods. Diabetics are encouraged to eat their meals following the glycemic index to avoid foods that would cause a spike in their blood sugar. Sadly, fully-blown diabetes cannot be treated solely with a diet. A person with type 2 diabetes will require insulin injections, frequent blood glucose monitoring, and in some cases, other medications prescribed by their doctor. You should speak with your doctor to develop a personalized plan to best treat your diabetes.
The exercise benefits for people with heart disease risks are twofold. First, losing weight can reduce your heart and vascular system’s workload, and help minimize the effects of insulin resistance. At the same time, proper fitness can strengthen every part of your body, giving your heart muscles the boost they need to pump properly every day.
The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week. Moderate activity brings your heart into a target zone that helps strengthen muscles and improve cardiovascular functions. Strength training is, of course, important, but aerobic exercise is especially encouraged because it helps train your heart and body to increase its endurance.
If medication is your only option to solving a health problem, or if a lifestyle change is not possible for you right now, then it’s important to work with your physician to find the right treatment for you. But for most people, medication shouldn’t be the first stop on their journey. Changing what you eat and how you care for your body can have an enormous impact on your risk factors for heart disease, and unlike drugs, there are no harmful side effects. So grab a water bottle, take a walk, and get your February started in a heart-healthy way!
About the Author
Caitlin Hoff uses her background in product design and her passion for health and wellness to educate consumers. She strives to help people make smart decisions affecting their personal health and that of their families. Writing articles about consumer health risks, Ms. Hoff aims to inspire readers to make health a priority in their lives.