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Top 10 heart helpers

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If you have a strong family history of heart disease, don’t despair. According to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, you can still overcome a bad roll of the genetic dice. Data from over 55,600 people showed that those with a high genetic risk of heart attack halved their chance of actually experiencing one if they followed a healthy diet and lifestyle compared with those who made less favourable choices.[i]

This is not too surprising, given that almost one in three heart attacks are linked with eating an unhealthy diet[ii], and an unhealthy lifestyle accounts for many of the others. Most people know the usual advice but there are some other less known ways to help maximise your chance of a long and healthy lifespan, too.

1. Take A Tea Break
Tea is a rich source of polyphenols that have beneficial effects on artery elasticity, blood pressure, blood stickiness and inflammation. Data from 22 studies involving over 856,000 people shows that, overall, drinking 3 cups of tea per day reduced the risk of a heart attack by 27%, and of a fatal heart attack by 26% compared with those who did not drink tea.

2. Favour Fish  
Fish is often thought of as brain food, but it has beneficial effects for the heart too, by reducing inflammation, blood stickiness, blood pressure and circulating levels of triglyceride fat. The long-chain omega-3 fish oils, DHA and EPA, also have a protective effect against abnormal heart rhythms, especially in heart muscle receiving a poor blood supply[i]. If you don’t like eating fish, omega-3 fish oils are a good alternative. Data from 11 clinical trials, involving over 15,000 people with a history of heart cardiovascular disease showed significant protective effects with a 25% decreased risk of a heart attack, and a 32% lower risk of a fatal cardiac event.[ii]

3. Go For Garlic
Garlic reduces cholesterol production in the liver and discourages hardening and furring up of the arteries. Garlic also dilates arteries to lower blood pressure and improve the circulation. Data from 20 clinical trials involving almost a thousand people shows that garlic supplements reduce blood pressure by 5.1/2.5mmHg overall and, in people with hypertension reduced blood pressure by 8.7/6.1 mmHg to lower the risk of heart attack.[iii] Aged garlic extracts (eg black garlic) can even reduce the level of soft plaque present in coronary arteries in people with metabolic syndrome who are at high risk of heart disease.[iv]

4. Consider Co-enzyme Q10
Co-enzyme Q10 is needed for energy production in cells – especially heart muscle cells that are constantly contracting. When 144 people who had experienced a heart attack were given either co-enzyme Q10 (120 mg/day) or a B vitamin placebo for one year, the number of recurrent cardiac events were significantly lower in the co-enzyme Q10 group (24.6% vs. 45.0%) and the number of non-fatal heart attack recurrences was also significantly reduced (13.7% vs. 25.3%).[v] Statin drugs lower cholesterol levels and also halve circulating levels of co-enzyme Q10 within 4 weeks[vi],[vii]. Taking co-enzyme Q10 supplements helps to maintain blood levels of this important muscle nutrient without affecting the cholesterol-lowering action of the statin[viii]

5. Plump For Plant Sterols
Plant sterols have a similar chemical structure to animal cholesterol and reduce the absorption of dietary cholesterol.  A sterol rich diet can lower levels of harmful LDL-cholesterol by up to 15%[ix] to significantly reduce the risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke. The benefits are even greater for people with type 2 diabetes, in whom LDL-cholesterol levels have been lowered by over 26%[x]. Plant sterols can be used together with a statin to further reduce cholesterol levels and is more effective than doubling the statin dose[xi].

6. Major On Magnesium
Magnesium is essential for heart muscle contraction and to regulate blood pressure. Lack of magnesium can cause spasm of coronary arteries and potentially dangerous abnormal heart rhythms. Research from 16 trials, involving over 313,000 people, shows that every 0.2 mmol/l increment in circulating blood levels of magnesium is associated with a 30% lower risk of heart attack. For dietary intakes of magnesium, each 200 mg per day increment was associated with a 22% lower risk of ischemic heart disease.[xii]

7. Keep Up The Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 plays an important role in heart health by reducing the deposition of calcium in artery walls. Researchers looking at dietary intakes of over 16,000 women aged 49 – 70 years found that every 10mcg increase in dietary intakes of vitamin K2 reduced the risk of coronary heart disease by 9%[xiii].  

8. Don’t Forget Vitamin D3
Vitamin D also helps to regulate calcium and improves blood pressure control. Research from 19 studies, involving almost 66,000 people showed that people with the lowest vitamin D levels were 52% more likely to have cardiovascular disease than those with the highest blood levels, and more likely to have a fatal heart attack.[xiv]

9. Take Tomato Extracts
Tomatoes are best known as a source of the antioxidant, lycopene, but the clear jelly surrounding tomato seeds contains over 35 substances that can reduce unwanted blood clots. As a result, a tomato extract called Fruitflow (eg Healthspan Circulease) has an authorised health claim from the European Food Safety Authority that it ‘Helps maintain normal platelet aggregation, which contributes to healthy blood flow.’ [xv]

10. Give Glucosamine A Chance
Researchers from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle looked at supplement usage in over 77,700 people aged 50 to 76 and found that those taking glucosamine at least four days a week, for at least three years, were 18% more likely to survive the following eight years than non-users. When a more sensitive analysis was performed, which removed the first two years of follow-up to help exclude pre-existing disease, the protective effect of glucosamine increased to a 20% reduced risk of death from any cause, including heart attack. This protection remained even after accounting for other confounding factors such as smoking, weight, age, education, marital status, alcohol intake, physical activity, vegetable intake, cholesterol-lowering medication and HRT. Glucosamine is known to reduce inflammation and relieve pain, which is why so many people find it helpful for their joints. It’s possible that reduced inflammation also protects against cancer, lung and heart disease. 




Sarah Brewer graduated as a doctor from Cambridge University. Having worked in hospitals and general practice, she gained a Master's degree in Nutritional Medicine from the University of Surrey. She is the author of over 60 popular health books and writes widely on all aspects of health including complementary medicine. More from this expert.

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