Cardiovascular disease (also referred to as heart disease) is a major killer of both men and women in Australia, taking approximately 1 life every 12 minutes and responsible for over 45,000 Australian deaths in 2014. The term ‘heart disease’ encompasses diseases that effect the heart and the blood vessels, including stroke. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack or heart failure – we could all name people currently dealing with, or affected by, these health issues.
I’d like to be clear from the outset: these blog posts are designed to give you some light, informative reading and are in no way designed to be a replacement for medical care. Naturopathy is generally not the mainstay or first port of call for treating heart disease, but it can play an important, supportive role to medical treatment. Making appropriate dietary and lifestyle adjustments, as well as using herbal medicines that are safe to prescribe alongside medications (by a trained herbalist), cannot be understated.
This list is a starting point of things we can all do to protect our hearts every day. The foods included on this list are not ‘super foods’ (in the goji berry sense of the word); they're easy to find, inexpensive and, most importantly, delicious!
Pick up each of these items during your next food shop, after all: you can’t beat a healthy heart! (See what I did there?)
Whenever I think about supporting cardiovascular health, my brain immediately turns to garlic. I know I said that none of these foods were ‘super foods’ but in my humble opinion, garlic would have to be the most super, super food going around.
Garlic has been clinically proven through scientific studies to reduce blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and reduce inflammation through its antioxidant capability. Generally, most studies looking at the health benefits of garlic are using a supplement, however including the little bulbs in the diet every day is certainly high on my heart health to-do list.
2. Green leafy vegetables
If your green leafy vegetable situation is currently looking like a floppy, browning ice berg lettuce at the back of the fridge then you need to listen up: dark green, leafy veggies such as silver beet, kale, and even spinach, are an absolute powerhouse when it comes to nutrition and should be part of every diet, every day.
Green leafy veggies contain high amounts of the key minerals, magnesium and calcium. Maintaining adequate levels of calcium and magnesium in the diet, when talking about heart health, assist with maintaining healthy heart contraction and blood pressure, as well as reducing inflammation and assisting with the healthy metabolism of fats.
3. Whole grains
When I say whole grains, I mean whole grains. I do not refer to ‘wholegrain bread’ or, heaven forbid, ‘wholegrain-but-still-laden-with-sugar-and-salt breakfast cereal’. I’m talking, for example, about brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, spelt, barley, oats – you get the gist.
Whole grains contain an array of important vitamins and minerals, as well as complex carbohydrates – all of which are key components of a healthy diet. However they’re also an important source of dietary fibre and as far as the heart is concerned, that’s the focus. Sufficient dietary fibre (approx. 30g a day if you’re interested), is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. The inclusion of high-fibre foods in the diet tends to promote a healthy weight (they keep you fuller for longer and hence prevent snacking), as well as reducing cholesterol levels through improving the way the body deals with circulating cholesterol.
Fish, especially salmon (non-farmed if possible), mackerel, and sardines, are included in the list for the healthy fats they possess. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered ‘essential fatty acids’ as they must be obtained through the diet, the body cannot produce them.
The essential fatty acids, particularly the omega-3’s, have been shown to be effective in lowering blood pressure, as well as addressing the inflammation within the body that always accompanies cardiovascular disease (and any disease for that point). Signs of inflammation include pain, redness, swelling, and heat.
I can’t help but be reminded of the kids jumping around in their banana skirts (thank you, 90's Australian TV), but bananas do indeed, ‘make your body sing’.
The one link most people can make with nutrition is that bananas are a key source of the mineral potassium, which is indeed true and is also why they’re featured here when we talk about heart health. Potassium intake is associated with lowered blood pressure, due to its ability to lower sodium concentrations within the body. We all know sodium (also known as salt) is a no-no for heart health and so keeping this balance in check is crucial.
Whilst food is the focus here, the following are also necessary for complete heart health:
Moderation in the consumption of alcohol;
The importance of heart health cannot be understated. The primary purpose of this list is to make dietary improvements to reduce the likelihood of heart disease, not as a one-size-fits all approach to treatment.
For more information about how you can keep your heart happy, or for guidance in complementary treatment of pre-existing heart disease, please get in touch.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016). Causes of Death 2014. Retrieved http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2014~Main%20Features~Leading%20Causes%20of%20Death~10001
Del Gobbo, L., Imamura, F., Wu, J., de Oliveira Otto, M. & Chiuve, S. (2013). Circulating dietary magnesium and risk of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 98, 160-73.
Hechtman, L. (2014). Clinical Naturopathic Medicine. Australia: Elsevier.
Rahman, K. & Lowe, G. (2006). Garlic and cardiovascular disease: a critical review. The Journal of Nutrition, 136, pp. 736S-740S.
Threapleton, D., Greenwood, D., Evans, C., Cleghorn, C., Nykjaer, C., Woodhead, C., Cade, J., Gale, C. & Burley, V. (2013). Dietary fibre intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: systematic review and meta analysis. BMJ, 347.
Varshney, R. & Budoff, M. (2014). Garlic and heart disease. The Journal of Nutrition, 146(2), 416S-421S.