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How to Keep Your Heart Healthy This Valentines Day

By Ben S. | 9th February 2018

As Valentine’s Day comes around, now is the perfect time to refocus your attention onto the health of your heart. However, unlike buying the perfect, romantic gift for your significant other, adapting your day-to-day habits to help promote heart health doesn’t have to be a complicated endeavour.

It can be a little complicated though if you don’t know where to begin. In this article we’ll focus on dietary, physical and lifestyle changes you can make today that may help make sure your heart stays as healthy as possible all year long. 

What Is a Heart Healthy Diet?

The first place anyone can start to help keep your heart healthy is to assess and change your diet. There are a lot of different factors that you can address, so let’s go through some of them one by one. 

Salt Intake

Table salt is mostly comprised of sodium, which works with potassium to help regulate blood pressure within your body. The balance these two minerals work within is incredibly intricate, and can be negatively affected if you have a particularly salt-heavy diet. By unbalancing the ratio of sodium and potassium in your blood stream, you may increase the risk of more severe cardiovascular health complications, like hypertension, occurring because of the extra work your heart has to do to compensate.  

There a couple of ways you can help to reduce your daily intake of salt, including:

Use less as a seasoning - A lot of the salt you’re likely to ingest on a day-to-day basis is ordinary table salt that is used as a seasoning when you cook and eat your meals. Instead of using salt to add flavour, experiment with different herbs and spices that offer the same culinary satisfaction whilst also promoting the health of your heart. Basil, cumin, coriander and oregano are all commonly used as salt substitutes, so go wild and find out which one works best for you. 

Read the labels of pre-cooked foods - Despite the convenience that pre-cooked or microwave meals can offer you, they often include a lot of additional (and unhealthy) ingredients that help to ensure the shelf-life of the product is maintained. Salt is a preservative, meaning that you are likely to find it in large quantities in these kinds of meals. If you want to avoid this salt intake, start cooking your own meals. It may be time consuming, but it will make a very good impression for a special Valentine’s Day romantic dinner. Just try not to burn anything. 

Trade Unhealthy Fats for Healthier Alternatives

A common misconception in today’s society is that there is no such thing as a ‘healthy fat’, and that by cutting out all fats from your diet you can help to promote your overall health and wellbeing. Some fats are definitely worse than others, so there are some immediate substitutions you can make to help keep your heart healthy. To do this properly however, we have to take a look at the different kinds of fats we can find in our food. 

Saturated fats – Can be found in things like full-fat milk, butter, sweets, biscuits, cakes and meat etc. Too much of these fats in the diet is known to help increase the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your body, which could have the potential to increase the risk factors that may lead to coronary heart disease. 

Unsaturated fats - Unsaturated fats are found in foods like oily fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and skimmed milk alternatives and are considered to be a healthier alternative to saturated fats. By reducing the amount of saturated fat you ingest and replacing it with unsaturated fats, you can help ensure the delicate balance between HDL (good) cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol is maintained in your bloodstream to help keep your heart healthy. 

Trans fats – Can be industrially manufactured when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to help solidify its structure. Although trans fats have been largely removed from UK supermarkets, they may still be found in some pre-cooked and processed meals. These fats are terrible for your health, and have the potential to increase the risk of heart disease by raising your cholesterol level. The UK government recommendation that “adults shouldn’t have more than about 5g of trans fats a day.” 

With these three fat groups distinguished, you now have a better understanding of what foods you should and shouldn’t eat based on the fat content they contain. Now, although saturated fats are unhealthy, they can be found in a huge variety of different foods, making it particularly hard for you to cut them out of your diet completely. You can, however, start to prioritise unsaturated fat sources over saturated and trans fats this Valentine’s Day to help support and benefit your heart. Every little modification like this can help your heart in the long run. 

Limit Your Alcohol Intake

Reducing your alcohol intake can be a great way to improve your heart health, though red wine in moderation may actually be a benefit. It can be easy to reach for an alcoholic drink after a busy day at work, or even go a little overboard at a party or celebration. However, a good way of promoting the health of your heart is to minimise your daily intake of these kinds of drinks. 

Alcohol is packed full of calories, so if you are regularly enjoying alcoholic drinks on a regularly basis you may begin to experience weight gain. Beverages like wines, beers and champagne are also high in sugar, which may further exacerbate the problem. This additional sugar may also have the potential to increase your blood sugar level, which is known to be a contributing factor to more serious health conditions like diabetes.

Instead of reaching for your favourite booze to help end the day, you need to find healthier beverages to go for instead. Water is of course the most beneficial drink you can find, with 60% of our bodies being made up of it, but it’s understandable if you crave something a little more tasteful to help lift your spirits. Mixing carbonated water with natural fruit juices is a fantastic way of staying hydrated with a tasty beverage whilst also increasing your intake of beneficial vitamins and minerals. Smoothies are also another viable option, with plenty of choices available that prevent boredom from ever setting in. Just be sure to keep the sugar content low. 

