Dr Sarah Brewer reveals her top tips to keep your heart ticking, even if poor health is written in your genes...

If you have a strong family history of heart disease, don’t despair. According to a new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, you can still overcome a bad roll of the genetic dice.

Data from over 55,600 people showed that those with a high genetic risk of heart attack halved their chance of having one if they followed a healthy diet and lifestyle, compared with those who didn’t.[i]

This is not surprising, given that almost one in three heart attacks are linked with eating an unhealthy diet[ii], and an unhealthy lifestyle accounts for many of the others.

Most people know the usual advice, but there are some other lesser-known ways to help maximise your chance of a long and healthy lifespan too.

Here are my top 10 ways to help your heart:

1. Have a cup of tea

Tea is a rich source of polyphenols: natural plant chemicals which have antioxidant properties. These polyphenols have beneficial effects on artery elasticity, blood pressure, blood stickiness and inflammation. Results from 22 studies, involving more than 856,000 people, shows that, overall, drinking three cups of tea per day reduced the risk of having a heart attack by 27%, and of a fatal heart attack by 26%, compared with those who did not drink tea.

2. Favour eating fish

Fish is often thought of as brain food but it has beneficial effects for the heart, too. Fish helps to reduce inflammation, blood stickiness and blood pressure, and helps to keep your body’s store of triglyceride fat (the fat used for energy) moving through your blood stream. The long-chain omega 3 fish oils, DHA and EPA, also have a protective effect against irregular heart rhythms, especially in hearts receiving a poor blood supply[i].

If you don’t like eating fish, omega 3 fish oil supplements are a good alternative. Data from 11 trials, involving more than 15,000 people with a history of heart disease, showed those who took them had a 25 per cent lesser-risk of a heart attack, and a 32 per cent lower-risk of a fatal cardiac event.[ii]

3. Go for garlic

Garlic reduces cholesterol production in the liver and discourages the hardening and furring-up of the arteries. Garlic also helps to widen arteries, which in turn lowers blood pressure and improves circulation.

Results from 20 trials, involving almost 1,000 people, showed that garlic supplements reduced blood pressure by 5.1/2.5mmHg overall and, in people with hypertension, they helped to reduce blood pressure by 8.7/6.1 mmHg, as well as lower the risk of heart attack.[iii] Aged garlic extracts, such as black garlic, can even reduce the level of the soft plaque found in the coronary arteries of people with metabolic syndrome (who are at high risk of heart disease).[iv]

4. Consider co-enzyme Q10

Co-enzyme Q10 (coQ10) is needed for energy production in cells – especially heart muscle cells that are constantly contracting. When 144 people who had suffered a heart attack were given either co-enzyme Q10 (120 mg/day) or placebo for a whole year, the number of recurrent heart problems were significantly lower in the co-enzyme Q10 group (24.6 vs. 45 per cent) and the number of non-fatal heart attack recurrences was also significantly reduced (13.7 vs. 25.3 per cent).[v]

Statin drugs are used to lower high cholesterol levels but unfortunately they also halve natural levels of co-enzyme Q10 after just 4 weeks[vi],[vii]. Taking co-enzyme Q10 supplements helps to maintain blood levels of this important muscle nutrient without affecting the cholesterol-lowering action of the statin[viii].

5. Plump for plant sterols

Plant sterols have a similar chemical structure to animal cholesterol and reduce the absorption of dietary cholesterol. A sterol-rich diet can lower levels of harmful LDL-cholesterol by up to 15 per cent to significantly reduce the risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke. The benefits are even greater for people with type 2 diabetes, in whom LDL-cholesterol levels have been lowered by over 26 per cent. Plant sterols can be used together with a statin to further reduce cholesterol levels and is more effective than doubling the statin dose.

6. Major on magnesium

Magnesium is essential for heart muscle contraction which helps to regulate blood pressure. Lack of magnesium can cause spasm of coronary arteries and potentially dangerous abnormal heart rhythms. Research from 16 trials, involving over 313,000 people, shows that every 0.2 mmol/l increment in circulating blood levels of magnesium is associated with a 30 per cent lower risk of heart attack. For dietary intakes of magnesium, each 200mg per day increment was associated with a 22 per entlower risk of ischemic heart disease.[xii]

7. Keep up the vitamin K2

Vitamin K2 plays an important role in heart health by reducing the amount of calcium build-up in artery walls. Researchers looking at dietary intakes of over 16,000 women aged 49 – 70 years-old found that every 10mcg increase in dietary intakes of vitamin K2 reduced the risk of coronary heart disease by 9 per cent[xiii].

