Your Heart is in Your Hands

When it comes to your ticker’s health, genes do not determine destiny. Here’s how to take control of your future.

Your Heart is in Your Hands
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TREAT TRIGLYCERIDES These harmful blood fats might be the most dangerous form of cholesterol because they are inflammatory, explains Tracy Stevens, M.D., a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart and Vascular Institute in Kansas City, Mo. She recommends keeping triglyceride levels under control with natural antiinflammatories: 2,000 IU of vitamin D3, at least 81 milligrams of aspirin and 2,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids daily. 

DETOX Environmental toxins have a profound impact on heart health, Hyman says: “I’ve seen diabetes cured and heart disease reversed when a patient does a detox.” You can do a structured program, or simply eat an organic, plant-based diet and dump your chemical-based household cleaners. Sit in a sauna to help your body sweat out toxins.

STRESS LESS “When you get stressed out, a cascade of hormones are released,” Guarneri says. The most well known are adrenaline, which can cause skipped heartbeats and raise blood pressure; cortisol, which leads to putting on unhealthy belly fat and suppresses immunity; and aldosterone, which causes the body to hold on to water, raising blood pressure. “Try yoga, tai chi, walking or practicing affirmation or prayer,” Guarneri suggests. A recent study published in the journal Circulation found that mantra-based meditation practice was associated with a 43 percent decrease in heart attacks and strokes among African-Americans.

WHITTLE YOUR MIDDLE Weight gain around the abdomen is associated with metabolic syndrome, a disease process characterized by elevated blood pressure, reduced insulin sensitivity (a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease), lower HDL (the “good”) cholesterol and higher triglycerides. “We have become a nation of egg-shaped people,” says Stevens. “Our real health crisis is a crisis of the waistline.” The treatment is pretty simple, she says: “Focus on your waistline. If you’re a woman, keep it under 35 inches; if you’re a man, under 40. It’s the single most powerful step you can take in reducing your risk for heart disease.”

SHAKE THE SALT HABIT By the end of our lives, 90 percent of Americans will have developed high blood pressure, or hypertension. Excess sodium (salt) is at least a contributing factor, and 77 percent of American salt intake comes from restaurant and processed foods. “Aim to get less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day; 1,500 milligrams if you already have high blood pressure, are older than 40 or are African-American,” says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, Ph.D., R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Look for canned goods with no more than 150 milligrams and with fewer than 400 milligrams per serving.

DO YOUR CARDIO “Aim to get at least 3 1∕2 hours a week of aerobic exercise, and add weight training two or three times a week to help keep your metabolism high,” suggests Tori Hudson, N.D., clinical professor of naturopathic medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Ore., and Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash.

TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN A 2010 study is the first to show what’s long been suspected: A positive attitude has tangible heart benefits. Among the 1,700-plus men and women who participated in a 10-year Columbia University study, those who demonstrated positive emotions had a 22 percent lower risk of heart disease. Unhappy patients’ risks were 22 percent higher. “Happiness should be behind every healthy change you make,” says internist Dean Ornish, M.D., founder and president of the nonprofit Preventative Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., and author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Ivy Books). “In our studies, we found that joy of living is a much more sustainable motivator [to make lifestyle changes] than fear of dying,” he explains. “When people make the comprehensive lifestyle changes I recommend, genes that prevent heart disease are ‘turned on,’ and those that promote it are ‘turned off.’ Our genes are a predisposition, but they are not our fate.”