Interestingly, a recent scientific article has revealed that red wine, if consumed carefully and in moderation, may actually provide heart health benefits, thanks to a nutrient found in red grape skins called resveratrol.

Resveratrol makes up part of a group of compounds known as polyphenols, which are antioxidants that may be able to help support your body against damage that could put you at a greater risk of health problems like heart disease. The article, published in 2011, concluded that “Resveratrol, a grape- and wine-derived phytoalexin polyphenol, provides diverse health benefits, the most prominent being the best natural medicine to cure diverse CVDs including atherosclerosis.”  Treat your Valentine’s date to a glass of red wine to help make your evening romantic and nutritious. 

Alternatively resveratrol is available in supplement form if you’re looking for the same heart health benefits but without the taste of wine. 

Add More Fish to Your Diet

Earlier in the article we talked about how you need to make sure your diet contains the right kinds of fats to help keep your heart healthy, specifically by maximising your unsaturated fat intake. One of the best ways you can do this is to introduce more fish into your diet. 

Current professional guidelines recommend that everyone should eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be an oily fish like salmon, mackerel or sardines.  The reason fish is so readily recommended to anyone looking to help improve or support the health of their heart is because of the omega 3 fatty acids fish naturally contain. By eating more fish, you can increase the amount of Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) that enters your system, which are known to contribute to the maintenance of normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels. 

A study published in 2008 looked to see whether there is an association between the intake of omega 3 fatty acids and a reduced risk of death from coronary heart disease in health adults. A meta-analysis was conducted on 6 previous epidemiologic studies, 5 of which reported significant trends. The study concluded that “an intake of 400 to 500mg a day of EPA and DHA is achievable by diet alone and would be expected to significantly reduce risk for death from CHD in healthy adults.”  

Of course, if you'd rather not prepare fish regularly then you can get a healthy intake of both DHA and EPA from a high quality fish oil supplement like this one

Eat More Fibre-Heavy Foods

Eating more fibre-rich foods like fruits and vegetables can be a great way to help protect your heart and stay healthy. This suggestion is particularly important for your overall heart health because foods of this nature, which contain high amounts of fibre, are essential to keep a lot of the harmful ingredients that could affect your health out of your system.

There are two different kinds of fibre, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre dissolves in water when it enters the digestive system and turns into a gel. This gel then attaches to cholesterol particles in your system and can help to prevent them from being absorbed into the bloodstream when passing through the small intestine. Insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve in water and is used to help more efficiently remove waste from your body by keeping the digestive system running smoothly. If your digestion is at the top of its game, then it is more difficult for unhealthy ingredients or compounds to make their way deeper into the body. By increasing your intake of both of these types of fibre, you may see improvements in the health of your heart.

What Fruit and Vegetables Are Good for the Heart?

Fibre can only be found in plant-based foods, which thankfully can be found in abundance in a huge variety of options for you to enjoy. Here a few ideas that you might find helpful to get more fibre into your diet: 

•    Citrus fruits like lemons, limes and oranges
•    Carrots
•    Garlic
•    Blueberries 
•    Tomatoes
•    Spinach, and
•    Kale

Exercise – How Do You Strengthen Your Heart?

To go alongside a new and improved heart-friendly diet, adjusting your exercise regimen to cater to your heart is also another fantastic way of keeping your heart healthy this Valentine’s Day. 
The best place to start is to schedule in 150 minutes of exercise throughout the entire week, which equals just five 30 minutes sessions. By meeting this professionally recommended guideline, you can help to ensure that all different areas of your health remain in optimal condition, which can only reflect positive benefits onto your heart. 

Thankfully, exercise is a very accessible hobby for you to take up because there are plenty of different activities for you to choose from, depending on your individual health requirements. When looking to promote heart health, you want to adopt a routine that incorporates aerobic exercises with muscle-strengthening benefits. Things like walking, jogging and running are all great daily exercises, and they tier in intensity, meaning that you can start off with a brisk walk and build your way up to a light jog if your body allows. All of this is dependent on your overall health, however, so as long as your exercises are performed at a moderate intensity, you will eventually begin to enjoy the hearty benefits they can provide.

Other great heart health-friendly exercises you might be interested to try include: 

•    Swimming
•    Cycling
•    Dancing, and
•    Hiking

A study conducted in 1999 by the Honolulu Heart Program looked to analyse the effects of walking on coronary heart disease in elderly men. A study baseline distance was examined that occurred from 1991 to 1993. A 2 to 4 year follow up period was used to observe all incidents of coronary heart disease in the participants of the study. 2678 physically capable men between the ages of 71 and 93 were used in the study, of which 109 developed coronary heart disease. 
The study found that “men who walked less than 0.25 miles a day had a 2-fold increased risk of coronary heart disease versus those who walked more than 1.5 miles a day. Men who walked 0.25 to 1.5 miles a day were also at a significantly higher risk of coronary heart disease than men who walked longer distances.” 