8. Don’t forget vitamin D3

Vitamin D also helps to regulate calcium and improves blood pressure control. Research from 19 studies, involving almost 66,000 people showed that people with the lowest vitamin D levels were 52 per cent more likely to have cardiovascular disease than those with the highest blood levels, and more likely to have a fatal heart attack.[xiv]

9. Take tomato extracts

Tomatoes are best known as a source of the antioxidant, lycopene, but did you know that the clear jelly surrounding tomato seeds contains over 35 substances that can reduce unwanted blood clots? These substances can be taken as a tomato extract called Fruitflow (e.g. Circulease), which has been proven to maintain normal platelet aggregation, which contributes to healthy blood flow. [xv]

10. Give glucosamine a chance

Researchers from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle looked at supplement treatment in over 77,700 people aged 50 – 76. They found that those taking glucosamine at least four days a week, for at least three years, were 18 per cent more likely to survive the following eight years than non-users. More sensitive analysis, which removed the first two years of follow-up to help exclude pre-existing disease, showed the protective effect of glucosamine increased to a 20 per cent reduced risk of death from any cause, including heart attack.

This protection remained even after accounting for other factors such as smoking, weight, age, education, marital status, alcohol intake, exercise, diet, cholesterol-lowering medication and HRT. Glucosamine is known to reduce inflammation and relieve pain, which is why so many people find it helpful for their joints. It’s possible that reduced inflammation also protects against cancer, lung and heart disease.

1Raitt, M.H. (2009). Are n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Antiarrhythmic in the Absence of Ischemia?, Cardiovascular Drugs and Therapy
2Casula, M., Soranna, D., Catapano, A.L. and Corrao, G. (2013). Long-term effect of high dose omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for secondary prevention of cardiovascular outcomes: A meta-analysis of randomized, placebo controlled trials [corrected]., Atherosclerosis Supplements
3Ried, K. (2016). Garlic Lowers Blood Pressure in Hypertensive Individuals, Regulates Serum Cholesterol, and Stimulates Immunity: An Updated Meta-analysis and Review., Journal of Nutrition
4Matsumoto, S., et al. (2016). Aged Garlic Extract Reduces Low Attenuation Plaque in Coronary Arteries of Patients with Metabolic Syndrome in a Prospective Randomized Double-Blind Study, Journal of Nutrition
5Singh, RB., et al. (2003). Effect of coenzyme Q10 on risk of atherosclerosis in patients with recent myocardial infarction, Molecular and celluar biochemistry
6Rundekt, T., et al. (2004). Atorvastatin decreases the coenzyme Q10 level in the blood of patients at risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke, Archives of Neurology
7Caso, G., Kelly, P., McNurlan, M.A. and Lawson, W.E. (2007). Effect of coenzyme q10 on myopathic symptoms in patients treated with statins, American Journal of Cardiology
8Bargossi, A.M., et al. (1994). Exogenous CoQ10 supplementation prevents plasma ubiquinone reduction induced by HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, Molecular aspects of Medicine
9Path, C.S., Tapsell, L.C., Williams, P.G., Gordon, M. (2006). Plant sterols as dietary adjuvants in the reduction of cardiovascular risk: theory and evidence, Vascular Health and Risk Management
10Lau, V.W, Journoud, M., Jones, P.J. (2005). Plant sterols are efficacious in lowering plasma LDL and non-HDL cholesterol in hypercholesterolemic type 2 diabetic and nondiabetic persons, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
11Katan, M.B., et al. (2003). Efficacy and safety of plant stanols and sterols in the management of blood cholesterol levels, Mayo Clinic Proceedings
12Del Gabbo, L.C., et al. (2013). Circulating and dietary magnesium and risk of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
13Gast, G.C., et al. (2009). A high menaquinone intake reduces the incidence of coronary heart disease, Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases
14Wang, L., et al. (2012). Circulating 25-hydroxy-vitamin D and risk of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of prospective studies, Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes
15Brewer, D. (2016). Tomato Extracts Protect Against Unwanted Blood Clots, Dr Sarah Brewer (web)

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.



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