Be Heart Smart - Preventing Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke


Published in:  The Times Colonist - February 2012
Written by:  Dr. Marita Schauch BSc. ND

Heart Disease and Stroke are two of the three leading causes of death in Canada. In 2008 (the latest year available from Statistics Canada), cardiovascular disease accounted for 29% of all deaths in Canada - more than 69,500 people. Heart disease and stroke come with a hefty price tag as well, both cost the Canadian economy more than $20.9 billion every year in physician services, hospital costs, lost wages and decreased productivity.

Cardiovascular disease is defined as a disease and injury of the cardiovascular system: the heart, the blood vessels of the heart, and the system of blood vessels (veins and arteries) throughout the body and within the brain.

Stroke is the result of a blood flow problem in the brain.

There are many factors that increase your risk for cardiovascular disease. Some risks are based on family history (genetics) but others are more controllable and preventable.


These risk factors include:

• Family history of cardiovascular disease (especially before age 50)

• Tobacco smoking – will increase risk 3-5 times

• Excessive alcohol intake

• High blood pressure

• Diabetes

• Poor cholesterol ratio - high LDL (“bad” cholesterol), low HDL (“good” cholesterol), and high tryglycerides

• Lack of physical activity or exercise

• Obesity

• Higher-than-normal markers of inflammation such as hsCRP (highly sensitive C reactive protein).

• High blood homocysteine levels

• Heavy metal toxicity – especially cadmium, lead and mercury

• Menopause – low estrogen and progesterone

• Low dietary fibre


The following healthy eating and lifestyle tips will help support a strong heart and reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease:


1) Avoid BAD Fats!

Saturated fats are found in animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, cream, and fatty meats such as pork, beef, veal and lamb. Trans-fatty acids are found in fried foods, commercial baked goods (donuts, cookies, crackers), processed foods, and margarines. Trans/hydrogenated and saturated fats will raise total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while lowering HDL (good) cholesterol levels. These fats will also significantly increase inflammation in the body. Too much inflammation will trigger the liver to produce excess cholesterol which eventually leads to clogged and hardened arteries (atherosclerosis). Add more grains, vegetables and fruit to your diet to help minimize inflammation.


2) Increase Fiber

Eat more fiber from fruits, vegetables, and grains such as flaxseeds, psyllium, hemp hearts, legumes and oat bran which bind cholesterol to help eliminate it through the bowels.


3) Eat LOTS of Garlic

Garlic is a natural blood thinner and if taken over time, will lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Yes, none of us like the smell of garlic, especially around Valentines Day, but knowing the positive effects on your heart, it may just be worthwhile…


4) Exercise

The easiest form is WALKING. Even if it is 30 minutes 3-5 times per week. Once you have increased your endurance; pick up the pace or add a few hills or free weights.


5) Keep Tabs on your Blood Pressure!

Do BP checks at least every few months if you have had high blood pressure in the past or once every 6-8 months if your blood pressure is normal.


6) Stress Management

This is KEY. You might be getting tired of hearing it, but it’s true; you can drastically decrease your risk for a heart attack by taking time out of your day to relax with yoga, meditation, massage or exercise. Lowering stress lowers inflammation!


To go the extra mile on keeping your heart fit, here are some essential nutritional supplements that will help:


• Fish oils

Ever wonder why you were told those are good for you? Omega-3 fatty acids – with EPA and DHA – are needed for the structure and function of every cell in your body! They fight inflammation; help to maintain healthy skin; improve cardiovascular health and support brain and nervous system health (Barter, P. Am J Cardiol. 2008).


• Plant sterols

Sterols interfere with the absorption of cholesterol which is why they prove to be so beneficial in reducing high cholesterol. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the consumption of 1.3 grams of plant sterols daily to promote healthy cholesterol levels.


• Niacin

Niacin has been a well-researched and established therapy in cardiovascular disease due to its cholesterol lowering abilities. Inositol hexanicotinate is the form of niacin that is well tolerated and does not cause the “flushing” commonly associated with high doses of niacin (Illingworth, D.R. et al. Arch Intern Med 154. 1994).


• Hawthorn

Research has shown that this herb can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, promote circulation, and strengthen the heart muscle (Ammon, H.P.T and M. Handel. Planta Med. 1981).


• Coenzyme Q10 – CoQ10

This antioxidant is abundant in heart muscle tissue and is vitally important for maintaining normal heart function and blood pressure. CoQ10 is also greatly depleted when on statin medication such as Lipitor and thus should be supplemented if on cholesterol lowering medication (Morisco C. Clin Investig 71.1993).


• Magnesium

This mineral is required for every heartbeat as it is involved in the contraction and relaxation of the heart muscle which in turn pumps blood throughout the body. Supplementation can significantly lower blood pressure and support healthy heart function.


• Vitamins C and E

These antioxidants help protect the body from unstable molecules (free radicals) that eventually degenerate our cells. They reduce the formation of bad cholesterol and the hardening of the arteries, thus preventing heart disease.


• Vitamin K2

This vitamin is quickly gaining recognition for the treatment of cardiovascular disease as it can slow the progression or arterial calcification (Jancin B. Fam Pract News 2002).

Never discontinue medications without the guidance of a licensed health care practitioner.


February is Heart Month, so get Proactive about protecting your heart and reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke!



Women's HealthDoctor Marita