February is about far more than conversation hearts and romantic rendezvouses: the month of love also marks American Heart Month, which calls major attention to heart health. And for good reason: as the fifth largest and most important organ in your body, your heart beats a hundred thousand times a day, pumping blood to all of your organs and enabling you to perform everything from driving a car to performing downward facing dog. In other words, when your heart is in jeopardy—of the physical sort, mind you—so is your life.
Indeed, heart disease—which affects more than 43 million American women per year—is the number one killer in both men and women, rendering it a greater hazard than breast and prostate cancer.
While genetics may play a role in your predisposition to heart disease, a quarter of deaths from cardiovascular failure are preventable. Lifestyle changes—from quitting smoking to getting adequate sleep—can reduce your risk of heart disease by a whopping 80 percent. What’s more? Key tweaks to your daily activities allow for a richer, more fulfilling existence. After all, heart disease comes with a number of unpleasant symptoms and can lead to disability and a radically decreased quality of life.
Here are eight leading lifestyle changes you can implement today to keep your ticker safe tomorrow:
1. Score a seat at your local sushi spot
Italian bistros might be more your thing, but the point is this: eating more fish—specifically low-mercury fish—can be a boon for your heart, thanks to its healthy doses of omega-3 fats. Take it from the American Heart Association: “Omega-3 fatty acids fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people, and those at high risk of—or who have—cardiovascular disease. Research demonstrates that omega-3 fatty acids decreases the risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden death.” Further, upping your consumption of fish supports normal blood pressure.
Low-mercury is critical here, however. Mercury—a heavy metal found naturally in the environment and absorbed by fish—can irritate the lining of your blood vessels and serve as a potential cause of atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that may render you more susceptible to stroke. Salmon, freshwater trout, herring, tilapia and tuna (canned light) are all excellent choices, while high-mercury choices like ahi and bigeye tuna, King mackerel and swordfish should be avoided.
2. Floss your teeth
Studies have shown that periodontitis raises your risk of heart disease, in part because of inflammation and the increased thickness of blood vessels in the neck. While further research remains to be done, oral health—accomplished by brushing after meals and flossing once a day, preventative care and cleanings—is often indicative of how well a person takes care of themselves in general.
On top of basic dental care, be proactive when it comes to dental fillings. Silver fillings—or mercury amalgams—are a source of mercury and other heavy metals. Ask your dentist to use a dental dam in the process of removing them so that you don’t swallow debris from the old fillings. (Some dentists, in fact, have special equipment that can decrease your exposure to mercury as it is being removed from your teeth.) In addition, take at least 1,000 mg of vitamin C before and after your fillings are removed, and consider including more magnesium and calcium in your diet—both are vital to bone health and may support healthy bones around the gums.*
3. Skip the salt
Let’s get one thing out of the way: salt is critical for life. The long-standing food staple is an essential mineral for every cell in the body—it helps regulate your heartbeat, blood pressure, nerve transmission, muscle contraction, stomach acid and pH balance.
The problem, however, rests in the average American’s consumption of salt, which exceeds the daily recommendation of 1,100 to 3,300 mg of sodium each day for adults. (To picture this, one teaspoon of salt gives you 2,300 mg of sodium.) And, as you probably know, high amounts of salt in the diet have been associated with high blood pressure, which can cause ischemic heart disease.
The solution lies not in removing salt from your diet completely but in finding the right balance of sodium to potassium—two components that work together in a unique way to regulate your water balance, which, in turn regulates your blood pressure. Indeed, studies demonstrate that when sodium is decreased and potassium is increased, blood pressure can drop.
In short, aim to increase the potassium in your diet by eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are rich in potassium and low in sodium. At the same time, be mindful of the type of salt you consume. Commercial salt goes through a dramatic metamorphosis before it reaches your dinner table—it’s heated, bleached, stripped of its minerals and oftentimes treated with anticaking agents that contain aluminum. Reach for unrefined salt that comes from the sea instead, and use it sparingly.
