You know, of course, that the most effective way to keep your heart in top shape is a balanced diet and regular exercise. But if you're like most people, you've got a heap of good intentions, a head of broccoli wilting in the crisper, and a set of weights languishing under the bed. The good news: Supplements like fish oil, herbs, and multivitamins can help fill in the nutritional and exercise gaps and fortify your heart's health. "The vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you get from supplements can absolutely help keep the heart going strong," says Jim Roberts, M.D., a cardiologist in Toledo, Ohio, and coauthor of Reverse Heart Disease Now (Wiley, 2008). But, he warns, don't wait until your heart calls for help. "If you start early and stay ahead of the damage, you'll be much better off." That said, it's also never too late to start taking natural supplements for your most vital organ. Mark Houston, M.D., director of the Hypertension Institute in Nashville and author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Hypertension (Grand Central Publishing, 2003), advises, "Supplements can not only prevent heart disease, but even reverse damage that's already been done."
We did some homework to find out exactly which supplements you should be taking-and provided this cheat sheet of the very best ones for overall heart health, including those most effective for high blood pressure and cholesterol.
(Note: While the following supplements are deemed safe and effective, it's important to speak to your doctor before launching any supplement regimen.)
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In the 1970s, researchers in Denmark noticed something curious: Inuit in Greenland ate 70 grams of fat a day—mostly from fish, seals, and whales—and when food was abundant, the fat fest could hit a belly-clutching 600 g. (By comparison, Americans who eat 2,000 calories a day are told not to consume more than 67 g of fat.) Yet only 3.5 percent of Inuit died of heart disease. Today, everyone knows the secret in the Inuit's sauce was fish oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Twenty-five years later, scientists are still slack-jawed over the oil's healing powers.
Omega-3s can put the kibosh on high blood pressure and tamp down triglycerides, a group of damaging fats in the blood. They can also slice your overall odds of keeling over from heart disease by more than 30 percent. A recent meta-analysis—the combining of several research studies for enhanced accuracy and clarity—found that a person's risk of dying from heart disease drops by 7 percent per 20 g of omega-3- rich fish consumed (up to five servings a week).
How it works
How does swallowing fat fight a disease that can be caused by eating too much fat? Because fish oil's omega-3s don't act like fat in the body; they act like hormones, explains Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., a scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center at the Stanford School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif. Fat is fuel, period. But omega-3s, like hormones, help to regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and inflammation—all key factors in heart disease. Although scientists are still figuring out exactly how fish oil works its magic, they do know that omega-3s interfere with the body's ability to whip up a class of chemicals that raise and lower inflammation levels. And you don't need to relocate to Greenland, load up on fish fillets, or worry about mercury levels to cash in. Just 3 g a day of fish oil supplements—impurities like mercury are filtered out during processing—can boost heart health.
Fish oil is remarkably safe and effective. "Every American should take fish oil," advises Roberts. "You'd be nuts not to."
When choosing a fish oil supplement, look for one that delivers both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)-the two omega- 3s found in fish. Products that make the grade include Nordic Naturals, Nature's Bounty, and Res-Q 1250.
At least 1 g per day. To take aim at triglycerides, shoot for 2 to 4 g daily. The only caveat is that fish oil thins the blood, so talk with your doctor if you already take a blood-thinning drug such as Coumadin or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen.