Since February is British Heart Foundation’s National Heart Month, in this article we’re focussing on this vital organ.
We may take our heart for granted but it works incredibly hard for us, so it deserves a little attention.
Your cardiovascular system comprises your heart and circulatory system.
Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack, stroke and angina is estimated to affect seven million people in the UK.
Atherosclerotic plaques comprising fat and cholesterol form on the inner walls of arteries, narrowing their diameter. Up goes blood pressure, the heart is forced to work harder and eventually a heart attack or stroke may be the outcome.
You may have been told how important it is to keep your cholesterol low to avoid heart disease.
It’s believed having high cholesterol in your blood leads it to stick onto the inside of your arteries, narrowing their diameter.
Because cholesterol is found in atherosclerotic plaques you may have been told to avoid eating cholesterol-containing foods.
However, your liver makes around three quarters of our cholesterol for you. This should give you a clue cholesterol is needed by your body and not the villain it’s often made out to be. Cholesterol is part of your cell membranes and is found in the substance surrounding your nerve cells, ensuring they communicate with each other. It’s also needed for fat digestion and for making Vitamin D and some hormones.
In a neat move, the body controls how much cholesterol it makes according to dietary intake. So, for most of us, eating cholesterol does not increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood.
In any case, many studies have noted no correlation between overall blood levels of cholesterol and risk of cardiovascular disease.
Cholesterol is transported around the body attached to molecules known as lipoproteins. Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol from your liver to your cells. High density lipoproteins (HDL) carry cholesterol from your cells back to your liver for removal from your body or to your tissues where it can be used.
It’s believed high levels of LDL cholesterol are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, whereas HDL is considered to be beneficial for cardiovascular health. This has led to LDL being called ‘good’ cholesterol and LDL known as ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Although we know high levels of HDL do appear to protect against heart disease in most people, as with many things in life it’s not as simple as good vs bad. LDL exists as different classes of particles with varying sizes and densities. LDL comprised of very small, dense particles has a greater potential to form atherosclerotic plaques and is strongly correlated with heart disease. Other types of LDL are large, buoyant and even fluffy, and do not pose the same risk.
The type of LDL with small particles seems to be a particular problem if it is oxidised, when it can spark off inflammatory processes in the body.
Inflammation can damage our artery walls, may cause arterial plaques to rupture, and our blood will be more likely to clot.
Finally, the presence of an amino acid called homocysteine in the blood is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease as well as being correlated with inflammation. Homocysteine levels can rise because of nutrient deficiencies or a genetic tendency.
We know we should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. But because colourful plant foods are so jam-packed with beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, your heart will thank you if you aim for more like 8-10 portions per day.
Even though the role of dietary saturated fat in heart disease is controversial, many people equate a low-fat diet with heart health. While we should be avoiding modified and processed fats, we need plenty of Omega 3 fats, found in flax oil and wild-caught salmon, sardines and mackerel.
Your heart benefits from exercise like any other muscle. Authorities recommend we engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week. To make exercise easier to fit into your day, chop it down into chunks of ten minutes or more towards the overall goal.
Chronic stress increases inflammation, raises blood pressure, interferes with your blood sugar control and can make your blood more likely to clot. Try stress-busting techniques like yoga and meditation.
If you are concerned about your heart health, a Functional Medicine consultation will examine how your nutritional status and lifestyle choices, combined with your genetic makeup, may be influencing your cardiovascular system.
Functional tests can measure the balance of LDL to HDL, discover the predominant type of LDL, and look at homocysteine levels and markers of inflammation.
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