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Healthy, Happy Heart

This month is Irish Heart month, which culminates on World Heart Day on 29th September. Heart disease is Ireland’s number one killer, accounting for more than one third of all deaths in this country. 
Approximately 10,000 people die each year from cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attacks, strokes, and other circulatory diseases. Cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly a quarter of all premature deaths of people under the age of 65. It is also estimated that 30,000 people are living in the community with disabilities as a result of a stroke. Cardiovascular disease is often thought of as something which mostly affects men, however, heart disease and stroke is also the leading cause of death among Irish women, and the risks increase significantly after menopause.
The tendency to develop heart disease or stroke is genetic and tends to increase with age. However there are also many other risk factors which can be controlled in order to reduce the risks. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease, including both heart attacks and strokes, and smokers are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack than non-smokers. Therefore, giving up smoking is the single most effective means of reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease.

High cholesterol is another recognized risk factor for cardiovascular disease. If there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it can adhere to the inner lining of the blood vessels and cause them to become narrow and hardened. If a blood vessel supplying the heart muscle becomes blocked completely, this results in a heart attack, which causes damage to the heart muscle. If a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked, it results in a stroke, which damages the brain. However, cholesterol is much more likely to adhere to blood vessels which are inflamed or damaged for other reasons, such as smoking or poor diet.

Being overweight and having high blood pressure both mean that the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body. This extra pressure can cause wear and tear on both the heart and blood vessels. It is thought that fat which is stored around the abdomen (giving rise to an ‘apple-shaped’ figure) presents a greater risk for cardiovascular disease than fat which is stored around the buttocks and thighs (leading to a ‘pear-shaped’ figure). Being overweight can lead to both high blood pressure and diabetes, which causes damage to blood vessels due to elevated blood glucose, and is therefore another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Stress also raises blood pressure and increases heart rate, putting greater pressure on the heart and blood vessels. In addition, stress often causes people to engage in more activities which can damage the heart and blood vessels, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol or coffee, eating the wrong foods, and being inactive.

By far the best ways of  reducing the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes and being overweight, are by getting enough exercise and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Exercising for at least 30 minutes every day helps to reduce blood pressure and stress levels, prevents obesity and diabetes, and strengthens the heart and circulation, thus preventing heart disease and strokes. It is best to try and choose activities you enjoy in order to to keep you motivated; such as brisk walking, sporting activities, swimming, dancing, gardening, or playing active games with children or grand children.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, which contain antioxidants that help to prevent damage to the heart and blood vessels. Wholegrain cereals such as oats help to control cholesterol levels, while olive oil and oily fish help to prevent blood clots. Choose lean meat and skinless chicken instead of fatty meats. 2-3 squares of good quality dark chocolate and a daily glass of red wine have been shown to have beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system.

Avoid animal fats as much as possible; and especially trans-fats, which are found in some margarines and many processed foods. It is also important to avoid fried and fatty foods such as creamy sauces, cakes, biscuits, crisps, and chocolate; and try to reduce consumption of salt, alcohol and coffee, all of which raise blood pressure if consumed in excess.

One of the best remedies available for the heart and circulation is hawthorn, which comes into fruit around this time of year.  Modern research has confirmed that hawthorn contains powerful antioxidants called flavonoids, and clinical trials support its use for this purpose.  Medical herbalists frequently use hawthorn in combination with other herbs for a range of problems affecting the heart and circulatory system.  It may be used with herbs such as cramp bark which relaxes blood vessels, motherwort which regulates the heartbeat, yarrow which removes excess fluid, lime flower which acts as a gentle relaxant, or artichoke which lowers cholesterol.  In some cases herbs such as these may be used to reduce the dose of orthodox medicines in consultation with the individual’s GP.