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The Role of Diet and the Prevention of Heart Disease

With February being heart month, we are reminded again that the statistics for heart disease in America are staggering. Over 60 million Americans suffer from this potential debilitating degenerative disease. Research is showing that heart disease can begin as early as two years of age. It also causes over half of all deaths in the United States. Why is this happening? Dr. William Lee Cowden, a cardiologist, states “The average American lifestyle, combining too little exercise, too much stress, and a diet of highly refined processed foods often deficient in essential nutrients, has rendered this nation’s population especially vulnerable to the ravages of heart ailments.”

Conventional medicine believes that the answer to fighting heart disease lies in treating the symptoms such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels with medications. Expensive surgeries are performed more often; and as a result, the medical cost for heart disease is at an estimated $56 billion annually. Although many of these methods are necessary, especially when the disease process has become life threatening, we need to ask what can be done to prevent this degenerative disease? Currently many physicians are turning to preventive practices using changes in diet, stress reduction, weight control, and exercise as a means of reducing risk factors.

What exactly is heart disease and how does it begin? It is often described as a disease of the heart’s blood vessels. These vessels, the coronary arteries, supply the heart with vital oxygen and nutrients. If the blood flow is restricted or blocked angina, severe damage or death can occur. Of course, we know this as a heart attack. The condition most likely to cause this problem is hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis, causing over 550,000 deaths annually. Many other conditions of the heart exist such as congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, angina, and various heart muscle disorders. This is where supplementation of certain vitamins and minerals plays an important role.

Before we discuss the role of nutrients, let’s address some dietary guidelines that have shown to improve heart disease:

Reduce animal foods (red meat and diary), all refined sugars, tobacco and alcohol.
Use unprocessed natural oils (olive, canola, or flax). Avoid margarine and hydrogenated fats.
Reduce overall fat intake (20% of overall daily caloric intake)
Eliminate processed food laden with preservatives and additives.
Eat at least 4-5 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily.
Increase intake of fiber rich complex carbohydrates (brown rice, whole wheat)
Buy organic foods as much as possible.
Reduce overall salt intake.
These lifestyle changes and, of course, a good exercise program will do wonders for those suffering heart disease.

Let’s look at the role of specific nutritional and herbal supplements that aid better heart functions. Research has shown that these nutrients are vital and aid normal functioning of the heart. (Let’s start with the B vitamins. These have been shown to reduce homocysteine levels, a substance that contributes to cholesterol oxidation and used as a marker for heart disease.)

B 6 is needed for conversion of homocysteine. Found in yeast, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, salmon, and beans.
B 12 a deficiency is associated with higher homocysteine levels. Found in clams and oysters, and yeast.
Folic acid also known to reduce homocysteine levels. Found in leafy greens, wheat germ and oranges.
Vitamin E a fat soluble anti-oxidant. It inhibits platelet aggregation and helps repair blood vessel lining. The benefits of Vitamin E have been known for a long time and it has been heavily researched.
Vitamin C and flavonoid complexes are required for collagen production and are necessary to maintain blood vessel lining. It also is a powerful anti-oxidant.
Co Q 10 another well-known nutrient associated with the heart. It strengthens the heart muscle and energizes the entire cardiovascular system. Shown to improve patients with congestive heart failure. Also another anti-oxidant.
Inositol hexaniacinate has been helpful with reducing cholesterol levels. This is flush free niacin and can be taken in larger doses than niacin.
Many minerals are essential for proper heart functioning. The four main minerals calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium are critically important. When these are imbalance many conductive disturbances are experienced such as angina and arrhythmias.

Calcium works with sodium to help aid the contraction part of the heart pump. Thought to help reduce cholesterol and to inhibit platelet aggregation. Found in leafy greens, beans, tofu and low fat dairy products.
Magnesium helps to open arteries and relax the heart pumping of blood. It helps alleviate arrhythmias, prevent calcification of the vessels, lowers overall cholesterol, raise HDL cholesterol, and inhibit platelet aggregation. Found in nuts and seed, leafy greens, whole grain breads and fish.
Potassium has been shown to rebalance the higher sodium levels and aid in the reduction of high blood pressure. This is found in many fresh fruits (bananas) and many vegetables.
Selenium is another anti-oxidant and is important for the maintenance of the heartbeat as well as to reduce platelet aggregation.
Chromium role helps to lower cholesterol and triglycerides and raise the HDL, the good cholesterol.
Some other nutrients that have shown to improve heart function and prevent further damage are:

Taurine is an amino acid (protein) that aids in cholesterol management and with platelet aggregation also helps regulate the beat.
Carnitine another amino acid improves oxygen utilization and aids with fat metabolism. Helpful with almost all heart conditions.
Max EPA (omega 3 fatty acids) from fish oil aid with reducing inflammation of artery walls and inhibiting platelet aggregation.
Many plants have beneficial properties that help prevent or reduce the symptoms of heart disease. Let’s begin with:

Garlic has many cardiotonic properties from reducing overall cholesterol, inhibits platelet aggregation, and lowers blood pressure.
Ginger is anti-oxidant, has cholesterol lowering activity, and lowers blood pressure.
Cayenne Pepper is considered a vasodilator (open the blood vessels), therefore, reducing blood pressure, high flavonoid content helps vessel wall integrity, and reduces placquing on arteries.
Gingko Biloba helps regulate blood vessel tone, is a vasodilator and inhibits platelet aggregation.
Bilberry works with the integrity of the blood vessel lining
Hawthorn Berry improves blood supply to the heart, works as a mild ace inhibitor, increases the force of contraction, strengthens heart muscle, lowers blood pressure and helps those with angina.
Guggulipid is a gum extract that helps to lower cholesterol and triglycerides and increases HDL cholesterol.
Coleus Forskohlii is another plant for high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and angina. It works as a vasodilator and for platelet aggregation inhibition.
It is quite obvious that much can be done to prevent heart disease. It is important to become better educated and to make lifestyle changes that will reverse or help to eliminate cardiovascular disease. This article just let’s you know some of the research that is going on to help prevent heart disease. There are many good books that will give you in depth information concerning these supplements mentioned. Dr. Dean Ornish’s “Program for Reversing Heart Disease” and “Reversing Heart Disease” by Dr. Julian Whitaker are good places to start. Remember that it is easier to prevent a disease than it is to treat it once it has become chronic.

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