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Condition - Getting to the heart of the matter

By Debbie Paddington DipION

Your heart is about the size of your fist and starts beating when you are approximately three weeks old in the womb. By the time you are 70, it will have beaten two and a half billion times. Heart disease is the UK’s biggest killer, causing approximately 34% of deaths. High blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and high homocysteine levels are all contributory factors to heart disease.

High blood pressure

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the main arteries. Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury at a point where it is most similar to that leaving the heart (usually the arm) and is given as two numbers. The top number is the systolic pressure, which is created when your heart beats (as your ventricle contracts). The bottom number is the diastolic pressure, which is taken when the heart is at rest (as your ventricle relaxes and refills). Readings of 140/90mmHg and above are considered high.

Healthy arteries are smooth, flexible and can stretch when blood is pumped through them. Over time, however, if the force of the blood is too high, the arteries can remain stretched. Stretched arteries are weaker and tiny tears can appear, leaving rough scar tissue that catches debris floating in the bloodstream, such as fat and cholesterol. In a process called atherosclerosis, these accumulations form plaques. Plaques are thick, hard deposits that cause arteries to become less flexible, narrower, or can even block them completely. This reduces blood flow and forces the heart to work harder, damaging the muscles and valves in the heart, which can lead to heart failure. Additionally, plaques can break off and cause blockages in other parts of the body and heart attacks and strokes can occur.  

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all cells. The body obtains cholesterol from foods such as meat and dairy, but around two-thirds is manufactured in the liver. Despite all its bad press, cholesterol, at healthy levels, is very important for many functions in the body, including repairing cell membranes, hormone production and the manufacture of vitamin D. Cholesterol cannot dissolve in the blood and so is transported to and from cells as ‘lipoproteins’. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is known as ‘bad cholesterol’. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is known as ‘good’ cholesterol. HDL tends to carry cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver and, therefore, increased levels of HDL appear to protect against heart disease.

Homocysteine

Homocysteine is produced in the body from another amino acid, called methionine, by a process called methylation. Methylation happens over a billion times a second. It is the body’s way of making substances or breaking them down, by adding or taking away a methyl group. For example, when you eat foods such as meat and fish, which contain methionine, it is incorporated into your bloodstream. However, if a methyl group is then taken away, it leaves you with homocysteine, which is a toxic amino acid. By adding a methyl group, homocysteine can be converted into SAMe, which may help to support liver function and mood. Equally, by adding a different methyl group, homocysteine can be converted into an extremely important and necessary antioxidant called glutathione. The process of methylation is also thought to be the way our DNA repairs itself, so good methylation may help to protect us from certain diseases. High levels of homocysteine are an indication of poor methylation and have been linked to heart disease, stroke and many other degenerative diseases. B vitamins, especially B12, are particularly important for healthy methylation as they provide methyl groups to ensure that homocysteine is methylated to form healthy substances.

How to have a healthy cardiovascular system 

Increase fibre

Foods that contain soluble fibre; such as beans, lentils, porridge, fruits and vegetables; can help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Flax seeds are also a good source of soluble fibre; try adding a tablespoon to your breakfast every morning. 

Increase essential fatty acids

Oily fish, nuts and seeds are a good source of essential fatty acids, that can help support healthy arteries, blood flow, normal heart rhythm and cholesterol levels. Alternatively, you could take a fish oil supplement, but make sure that it is screened for contaminants, PCBs and heavy metals. 

Increase garlic

Garlic can help to support blood pressure and cholesterol levels and helps to maintain healthy arteries.

Increase antioxidants

The antioxidants vitamin C, co-enzyme Q10 and vitamin E are important for helping to maintain a healthy heart, blood flow and cholesterol levels. 

Amino acids

Arginine is needed by the body to make nitric oxide, a substance that allows blood vessels to dilate, helping support blood flow. Lysine, along with vitamin C, is thought to help maintain smooth-walled arteries and healthy circulation.

L-carnitine provides energy for the heart and supports healthy cholesterol levels.

Red yeast rice

Red yeast rice is a naturally fermented food, eaten traditionally for many years in China. It supports healthy blood lipid levels, which is important for healthy arteries and blood circulation. Plant sterols found in many plants also have a beneficial effect on cholesterol and heart health.

Folic acid, vitamins B12, B6 and B2, and tri-methyl glycine (TMG)

These nutrients have been found to help maintain healthy homocysteine levels in the body, by providing essential methyl groups to keep the methionine cycle working efficiently and removing homocysteine. 

Lifestyle factors

Reduce sugar

Eating sugar and sugary foods, such as cakes, biscuits, fizzy drinks and sweets, may have negative effects on our cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Try cooking instead with natural alternatives to sugar, such as xylitol. If you find it difficult to control your sugar cravings, you may find taking a chromium supplement helpful. Chromium also has the added benefit of helping to support healthy cholesterol levels.

Avoid trans fats

Trans fatty acids, found in many margarines and vegetable oils, have been linked to heart disease. Try cooking instead with more stable fats, such as coconut butter, which does not produce trans fats. 

Reduce saturated fat

Eating large amounts of foods high in saturated fats; such as beef, pork, cheese, butter and ice cream; can have a negative effect on cholesterol levels. 

Reduce salt

Salt intake has been linked to high blood pressure and so should be kept to a minimum.

Reduce caffeine

Caffeine has been linked to high blood pressure and high homocysteine levels. Green tea makes an excellent alternative, as not only does it have a low caffeine content, but it can also help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.  

Reduce stress

Stress increases blood pressure, lowers HDL cholesterol and is a known cause of heart disease. Nutrients such as taurine, passion flower, theanine, lemon balm,

B vitamins, ginseng and magnesium can help promote relaxation and may support the body during times of stress.

Drink only moderate amounts of alcohol

Moderate drinking, such as one to two small glasses a day of red wine, may have a positive effect on cardiovascular health, due to the antioxidants it contains. However, more than this has the potential to increase your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. 

Stop smoking

Smoking damages blood vessel walls, can lower HDL cholesterol and has been linked to high homocysteine levels and atherosclerosis.

Obesity

Having a BMI of 30 or above puts you at high risk of heart disease. Reducing body weight by as little as 10 pounds can lead to a significant reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Exercise

Daily exercise can have a significant effect on lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. 


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