The quick answer: Better to learn how to care for your heart then have the doctors “repair” it. See the seven steps below.
The motto of this blog, that we all "eat smarter, look better, and live longer" requires us to squarely face the greatest threat to longevity: the chronic diseases.
Chronic disease is a natural and preventable consequence of the mismatch between our biology and the modern lifestyle, especially our diet. The good news is that while we can’t change our biology, we can change lifestyle. “Chronic” suggests that symptoms develop slowly over years, even decades. Dental cavities are an early warning of a diet gone awry. Our sugary intake leads to other symptoms: high insulin levels, inflammation, insulin resistance, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome (discussed here). The end result may be an autoimmune disease, cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, this week's topic.
What Causes Heart Disease?
If there were a single cause for heart disease, we would have fixed it by now. Sadly, a generation of time was wasted on the now-discredited “saturated fat-dietary cholesterol theory.” The simplest answer is that heart disease has multiple causes, including the following lifestyle factors:
• Smoking is a significant risk factor.
• Excessive sugar intake leading to elevated insulin and triglyceride levels is an important cause. See Gary Taubes’ book, Good Calories, Bad Calories.
• Chronic infection is a risk as shown by the link heart disease and gingivitis.
• Central obesity (fat around the liver and other internal organs) is a special risk, even in people of relatively normal weight.
• The Stress Theory posits that cortisol, the stress hormone, contributes to heart disease during chronic stress.
• Lack of exercise is a significant risk; a 1996 study found that even 15 minutes a day reduced risk by almost half.
• High homocysteine level, a result of vitamin B deficiency, is also a risk factor. For more on homocysteine, see the N.Y. Times article, “The Fall and Rise of Kilmer McCully.”
• Trans fats, from hydrogenated vegetable oils, are another cause.
Heart Disease Treatments
The intent of this blog is to provide fresh insight into the power of diet to prevent disease, and not to repeat what you’ve already heard. You likely know that heart disease is the #1 killer of women as well as men, that women display different warning signs, and that women are slower to seek emergency help. For more on women and heart disease, go here.
Though the incidence remains high, deaths from coronary heart disease (CHD) have declined since 1980. Reasons include better emergency and secondary care, more attention to high blood pressure, and the cutback in smoking. The result is that people are living longer with heart disease and treatment has become an enormous business for drug and device companies, doctors, and hospitals. Good business doesn't mean good medicine; the following therapies are getting a second look:
• The campaign against dietary cholesterol has not had a significant benefit, and Dr. Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD, questions the evidence for cholesterol-lowering drugs, in books like Fat and Cholesterol are GOOD for You.
Preventing Heart Disease
Pioneering doctors have demonstrated that lifestyle improvement, including diet, and appropriate pharmaceutical support may be the best way to treat heart disease. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic was among the first to demonstrate that lives could be saved through diet and other changes. His book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, tells the remarkable survival story of 17 patients who followed his protocol. On the West Coast, Dr. Dean Ornish has a similar program and also a book. Other doctors have followed these pioneers. If you Google “preventive cardiology” you get a million hits, a sign of progress.
Here is a short list of preventive measures against heart disease:
1. Develop a muscular lifestyle. Forget laborsaving devices. Walk everywhere you can. Care for your own yard. Exercise at least 30 minutes most days.
2. If you smoke, stop.
3. Eat a healthy diet of vegetables, whole grains, fruit, nuts, fish, dairy, eggs, and a little meat. Avoid highly processed foods, especially trans fats. Keep intake of added sugar below the AHA level.
4. Avoid protracted stress. Pick your battles wisely.
5. Get plenty of sleep.
6. Have fun—smell the roses, laugh a lot, enjoy friends and family.
7. Get regular physicals but take ownership of your health in partnership with your doctor. Keep a health log with regular checks of waist circumference, blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose, etc.
You could add, “maintain a trim waist,” to the list, but this should naturally result from following the seven lifestyle steps.
Budget wisdom: I have always thought it wasteful to pay for both an exercise club and a gardener. Cancel the gym membership and buy a hand mower, or plant a garden. Rediscover the pleasure of long walks. Without endangering your safety, save a little gas by riding a bike. (Read about four women who rode across the US to promote preventive cardiology here.) Try grinding wheat by hand, it’s a good workout (though it does take time). Wash your own car, and your neighbor’s too. Take up swimming. Give your spouse a backrub, and a little loving. It’s all good—the best things in life really are free.
Please comment: How is life made more enjoyable by using your muscles?
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.