4. Get your heart pumping
Like every muscle in your body, your heart works best when it’s in optimal shape. And from your triceps to your thighs to your ticker, it’s impossible to get anything in shape without some form of activity. Exercise strengthens your heart and enhances circulation so that each of your cells receive more blood and oxygen. Meaning? Move your body, and move it often.
Unlike those oblique exercises that are often required to achieve six-pack abs, however, your heart doesn’t need point-of-exhaustion training. Rather, exercise to your target heart rate (check out the Mayo Clinic’s method of determining yours here). Whether it’s walking or running, surfing or gardening, yoga or dancing, aim for at least thirty minutes of physical activity per day. Your heart will thank you in the future; your brain will thank you immediately.
5. Dine when you rise
A wholesome diet is crucial for maintaining (or improving) heart health. But recent research suggests that it isn’t just what you eat but also when you eat that matters.
According to the American Heart Association, eating more calories earlier in the day and fewer calories at night may decrease your chances of stroke, heart attack or other heart and blood vessel diseases. Take it from Marie Pierre St. Onge, a nutrition researcher at Columbia University. “We may not process sugars as well at night as we do during the day, and studies of shift workers have linked this schedule with a greater risk of obesity and heart disease than a typical day job,” she says, going on to cite that 30 percent of Americans skip breakfast. Which is a shame, given that eating breakfast is associated with lower weight, a healthier diet overall and a lower risk of heart disease.
Join the healthier side of the statistic by making your morning meal a priority. Whether you have ten minutes to eat or two luxuriant hours, aim to eat protein, fruits and/or veggies, and some heart-healthy omega-3s. One dish that hits all three? A slice of chia-seed or whole wheat toast topped with nut butter and a sliced banana.
6. Achieve—and maintain—your ideal weight
Obesity—or simply being overweight—increases your blood pressure, which is the leading cause of stroke. On the other end of the spectrum, being underweight presents equally daunting possibilities, with a recent study out of Denmark showing that being too thin doubles the death risk of women with coronary heart disease. Further, heart disease is one of the primary complications of anorexia; heart failure is the foremost cause of its deaths.
True, being obese or being dangerously underweight represent extreme cases. But new research demonstrates that even yo-yo dieting—the repeated loss and regain of weight—can also put your heart in hazard, particularly if you’re a woman whose weight often fluctuates. A study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2016 revealed that yo-yo dieting increases the risk of death from heart disease among older women of normal weight. To decrease your risk, find your ideal weight and work towards maintaining it with a healthy diet and consistent exercise. After all, there’s far more at stake here than how well you’ll fit into your jeans from college.
7. Schedule in some "me time"
The link between chronic stress and heart disease cannot be underemphasized. Such negative stress has a profound impact on your body, from higher levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, to changes in the way your blood clots. What’s more, chronic stress—whether derived from a grueling work schedule or troubles at home—tends to spur lifestyle changes that may further increase your risk for heart disease, including over-eating, under-exercising, smoking and over-imbibing.
To mitigate the stress in your life, it’s imperative that you carve out time for you—and you alone. “Me time,” however that may be defined, allows you to catch your breath, decompress, assess where you are (physically, spiritually and emotionally) and enjoy life’s riches. Take a sunset walk, watch a good movie, read that magazine that’s been collecting dust, relish a bowl of fresh-cut fruit—the options are vast, and the potential health benefits are even greater.
8. Optimize vitamin D levels
Forget search engine optimization and boosting those zeros in your bank account: what’s really important is ensuring that you have optimum levels of vitamins and nutrients in your diet.
Chief among them is vitamin D. Otherwise known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D, which is produced naturally in the body when your skin is exposed to sunlight, is central to myriad functions, including regulating blood sugar, controlling blood pressure and keeping your immune system healthy.
And while lower vitamin D levels have long been associated with several complications (osteoporosis, for example), recent research out of Johns Hopkins Hospital points to unhealthy levels of vitamin D as a risk factor for poor cardiovascular health. To put it in different words, schedule that “me” time outside. It’ll bring a smile to your face and keep your ticker in top-notch shape.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.