The conventional medical approach to preventing heart disease is misguided, at best, and harmful, at worst. Let's look at blood pressure.
Blood pressure is the force of circulating blood against the inner walls of your blood vessels. The amount of pressure is determined by how much blood your heart pumps, how forcefully your heart is pumping and the amount of resistance to blood flow in your arteries. Hypertension is persistently high pressure in the arteries. Hypertension is often referred to as a "silent killer" because typically there are no symptoms. It doesn't hurt. Over time, high blood pressure can damage your eyes, lungs, heart and kidneys. Conventional medicine would have us believe that by lowering high blood pressure with medications you are treating one of the causes of heart disease. But, what we need to ask is what caused the high blood pressure to develop in the first place.
And our genes don't tell the whole story. Rather, it's our environment working on our genes that determines our risk of heart disease. The way you eat, how much you exercise, how you handle stress, the effects of environmental toxins – those are the underlying causes of high blood pressure. Hypertension is the epitome of the term "lifestyle disorder." This is backed up by the fact that hypertension is virtually non-existent in traditional cultures. It is a function of our modern diet and lifestyle. That's optimistic news because it means lifestyle changes prevent hypertension. And lifestyle changes are completely within your power to change.
Research clearly shows that changing how we live is a much more powerful intervention for preventing heart disease than any medication. For example, the "EPIC" study, involving 23,000 participants, showed that changing four simple behaviours – not smoking, exercising 3.5 hours per week, eating a healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and limited amounts of meat, and maintaining a healthy weight – prevented 93 per cent of diabetes cases, 81 per cent of heart attacks, 50 per cent of strokes, and 36 per cent of all cancers.
The INTERHEART study followed 30,000 people and found that lifestyle changes could prevent at least 90 per cent of all heart disease.
Lifestyle changes not only reduce risk factors like high blood pressure, they influence the fundamental causes and biological mechanisms leading to disease: changes in gene expression, which modulate inflammation, oxidative stress and metabolic dysfunction – the real reasons why we get sick. Disregarding the underlying causes of heart disease and treating only a risk factor like hypertension with medication is like mopping up the floor around an overflowing sink instead of turning off the faucet. And that's why medications have to be taken for a lifetime.
Step #1: Eat a Whole Foods Diet
- Use lean animal protein like fish, turkey, chicken, lean cuts of lamb, grass-fed beef and vegetable proteins like nuts and beans
- Combine protein, fat and carbohydrates in every meal. This will help avoid sudden increases in your blood sugar. Avoid white flour and sugar for the same reason.
- Eat at least 50 grams of fibre per day. Consider including two to four tbsp of ground flaxseeds each day.
- Increase omega-3 fatty acids by eating cold-water wild salmon, sardines, herring, flaxseeds and seaweed.
- Avoid preservatives (i.e.sodium benzoate, sodium nitrites).
- Eliminate hydrogenated fat, which is found in margarine, shortening and processed oils, as well as in many baked goods. Use healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed sesame, avocado and coconut oil.
- Eat at least eight to 10 servings of colourful vegetables and fruits each day, which include beneficial phytonutrients, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules.
- About 20 per cent of people are salt-sensitive, meaning salt can raise your blood pressure. Switch to Celtic sea salt or Himalayan pink salt instead of table salt.
- Elimination of wheat (white and whole grain breads, pasta, breakfast cereals, bagels, muffins, pretzels, crackers, pancakes, waffles) and cornstarch (cornmeal, tacos, tortillas, wraps, chips, breakfast cereals, gravies). In my clinic I have seen blood pressure reductions of 20 – 40 mm Hg implementing this dietary change alone. Consider trying a four-week long "experiment" to find out if this step may be beneficial for you.
Step #2: Lifestyle Changes and Exercise
- Exercise is a necessity, not a luxury, in preventing almost all chronic disease. Exercise strengthens the heart so it pumps more efficiently and with less force, it increases nitric oxide, a naturally occurring substance that widens the arteries and it reduces inflammation.
- Consider interval training for its cardiovascular benefits and strength training to build muscle and reduce body fat composition. Anything that increases your respiration and heart rate counts, however, from raking leaves to going up and down stairs. Regular exercise can lower your blood pressure by 5 – 10 mm Hg.
- • Stress is often the trigger that leads to a cascade of events leading to a heart attack. It creates inflammation, raises blood pressure and makes your blood more likely to clot. Finding ways to manage stress and relax is essential for lowering blood pressure and preventing heart disease.
- • Consider regular relaxation exercises such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, breathing – whatever you find works best for you in terms of invoking that relaxation response.
- Quit smoking. Smoking raises your blood pressure approximately 5 – 10 mm Hg every time you light up.
- Get enough sleep. One study showed a correlation between hypertension and people who sleep less than eight hours each night.
Step #3: Supplement initially to help return your body to a state of balance.
- • Have your vitamin D 25-hydroxy levels checked and dose accordingly. People who are deficient in vitamin D are much more likely to have high blood pressure.
- Coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant, has been shown to reduce systolic blood pressure by 16 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by 8 mm Hg.
- Magnesium has been shown to reduce blood pressure, especially in people who have a magnesium deficiency, in those with heart disease and in patients with diabetes.
- Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil relax the arteries and reduce inflammation .
- Resveratrol, Acety-l-carnitine, French maritime bark extract and melatonin are other well researched natural options to consider. Consult your naturopathic doctor to find out which supplements are right for you, at what dosages.
You essentially have two choices: live with positive habits or resign yourself to taking medication as you grow older. Ultimately, all lifestyle options are a matter of personal choice. Moving in the right direction doesn't need to be drastic if you start now. If you are willing to make the changes in diet and lifestyle, along with possibly taking a few supplements while you create those new positive habits, your health and your blood pressure numbers may change dramatically… and so will your life.
Candice Esposito is a licensed naturopathic doctor with a private practice, Wellness Blueprint Health Centre, in Saskatchewan.