Although these findings are respective to a particular age group, they should offer reassurance to anyone looking to walk as a means of getting 150 minutes of exercise a week. The conclusions of the study stated that “combined with evidence that suggests that an active lifestyle reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease in younger and more diverse groups, this (the results) suggests that important health benefits could be derived by encouraging the elderly to walk.” Take your date for a romantic stroll this Valentine’s Day to help boost your heart this month. 

Reduce Stress with Yoga

Stress can be incredibly detrimental to your heart health, because it can cause your blood pressure to become elevated, requiring your heart to work harder to pump blood around the body. When you feel stressed, the body responds by releasing large amounts of a hormone called cortisol into the bloodstream. If this reaction is triggered consistently in your body on a daily basis, you may begin to experience problems like rapid weight gain, which could further exasperate potential cardiovascular issues. 

Yoga makes for the ideal opportunity to take some time out of your stressful day to help clear your mind of deadlines, distractions and worry for the betterment of your health. Yoga is a practice that incorporates physical exercise, posing and meditation to help promote relaxation. It may help to decrease overall stress levels, lower your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. 

Lifestyle Changes for Heart Health

Finally, your lifestyle on a day-to-day basis may need re-evaluating in order to help keep your heart healthy this Valentine’s Day. Here are a few suggestions that may be able to help make a difference. 

Get Enough Sleep

Getting enough sleep can help to fight high blood pressure, keeping your heart healthy for longer.It is generally recommended by health professionals that we should all get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night to help our bodies decompress after a busy day and promote healthy functioning. A lack of sleep is commonly associated with increased stress and blood pressure levels, meaning that if you want to help keep your heart in check, you need to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep each night. 

A study in 2006 looked to analyse the association between usual sleep duration and hypertension, also known as high blood pressure. 2813 men and 2097 women aged between 40 and 100 were assessed, with the results being correlated using a questionnaire. The study concluded that “usual sleep duration above or below the median of 7 to less than 8 hours per night is associated with an increased prevalence of hypertension, particularly at the extreme of less than 6 hours per night.”  

If you’re someone who struggles to nod off to sleep quickly, your sleeping environment and pre-sleep habits might be causing the problem. Try the following to see if they can help improve your sleep: 

•    Make sure that you avoid bright screens and lights a couple of hours before going to bed, as they may interfere with melatonin production, which is an essential hormone that regulates our sleep schedule.    
•    Take a bath before you go to bed. The rapid decrease in temperature may help to influence a deeper, more beneficial sleep. 
•    Get into the habit of getting up/going to bed as part of a schedule. The more your body gets used to this routine, the better sleep you may end up having. 
•    Listen to soothing the music. The more relaxed you are, the easier it can be for you to fall asleep.

Quit Smoking

This recommendation might seem obvious, but it cannot be overstated. To help keep your heart healthy, you should definitely give up smoking. When you smoke a cigarette, tar and other extremely harmful toxins and chemicals enter your body. Tar in particular can coat the alveoli in the lungs, decreasing the capacity of oxygen they can contain, meaning less is likely to enter your body. Smoking can also cause a nasty build-up of fatty material to form in your arteries, which, if left to progress, could vastly increase the risk of serious coronary health issues like heart attacks, stroke or angina occurring. 

A study from 2003 looked to analyse the mortality risk reduction associated with smoking cessation in patients with coronary heart disease. A systematic review was conducted on 665 publications, with 20 studies being selected and included in the study. In the end, the study authors concluded that “quitting smoking is associated with a substantial reduction in risk of all-cause mortality among patients with CHD. This risk appears to be consistent regardless of age, sex, index cardiac event, country, and year of study commencement.” 

If you’re a smoker, the people around you are also affected by the smoke your cigarette produces, meaning that you are also putting their health at risk as well as your own. A meta-analysis study conducted in 1999 presented the conclusion that “passive smoking is associated with a small increase in the risk of coronary heart disease.”  If you want to have a perfect Valentine’s with the one you love, put down the cigarettes. 

Summary

The health of your heart is very important, so making relevant and immediate changes to your diet, exercise routine and lifestyle habits is a sure-fire way of making sure your ticker is in the best condition for Valentine’s Day. Be sure to review all of the suggestions we have presented in this article and apply them where necessary to your individual circumstances. As usual, if you’re ever unsure about where to start, we would suggest speaking to your local GP for professional advice and guidance. 


Sources:

https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/Fat.aspx#transfats
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05843.x/full
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11883-008-0078-z
http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/100/1/9.short
https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/29/8/1009/2708444
https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/196858?redirect=true
http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199903253401204
 

Article by Ben S.

Ben Staff is a university trained journalist who specialises in writing and creating online content, with a specific interest in researching media coverage of health and nutritional topics. An outdoorsman at heart that enjoys hiking and mountaineering, he dreams of one day following in his heroes’ footsteps by climbing Mount Everest.

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