Things That Add up to Heart Disease

If you look at heart disease by itself, there is only one main cause that scientists have begun to agree upon, which is inflammation. Underlying inflammation is the main reason that cholesterol builds up in the body, and why fatty plaques can form that shrink the openings inside arteries. If we knew how to reduce and reverse the results of inflammation – then heart disease counts would drop dramatically.

Things that Add up to Heart Disease

There are many other contributing parts of the heart disease equation.  Scientists know that there are other conditions and lifestyle habits that contribute greatly to heart disease. In particular, eating too many carbohydrates and sugars, high blood pressure, excess weight, lack of exercise, stress, and poor sleeping habits all increase the likelihood of developing heart disease.

These ‘contributors’ to the heart disease equation are also known as risk factors. Risk factors are conditions in the human body that physicians and researchers know without a doubt make heart disease more likely to happen. If you remove the contributing risk factor, then you can decrease the threat of developing heart disease, sometimes dramatically.

Diet and Heart Disease Risk

We all know that eating too much sodium, too much fat, and too much sugar is probably bad for us – but you might not know just how bad these are for your heart and blood vessels. When you compare individuals who consume the standard American diet, which is high in sodium, saturated fats, and processed foods, compared to a diet that is low in saturated fats and rich in fruits and vegetables, there is a profound and stunning difference in new major cardiac events. In fact, there is whopping 73% reduction in new major cardiac events just when comparing diets alone.

According to the World Heart Federation, “Low fruit and vegetable intake accounts for about 20% of cardiovascular disease worldwide.” Interestingly, higher intakes of fruits and vegetables can decrease inflammation in the blood vessels, which is considered the primary cause of heart disease.

Increasing your fiber intake can help dramatically reduce cholesterol levels as well, which can help reduce fatty cholesterol deposits within arteries.

Blood pressure and Heart Disease Risk

When your blood pressure is high, many of your arteries and smaller blood vessels are contracted, tightened, constricted, in order to carry blood faster. If you think of your arteries as a garden hose, think of placing your thumb over the end of the hose to create a jet spray of water. Blood moves faster when you shrink the opening.  But this extra speed comes at a cost – your heart has to pump harder to overcome the resistance created by a smaller opening.

So why do your blood vessels constrict? The first reason is protective, when you are dehydrated, your fluid volume is lower.  Your arteries will constrict in order to keep blood flowing and returning at the proper rate.  When you sweat, water is leaving the bloodstream, and so your arteries will constrict to maintain blood flow.  Once you drink water and become rehydrated, your blood vessels will begin to relax.

When you consume too much salt, sometimes water will exit into tissues instead of staying in the bloodstream. As a result your blood vessels must tighten in order to keep blood moving at a constant rate. This is why too much sodium can cause high blood pressure.

When you have blood vessels that are constantly constricted, you put extra work on the heart, and you also increase the pressure stress on tiny arteries and blood vessels that supply blood to the eyes, the kidneys, and other smaller vessels.  Chronically high blood pressure damages these tiny vessels, which in turn can cause major problems with the function of these organs.

To reduce your blood pressure, and therefore your risk of heart disease, it’s important to stay hydrated, reduce your sodium intake, increase potassium intake, lose weight, and begin to exercise, or continue to exercise if you already do.

Weight Loss and Heart Disease Risk

When you are carrying excess belly weight, that extra abdominal fatty tissue is not just sitting there. It becomes like another organ, secreting hormones and inflammatory chemicals that contribute to how your body functions. These chemical messengers –called adipokines—secreted by fatty tissue increase the amount of inflammation in the body. And chronic inflammation is the underlying cause of heart disease.  Extra body fat also increases your blood pressure, which multiplies you risk of heart disease.

Physical Activity and Heart Disease Risk

When you exercise, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict to respond to the increased demand for blood. This allows your heart to become stronger, and pump blood more easily when you are at rest.

Getting about 20 minutes of moderate exercise 6 days per week can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by around 30%. Coronary heart disease occurs when the blood vessels giving blood to the heart muscle itself become clogged, and heart muscle dies or malfunctions as a result.

The University of Maryland Medical Center has research that shows people who are sedentary are 35% more likely to develop high blood pressure than people who are physically active. And high blood pressure contributes to stress on the heart, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood.

Stress and Heart Disease Risk

When you are stressed, your body releases cortisol and other stress hormones. Your blood pressure increases, and your body responds negatively to constant stress. High blood pressure makes you more likely to have a major cardiac event, and contributes to greatly to the development of heart disease.

Some of the best ways to reduce stress include deep breathing, meditation, laughing, exercise, getting enough sleep, and practicing positive psychology.  A study performed in black men investigating transcendental meditation and stress found that meditating for 20 minutes, twice daily significantly reduced the risk of dying, heart attack, and stroke in coronary heart disease patients. The mediation worked because it lowered blood pressure and psychosocial stress factors in these patients.

Sleeping Habits and Heart Disease Risk

Think of the last time you felt really rested, after a good night of sleep. Maybe it was last night, maybe it was last year.  Research shows that people who sleep between six and eight hours per night have a reduced risk of stroke compared to individuals who sleep more than 8 hours per day, underpinning the idea that too much of a good thing is not a good thing. But too little is not a good thing either, with a recent meta-analysis showing insomnia increases the risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease by a stunning 45%.

Practicing good sleep hygiene is important for a good night’s sleep, and so avoiding lighted screens an hour before bedtime, ensuring a cool, clean sleeping environment, and avoiding conflict prior to bed can help ensure a restful night. If you have sleep apnea, ensuring that you use the proper equipment and losing weight can help you wake up feeling refreshed and energized.