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Small changes deliver big heart benefits

Which do you think results in more deaths worldwide each year:

  • Wars around the world?
  • Car accidents?
  • Cancer?
  • Cardiovascular or heart disease?

World Health Organization statistic

According to the World Health Organization, the number one cause of death globally is cardiovascular disease (CVD). In 2015, of the 56.9 million deaths reported worldwide, approximately 30.5% or 17 million people had cardiovascular disease listed as their cause of death.

Let's bring that statistic home, how does that translate to South Africa? It's not great. According to the Heart Foundation, 210 people die each day in SA from CVDs.

More alarming is that many people at risk of CVD don't even realise it until something goes wrong or it's too late. A 2014 study that showed that while 78% of South Africans aged 50 and older had hypertension (high blood pressure, a common cause of CVD and premature death), less than 40% of them even knew it! And only 7% of those people had it under control.

The tragedy here is that many, if not most, of these deaths can be prevented. The single biggest cause of CVD are our lifestyles and the small decisions we make every single day. Choices like whether we'll exercise, what foods we eat, what time we go to bed, whether we take our weight seriously and keep it under control, whether we smoke or give up, and whether we allow ourselves to frequently get stressed.

So how can you reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease ending your life prematurely?

Making small changes could make all the difference:

Get enough sleep

The average adult needs 7 - 8 hours of good quality sleep a night. People who regularly get less than that, or who sleep longer than nine hours a night can have more calcium in their arteries which is an early sign of heart disease. Of course quality unbroken sleep is key, so if you have trouble staying asleep during the night, you might benefit from reviewing your sleeping habits or using a natural sleeping aid.

Shop and eat smarter

Avoid trans fats like your life depends on it (it does!). Trans fats increase your LDL cholesterol, (the bad cholesterol), level while also lowering your good HDL cholesterol level. Trans fats increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Check food ingredients lists - you'll find trans fats listed as 'hydrogenated' or 'partially hydrogenated' vegetable oils and you'll often find them in processed foods like baked goods like cakes and biscuits, snacks like potato or corn chips and even microwave popcorn and deep-fried foods like chips, doughnuts and fried chicken, frozen pizza bases and many margarines.

If you need any more convincing, the US Food and Drug Administration has determined that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is no longer 'generally recognised as safe' and that it should be phased out of food production altogether.

Ditch the sugar, even if you're slim

Even if you're not overweight, drinking sugar-sweetened drinks can raise blood pressure. A high sugar diet can also result in more harmful fats being deposited into the bloodstream, again raising your risk of heart disease. Plus, it contributes to weight gain, which also increases the risk of heart disease.

A 2016 study carried out over 15 years showed that people who got 25% or more of their daily calorie intake from sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than people whose diets contained less than 10% added sugar. And the odds of dying from heart disease rose with the percentage of sugar in the diet, regardless of a person's age, sex, physical activity and weight.

Check your blood pressure

If it's high, work to bring it down. High blood pressure damages artery walls, leading to scar tissue being formed in the arteries. This makes it harder for blood and oxygen to get to and from your heart, requiring the heart to work harder. The result? The heart literally gets worn out faster.

Before turning to blood pressure medicines, try a few lifestyle adjustments first such as:

  • Including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein in your diet.
  • Exercising daily, and yes, you can find 10 minutes three times a day to do some physical exercise like a quick walk down the road and back.
  • Reducing your salt intake.
  • Reducing your stress levels through relaxation techniques, exercising (another benefit) or doing things that make you happy.
  • Taking a natural herbal remedy like crataegus (hawthorn) extract daily has shown to help modulate blood pressure as well as offering many other heart benefits.

These changes are often enough to bring your blood pressure back down into the normal range without the need for medication.

Have a diabetes test

Diabetes Type 2 isn't called the silent pandemic for nothing. Millions of people are unaware they even have this condition or that they're in a prediabetic stage, yet over time, high blood sugar damages arteries and increases heart disease risk.

The good news is pre-diabetes and even diabetes Type 2 can be reversed through diet and lifestyle changes.

Exercise, get active, move!

You don't need to join a gym, brave bootcamp or invest in any fancy equipment or clothing. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise, ie you're moving enough to break a slight sweat and get ever so slightly out of breath and can feel your muscles and lungs are working, five days a week is all you need. Even cleaning your house if it's done energetically counts! As motivation, start off by seeing how flexible you are.

But beware the 'new smoking' risk:

Doing 30 minutes of exercise a day is of little use if you spend the other 23.5 hours a day seated at a desk and then lounging in front of the TV at home before going to bed. Scientists have recently discovered this behaviour is extremely bad for heart health, almost as bad as smoking. So get up often from your desk to take a quick walk or just stand and work, take the stairs every chance you get, and if you're on a phone call, stand or walk around while you talk.

Take a weight off your mind (and your middle)

If you know you need to lose some weight, points 5 and 6 should give you some added motivation. Being overweight or obese makes you more likely to develop heart disease than someone who is a healthy weight. Being overweight requires your heart to pump harder to supply blood to all your cells, thus increasing your blood pressure. It also raises your cholesterol levels as well as your odds of developing diabetes, heart disease or having a stroke.

Stop smoking

It increases your risk of heart disease, numerous cancers, and diabetes. Every time you smoke, your blood pressure and heart rate are raised for up to 30 minutes afterwards. Smoking narrows and hardens your arteries and stresses your heart. Giving up is not easy, we know, but there are many apps, organisations and products to help you. To assist with the anxiety and agitation associated with smoking cessation, a natural remedy can help take the edge off and keep you calm as you break the habit.

Find joy and make time for it

Joy is the feeling of being truly happy with what you have and the world you live in. It's a combination of contentment, inspiration, motivation, passion, gratitude, enthusiasm and feeling that you are contributing something to others or the world. When you are joyful your health benefits - your blood pressure and cholesterol and stress levels are lowered, and your risk of heart attack and many other illnesses is significantly reduced. Being joyful starts with intention.

You can decide to be happy or unhappy, satisfied or unsatisfied. Once you make that conscious decision you will slowly develop attitudes and behaviours that bring you greater happiness. You will make time in your day for things that create joy in your life. There are many books, websites and podcasts that offer constructive easy advice on how to define and create joy in your life.

In his book The Nature Doctor, Alfred Vogel wrote at length about the benefits of happiness before summing it up with three words: "Happiness means health."



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