Monday, 24 February 2014

February is Heart Month - 6 Ways to Show Your Heart You Care

Cinnamon hearts, paper hearts, heart-shaped boxes (of both the Nirvana and chocolate-filled variety)... the symbol of romantic love is ubiquitous in February, with Valentine's Day celebrations still fresh in our minds.  And perhaps not as well-celebrated, but definitely notable, February is also Heart Month, devoted to awareness of heart disease and stroke.  In that spirit, here are 6 ways to show your heart some love this month.

1) Antioxidants - particularly anthocyanins and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10).  Anthocyanins are found in dark red, purple, blue, and black fruits and vegetables, such as blackberries, blueberries, cherries, raspberries, purple grapes, black plums, beets, eggplants, and purple potatoes.  A study using cherry juice highlighted its high content of antioxidants (particularly anthocyanins), crediting them for increased rate of cardiovascular recovery, as well as muscle strength recovery in a group of marathon runners, compared to the placebo group.  Try adding the foods listed above to reap the benefits.
CoQ10 is used for energy in the body, but also may assist recovery after a heart attack, improve muscle strength, and help lower blood pressure and angina.  It's found in several animal sources, such as game, beef, fish, dairy, and eggs, but there are also several plant-based sources, such as broccoli, spinach, peanuts, rye, wheat, and some berries.

2) Spices - especially cayenne, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon.  These spices can help improve bloodflow through vasodilation.  Their heat also improves bloodflow by causing flushing and mild sweating on the surface of the skin.  Additionally, they may also help thin the blood, and in the case of cinnamon, help regulate blood sugar fluctuations as well.  A recent study looked at the effects of aged garlic extracts and their beneficial effects when combined with certain blood pressure medications, noting better lowering effects than with just medication alone.  If you are taking blood thinning, anticoagulant, or blood pressure regulating medications, use caution when adding spices such as these to your diet, and particularly in the form of more concentrated herbal supplements.

3) Omega-3 fatty acids.  These unsaturated fats help keep the blood liquid and slippery, allowing for better bloodflow.  They are also naturally anti-inflammatory, helping keep blood vessels wide.  The most readily-utilized sources come from cold water fish, krill, and squid, since the form primarily found in their oils is pre-formed DHA.  Plant-sourced omega-3s, such as those from hemp, chia, walnuts, and flax, require more translations once in the body in order to reach the DHA form, but due to many factors, not least of which are stress and nutritional deficiencies, may get diverted from the right pathway.  That said, plant-based DHA supplements made from algae are a great back-up for plant-based eaters consuming omega-3s from other sources.  Again, if you are taking medications such as those listed in point 2, use caution with omega-3 supplements.
And don't forget other forms of unsaturated fats, such as those from olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.

4) Blood sugar balancing.  Prevent blood sugar spikes and fluctuations by avoiding high-sugar, refined foods, and eating regularly-spaced, macronutrient-balanced meals and snacks - that is, a combination of complex carbs, lean proteins, and healthy fats.  Too much sugar in the blood can lead to inflammation of the blood vessels.  One of the theories of arterial plaque formation implicates damage from high blood sugar as a possible cause.  Getting enough fibre can also help slow the rise of sugar in the blood, and help sweep excess out of the body.  Try swapping out your breakfast doughnut and coffee for a slice of sprouted grain toast and natural almond butter and cup of green tea.

5) B vitamins - especially niacin, folic acid and B12.  Niacin can help balance blood cholesterol and triglycerides, folic acid helps improve elasticity of blood vessels, and B12 helps the body metabolize homocysteine, which can build up in the blood and is considered a marker for heart disease risk.  Remember that B12 deficiency is commonly considered something that affects vegetarians and vegans more than it does omnivores, but omnivores actually run a greater risk of deficiency.  Additionally, a deficiency in B12 can also affect folic acid levels as well, since the two work better together.  Great sources of niacin include: seafood, beef, mushrooms, potatoes, peanuts, avocados, dates, passionfruit, oats, and brown rice; folic acid: oranges, kale, Swiss chard, asparagus, broccoli, avocados, oats, beans and lentils; B12: eggs, dairy, fortified plant-based milks and cereals, and red star nutritional yeast.  Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, and kimchi can help optimize gut flora, which in turn produce more vitamin B12 for you!

6) Exercise - with emphasis on resistance training and cardiovascular workouts.  Resistance training helps build overall muscle strength and endurance, helping to decrease risk of injury and disability over the long term.  You can do resistance training with weights such as kettlebells, plates, or bar/dumbbells, or your own body weight.
Aerobic workouts help increase the heart's strength and improves efficiency of the pumping mechanism, and improves dilation of the blood vessels and oxygenation of the blood, leading to a lower resting heart rate and less strain on the heart.  Be aware that pushing your heart rate too high during exercise can lead to sudden dizziness and feeling faint, and can increase the risk of a cardiac event.  Knowing your max heart rate (roughly 200 minus your age in years) and keeping your heart rate in a target zone of 60-80% of that max can help strengthen your heart without pushing it too hard.  High-intensity interval training (HIIT), which incorporates short bursts of high-intensity exercise with short rest or low-intensity periods, is a great way to get your cardio, and burn some fat at the same time!

What are your favourite ways to love your heart?

Heart-healthy recipe: Sweetheart Blood Orange Creamsicle Smoothie

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