February sees hearts adorning the high street and restaurants to remind us it’s Valentine’s day but it should also act as a timely reminder that it is Heart Month, as supported by the British Heart Foundation. Therefore we are choosing to spend time this month sharing some information about supporting a healthy heart through lifestyle and nutrition in this blog, at our free health talk on Thursday 15th February at 6pm and with other social media information dotted throughout the month.
Reading between the (head)lines
Heart and cardiovascular health often feature in the news, these are some recent headlines:
“Full-fat milk is better for the heart because it increases levels of good cholesterol, finds study” Daily Mail January 2018 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5334015/Full-fat-milk-raises-good-cholesterol-levels.html
“Three cups of coffee a day ‘may have health benefits'” BBC News November 2017 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42081278
In amongst the headlines there are often conflicting messages, where pieces of research are cherry-picked to create an attention-grabbing headline, here are two prime examples:
“Eating too LITTLE salt may INCREASE your risk of a heart attack or stroke, claims controversial new research” Daily Mail May 2016 (updated January 2017)
“High-salt diet can double your risk of heart failure, finds study” The Independent August 2017 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/high-salt-diet-heart-failure-double-risk-study-food-drink-lifestyle-a7912771.html
So how are we supposed to know what on earth to eat, when such contrasting messages are being presented to us in the mainstream media. Firstly let’s look at where they get their information from, as reporting the news is by all accounts supposed to be based on fact. I’m not going to fully appraise these articles but just show an example of how information reported can be selective and lead to the wrong interpretation.
The first headline is based on this article published in the Lancet journal and whilst the author’s interpretation of their findings is summarised to include that a low salt intake may increase the risk of a cardiac event in both people with or without high blood pressure, it states that a HIGH salt intake ALSO increases the risk of a cardiac event especially in those with high blood pressure (Mente et al. 2016). However, on a very basic unscientific poll of 10 family and friends I asked, 70% said their take on the first headline was that if it’s true then eating more salt would reduce the risk.
There are a lot of confusing (and scary sounding) terms that get banded around so here we’ll briefly break things down, there are many other conditions relating to the heart we’re just looking at some of the most commons ones here.
Cardiovascular = anything heart or blood vessel-related.
Hypercholesterolemia = Abnormally high (bad) cholesterol.
Hyperlipidemia = Abnormally high lipids (aka fats) cholesterol and triglycerides.
Hypertension = Abnormally high blood pressure.
Hypotension = Abnormally low blood pressure.
Bradycardia = Abnormally low heart rate
Tachycardia = Abnormally high heart rate
Acute Myocardial Infarction = aka Heart Attack, this is where the supply of blood to the heart is blocked, causing tissue damage, it can be life-threatening.
Angina = Chest pain or pressure as a result of reduced blood flow to the heart, an attack is often triggered by stress or physical activity.
Cerebrovascular Accident = aka Stroke, which occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted due to a rupture or blockage and causes the death of brain cells.
It’s highly likely you know someone with some form of cardiovascular condition whether than be high or low blood pressure, high cholesterol or has experienced a stroke, angina attack or even a heart attack. There can be many factors at play as to why these conditions occur and why for some they progress and become more severe. Diet and lifestyle also play a large role in the severity of the conditions or how much they impact your life.
High/Low Blood Pressure
Having your blood pressure checked is a fairly common occurrence on a visit to your GP or here at our clinic but do you ever ask about what your reading is? Most of us are familiar at hearing a bunch of numbers, “100 a something over something” which are the systolic and diastolic readings respectively, what does that mean, here is a quick explanation of these terms and reference ranges for blood pressure readings. Alongside blood pressure, your heart rate or pulse is often checked, to check beats per minute.
