Heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. What’s more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one person dies every 36 seconds from cardiovascular disease in the U.S.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease, as are those with the following medical conditions or lifestyle choices: diabetes, obesity, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol use.
Thankfully, when it comes to the health of your heart, small changes to your lifestyle can make a big difference. Read on to learn what changes registered dietitians, certified personal trainers, cardiologists, and scientists recommend for improving your heart’s health:
Embrace a Mediterranean diet
Skip the fad diets and instead rely on a healthy eating plan that’s been used for centuries in Greece, southern Italy and Spain: the Mediterranean diet.
“By limiting red meat to once every couple weeks and incorporating more fish, vegetables, chicken, legumes, and olive oil into your diet, your overall health will improve — including heart health,” says Dr. Raj Savajiyani, MD, a board-certified cardiologist at Apricus Health. “And you don’t have to be religious about a Mediterranean diet 100 percent of the time to see the benefits of this lifestyle. You don’t need to give up pizza permanently.”
Improving your mobility improves your circulation. “Tight muscles and tight connective tissue, in general, can decrease circulation to some areas of the body,” says David Chesworth, ACSM-certified personal trainer and fitness director at Hilton Head Health, an all-inclusive weight loss and wellness resort. “With less circulation, there is an increased risk of inflammation, an increased risk of high blood pressure, and an increased risk for heart disease. Adding in a daily stretch routine is a great way to keep your heart healthy through improved circulation.”
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Upgrade your oils
Not all oils are created equal, especially when it comes to heart health. “Refined, heavily processed vegetable oils — such as corn, canola, soybean, and safflower oil — are high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, yet lacking in heart-healthy omega-3s,” says Jamie Miller, RD, registered dietitian for the Village Health Clubs.
“Instead, turn to oils rich in heart-healthy fats, such as avocado, olive, walnut, grapeseed, sesame, and coconut oil.” She recommends using avocado oil as an all-purpose option in any kitchen because of its high smoke point, neutral flavor, and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
Laugh, a lot
While hitting the gym and watching a comedy special on Netflix may seem like different experiences, they both result in the release of the same chemical in our brain: endorphins. “Scientifically speaking, the release of endorphins can lead to muscle relaxation throughout the body and the dilation of our circulatory system, which feeds into the feelings of relaxation and the lowering of blood pressure,” says John Gann, a NASM-certified personal trainer and certified wellness coach from Denver Downtown Planet Fitness.
“A study done in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake showed that participants who engaged in ‘laugh therapy’ experienced less heart-related disease and mental distress despite the trauma shared compared with participants who did not participate in the laugh therapy.”
Eat some prunes
When was the last time you enjoyed a prune? If you can’t remember, it’s been far too long — and now’s the time to fall in love with dried plums, for your heart’s sake. “The soluble fiber in California Prunes can help manage serum cholesterol levels, and their potassium content can help blunt the effects of sodium in the diet,” says sports dietitian Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN. “Moreover, new research suggests that daily prune consumption can improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease in healthy, postmenopausal women by raising antioxidant capacity and reducing inflammation.”
Get your body moving
You may not be familiar with nitric oxide (NO) or its role in the body, but it can actually increase your longevity thanks to its heart-protective factors. “Physical activity or exercise is a profoundly effective way to boost nitric oxide production in the body,” explains Dr. Louis J. Ignarro, the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for his scientific research work discovering nitric oxide in the human body.
“Any body movement that increases your heart rate will boost NO production. An increase in heart rate results in increased blood flow, which triggers the arteries to produce more NO. Nitric oxide further dilates the blood vessels to deliver more blood and, therefore, oxygen and nutrients, to the working muscles. The same nitric oxide is protective against cardiovascular disease (hypertension, stroke, heart attack) and dementia.” He says that working out three or four days a week, each for about 30 minutes, is all you need.
Layer on the leafy greens
“Eating lots of vegetables like spinach, kale, and collard greens can help your heart flourish,” explains M. Kara, MD, creator of KaraMD, who has 30+ years of experience treating patients at The Cleveland Clinic.
“These vegetables contain vitamin K, which helps break up blood clots — a very good thing when trying to prevent heart attacks and strokes. Leafy greens also contain folate, another important vitamin for preventing heart disease, as well as healthy nitrates that help encourage nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide is essential for dilating our blood vessels and improving our overall circulation.”
It’s time to step onto your yoga mat, perch upon a meditation cushion, or grab a notebook and pen. “Too often the mind-body connection is ignored when it comes to heart health, but limiting your stress and expanding your mindfulness can be helpful for long-term heart health,” says Dr. Savajiyani.
“Consider meditation to manage stress, or begin a journal to pour all of your thoughts and fears onto a page. These practices lead to long-term mental and physical health. Meditation is linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate, which can lower your risk of heart disease.”
Add some spice
What do turmeric, basil, ginger, sage, saffron, oregano, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, oregano, thyme, chili peppers (cayenne, paprika, red pepper, chili powder), rosemary and garlic have in common? Internist and board-certified physician nutrition specialist Dr. Melina Jampolis, MD, says they can help your body fight inflammation by up-regulating or increasing anti-inflammatory genes and proteins and down-regulating or decreasing pro-inflammatory genes and proteins.
“Spices contain powerful antioxidants that help protect your cells from damage, reduce inflammation, and add flavor without calories,” she says. “Using spices also helps reduce our reliance on salt, which is over consumed by 90 percent of Americans.” Three of the most potent heart-healthy spices include turmeric, cumin and cinnamon, so use those liberally.
Make more melatonin
There’s more to sleep than beauty rest. “It’s no surprise that sleep or the lack of it predisposes to heart disease; in fact, night shift workers suffer far worse heart disease rates,” says Dr. Steven Gundry, cardiothoracic surgeon, founder of Gundry MD, and author of Unlocking the Keto Code.
“Recent evidence reveals the surprising reason behind this observation: the lack of melatonin production. Melatonin, long described as the ‘sleep hormone,’ has powerful effects on repairing the surface of blood vessels.” Instead of popping supplements, try approaching sleep with a food-first mentality — reach for melatonin-rich foods, like pistachios, mushrooms, red wine, and olive oil.
Fill up on soluble fiber
You may have heard to increase your fiber for heart health, but there is a particular type of fiber that is especially good for overall heart health: soluble fiber. “Think of it like a gel, explains registered dietitian Catherine Perez, MS, RD, LDN. “It picks up extra cholesterol and helps usher it out of our bodies. Some excellent examples of soluble-fiber-rich foods are oats, apples, pears, beans, lentils, chickpeas, chia seeds, flax seeds, and barley.”
Did you know that salmon is one of the top choices among heart-healthy proteins? According to the American Heart Association, one of the simplest preventive measures Americans can take to protect their heart health is to eat fish high in omega-3s, like heart-smart salmon, at least twice a week.
“Salmon is packed with important nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, which can help with circulation and reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Rima Kleiner, MS, RD, from Dish on Fish. “Not only is salmon filled with better-for-you omega-3 fatty acids, it is also packed with protein and vitamin D, a highly nutritious combination that can help lower cholesterol and reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack by up to one-third.”