Did you know that according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, heart disease remains the top cause of death in the country, with 16,325 victims making up 15% of medically certified deaths in 2019 ? Eat well, exercise, get enough omega-3s – chances are, you’ve heard tips on making heart-healthy choices before to help with your heart health. But do you know how these decisions really affect heart function?
As a research pharmacologist and Nobel* Laureate in medicine for my research into nitric oxide, I’ve spent the last decades focusing on educating others about the impact of nutrition and lifestyle on the heart, and you know what I’ve found? Many people don’t understand how their decisions affect heart health and overall bodily wellness.
For decisions to have staying power, it’s important to understand the impact they’re having. When you lose weight, you can see the difference. But the results of a healthier heart are more difficult to measure.
Let’s take a look at five healthy choices and how they impact your heart.
1. Exercise to Improve Your Blood Flow.
I grew up in Long Beach, NY, and was always active. I enjoyed swimming in the ocean and one-on-one stickball, but I always had an interest in understanding how things worked. In medical school, the physiology of the cardiovascular system fascinated me more than anything else.
Ultimately, this path led me to the discovery of the presence, production, and cardiovascular protective actions of nitric oxide in the body. My research was the first to show that nitric oxide (NO) regulates blood pressure, blood flow, and blood coagulation.
We all know activities like running, cycling, and swimming are good for you, but why are they heart-healthy choices? Exercise helps blood vessels relax and widen, or dilate, allowing blood to flow efficiently and stimulating nitric oxide production in the body, thus nourishing the heart. Since nitric oxide controls, regulates and protects the cardiovascular system, the result is clear: more exercise equals more nitric oxide, which results in a healthier heart.
2. Eat a Balanced Diet Rich with Omega-3s.
A healthy diet goes a long way in promoting heart health. Fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains give your body the energy and nutrients it needs to maintain overall health. Foods like fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, and tuna), flaxseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and soybeans are jam-packed with omega-3 fatty acids. The consumption of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) omega-3 fatty acids may also reduce the risk of heart disease.
Not only is fish a great substitute for foods like beef, which is high in saturated fats, but the omega-3s help to support a healthy cardiovascular system by maintaining cholesterol and triglyceride levels already within the normal range.
3. Learn to Manage Your Stress Better.
If you think activities like yoga, meditation, and deep breathing aren’t for you, think again. Doing stress-relieving activities can do more for your body than you might think.
Stress impacts blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which is why we should find healthy ways to lower our stress. In fact, studies have found a link between chronic stress and heart disease.
While there are a lot of theories on how lowering stress can help keep the heart healthy, many researchers believe that increased stress levels can worsen other states in the body. For example, if you have high blood pressure or cholesterol, stress can cause these levels to rise even further. Stress may also impact the way blood clots, which may increase the risk of a heart attack.
People with lower stress levels may be more likely to exercise and eat well, both of which are important for a healthy heart. So, lowering stress not only helps you feel better, but it also keeps your body balanced and supports healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
4. Achieve and Maintain a Healthy Weight.
Did you know that even moderate weight loss can have a huge impact on the health of your heart? A healthy weight lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes—not to mention, it positively impacts overall physical health. But how does it do this? While there are lots of benefits of having a healthy weight, it especially impacts blood circulation. One study found that when body weight—especially belly fat—is within healthy range, arteries are better able to expand, which results in better blood flow.
Since optimal blood flow is one of the keys to a healthy cardiovascular system, weight loss (or maintenance, if you’re at a healthy weight), can be one of the most important steps toward supporting a healthy heart.
5. Support the Endothelium, Which Produces Nitric Oxide.
As I found in my research, nitric oxide is one of the most important molecules in the cardiovascular system. Increased nitric oxide results in increased blood flow to the organs, which supports healthy blood pressure and a healthy cardiovascular system. But for all this to happen, the “production house” of nitric oxide – the endothelium – needs to be supported.
Our bodies contain 6 trillion endothelial cells, which line 60,000 miles of blood vessels in a single layer. Together, those cells make up an organ known as the endothelium. The endothelium is the only cellular network in the entire cardiovascular system that is capable of producing nitric oxide, and so it is essential to maintain a healthy endothelium.
Endothelial wellness signifies keeping your vascular endothelial cells healthy and active at all times. Nitric oxide is absolutely required to maintain normal blood pressure, blood flow, and blood coagulation on a second-by-second basis.
Exercising, eating a healthy diet, lowering stress, and losing weight – all contribute to endothelial health.
Supplementing with targeted nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, CoQ10, krill, garlic, and green tea also helps keep your endothelium healthy by providing the nutrients it needs to function at its best. And a healthy endothelium results in healthy nitric oxide levels, which impacts blood flow and blood pressure – not to mention the functioning of the entire body.
The Long-Term Benefits of a Healthy Heart
If there’s one thing to take from this article, it would be this: take good care of your heart – you have only one and it will determine how long you live.
I look after my heart by adopting a lifestyle that best suits its function and longevity. These include a healthy diet and a structured aerobic exercise program with specific nutrients that promote heart health.
Over the years, I have learned to take care of myself first, and my work second. I practice healthy living while at home and during work. Each morning is started by eating a healthy and nutritious breakfast plus engaging in exercise whether it be running, fast walking, or cycling.
My role model is my father. He was very active and a hard-working carpenter, who worked 6 long days a week. He always followed a strict healthy diet, and exercise was built into his profession.