What foods or lifestyle factors affect blood pressure? Some headline hitters include too much stress, alcohol, salt, caffeine, sugar, fat, smoking, being overweight and not enough exercise – these can all contribute towards high blood pressure. Therefore, reducing the factors that are having a negative effect, is a good place to start as well as increasing or starting appropriate exercise. The body loves balance (called homeostasis) and as we saw above salt is always a big topic in heart health. We do need salt (well rather sodium) for normal heart function yet too much or too little can lead to issues. It’s important to know we also need Potassium in a higher ratio than Sodium. The great thing is many whole food sources have these two in ratio, such as apples, cucumber or cooked – not canned kidney beans. Our downfall is the amount of added salt or hidden salt in processed food products such as sauces, condiments, processed foods such as meats, cheese, ready meals, and takeaways. Limiting these types of foods can certainly be beneficial to reduce salt intake, as well as other potentially unhelpful ingredients such as refined sugars and unhealthy fats.
Your cholesterol is likely to be checked as part of a health MOT or if you have a family history of cardiovascular conditions, for example. This is where you start to hear terms such as HDL, LDL or triglycerides, as well as negotiating good and bad cholesterol.
What is cholesterol? Vital fact: cholesterol is essential for life, we make it and we need it. We use it to make hormones such as estrogen and testosterone as well as cortisol (stress hormone), we really need this one, but that’s a whole other blog! Cholesterol results have different letters and numbers, which can be confusing, here’s a quick rundown, but some for a more detailed explanation look here. Our HDL carry cholesterol from cells to the liver to be broken down and excreted whereas LDL does the opposite going from the liver to cells where it can enter blood vessel walls, leading to issues. Think of them as taxis, not enough Helpful taxis (HDL) going from the pub (cells) back home (liver), but the Lousy taxis (LDL) keep dropping off at the pub(cells), but not taking anyone away so the pub get very full! Hence the good/bad labels.
Inevitably the next question is, what foods affect my cholesterol? Typically we are looking here at saturated (as opposed to unsaturated) fat can increase our cholesterol, which means fried foods, oils, lard, cream, full-fat versions of foods. Not all fat is equal and not all fat is bad (yet another blog/rant!) but reducing the amount of saturated fat can support reducing cholesterol. But it’s not all about taking things out, increasing fresh whole foods which provide nutrients and importantly fibre. Most people associate fibre to bowel habits, however, fibre plays a really important role in cholesterol levels, by reducing the re-absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. This is why whole foods, i.e. a whole apple including the skin is better than apple juice, even freshly squeezed.
How to help yourself?
By being conscious of your diet and lifestyle can lower the occurrence of these two common conditions and in turn, could reduce your risk of a more serious cardiac event. This is even more important if you have a family history of these or any cardiovascular conditions. There are many more foods that can impact cardiovascular health both positively and negatively as a general population but also individually subject to your own situation. At Spriggs Nutrition, we look at every individual separately, assessing and providing personalized recommendations, based on information gathered as well as symptoms, medical history and your own health goals. For some people this can be reduction in symptoms or reliance on medications, for others improved quality of life or ability to exercise, we will always incorporate your goals into your plan. If you’d like to know more, we offer a free mini 20 minute phone consultation to see if a nutritional therapy approach can help you reach your health goals or contact us for more information. Being proactive, keeping a check on your health and recognizing the influence you have over them through your diet and lifestyle, here are my top five tips:
- Increase fibre intake – fresh vegetables at every meal is a great place to start.
- Add more whole foods and reduce processed/refined foods – swap chips for a whole baked sweet potato – make sure you eat the skin too.
- Use herbs and spices to add flavour to food not salt, sugar or condiments – check out the labels next time you get the soy sauce or ketchup out, you’ll be surprised!
- Exercise daily, get off the bus/tube a stop early, park the car at the furthest point in the car park, have a lunchtime walk. I use a great 5 minute ‘workout’ whilst the kettle is boiling or dinner is cooking, I might even demonstrate at the health talk. Exercise can be a great stress buster too!
- Create new healthy habits in place of some bad ones, instead of a cigarette break, go for a 5-minute power walk with someone. Reduce alcohol intake, by having water every other drink.
If you have any of the conditions we have covered you may well be on medications, it’s important you talk to your GP if you are thinking of making changes to your diet and lifestyle so that any amendments can be made if necessary. As part of any consultation at our clinic we will always check what medications you are taking, discuss your medical history as well as your own health goals and if appropriate we can write to your GP as part of the process.