February is American Heart Health Month. Heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. Doctors describe it as a slow-moving epidemic. Fortunately, there are many things you can start doing today to decrease your risk. Here’s what you need to know about heart disease and how to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

What is Heart Disease?

The phrase heart disease is a catchall for a few different cardiovascular problems. It’s most often used to refer to coronary artery disease. It can also refer to heart attacks and certain arrhythmia.

Coronary artery disease happens when plaque (a mixture of cholesterol and other substances) builds up in the arteries causing them to narrow. Narrowing of arteries makes an individual more prone to heart attack and stroke. The more narrow an artery is, the easier it is for a blood clot to get stuck and cut off blood flow. Sometimes a heart attack is the first sign of coronary artery disease. Some patients have symptoms before they have a heart attack, including angina (chest pain or discomfort), weakness, feeling lightheaded, nausea, discomfort in arms or shoulders, or shortness of breath. If you have any of these symptoms, you should get medical attention right away, even if they seem mild. 

Arrhythmia are abnormal heart rhythms. Some arrhythmia cause the heart to beat too fast, and others cause slowed heart rhythms or pauses. One of the most common arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation (AFib). The atrial chamber beats erratically during an AFib episode and doesn’t fully pump blood out of the chamber. Blood clots can form during an AFib episode and lead to stroke or heart attack. 

Both coronary artery disease and arrhythmia can lead to heart failure. This means that the heart can no longer do its job correctly. Heart failure is treatable but often leads to premature death. It’s important to note that diagnosis with coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, or even a past heart attack doesn’t have to mean that heart failure is in your future.

The following tips can help you prevent heart failure and improve your overall health. 

1. Don’t Ignore Symptoms

Often people go for months or years noticing that they are fatigued, short of breath, or sometimes feel heart palpitations but don’t seek medical help. Putting off medical care puts you at a higher risk of death or severe illness. Many heart problems are treatable, and some are curable, but early detection is key. 

If you are female or diabetic, your risk of having a “silent” heart attack is higher. Symptoms of a silent heart attack may feel flu-like. Subtle symptoms like achy muscles in the chest, shoulders, jaw, or upper back, fatigue, or an indigestion-like feeling can be easy to ignore. Listen to your body and if something seems off, see a doctor. 

2. Understand and Mitigate Risk Factors

The biggest risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking. Diabetes, alcohol abuse, untreated sleep apnea, and obesity are also major contributors. 

Some people have a condition known as metabolic syndrome. This usually happens due to an unhealthy lifestyle (although some genetic factors may also be at work.). Excess fat around the waist, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure are markers of metabolic syndrome. These conditions tend to cluster together because of chain reactions within the body. Eating a diet high in fat and sugar can lead to obesity and high blood sugar, upping your chances of high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Individuals with one or more of these conditions are at a higher risk for heart disease. The more of these conditions a person has, the higher their risk. 

There is no cure for type 1 diabetes, but managing your blood sugar is important in preventing heart disease. People with type two diabetes may need medical treatment, including insulin and other medications, but can often reverse their diabetes with lifestyle changes. 

An often under-recognized cause of heart disease is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea happens when a person stops breathing several times an hour in their sleep. It wreaks havoc on the body by depriving it of oxygen and interrupting sleep. If you struggle to get a good night’s rest or often feel fatigued when you think you’ve slept well, you should get screened for sleep apnea. Other symptoms include morning headaches and mood changes. Individuals with untreated sleep apnea are more likely to develop heart disease, arrhythmias, and metabolic syndrome. It also increases the risk of sudden cardiac death. Treating sleep apnea with a CPAP machine can prevent these complications. 

Smoking and alcohol abuse are both risk factors for heart disease that can be eliminated. Talk to your doctor about resources to help with addiction. 

3. Change Your Eating Habits

Eating a healthy diet can treat and prevent several risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. Changing all of your eating habits overnight may be ideal, but it’s a difficult change to maintain. Start by making one change, say eating less sugar or less fat, and then make another change after getting used to the first one. It may be helpful to talk to a nutritionist or personal trainer about your dietary goals. If you are trying to lose weight, you will need to know how many calories to eat for your activity level. 

Nutritionists recommend a diet high in plant based foods, including whole grains (instead of white bread), and less meat, sugar, and processed foods. Try substituting stevia ( a safe, natural sugar substitute) for sugar. Avoid products with high fructose corn syrup or lots of chemical additives or trans fats. Fat isn’t a “bad food”, we do need some to stay healthy. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids like those found in fish and vegetable oil are healthy fats. We need some saturated fats as well, but you should stay within the recommended daily allowance. Remember that all fats have 9 calories per gram, so limit your intake if you are cutting calories to lose weight. Soda, both regular and diet, has been associated with serious illnesses, including colon cancer and heart disease, so if you can, quit completely or treat yourself to one or two a year. 

Investing in some heart-healthy cookbooks can help you know what to fix for dinner when your usual options are off the table. You should also talk to your healthcare provider about testing for nutritional deficiencies. You can correct any deficiencies with a combination of food and supplements. 

4. Be More Physically Active

You don’t have to become a bodybuilder overnight; just move more throughout your day. Start where you’re at and work your way up to a healthier fitness level. Taking the stairs, going for a walk or bike ride, and playing with your kids all count as exercise. Ideally, you should aim for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Physical activity strengthens your heart and lungs, reduces stress, and can help you maintain a healthy weight. 

Holistic Healthcare in Kentucky

At All Star Chiropractic, we provide nutritional counseling and lifestyle advice for people of all ages. Schedule a consultation today to see how we can help you improve your health in 2022.