Halting Heart Disease
How to keep your heart healthy with diet, supplements, and relaxation

Although we hear so much about cancer, heart disease is actually the number-one cause of death in the United States. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease accounts for at least 40 percent of deaths among U.S. men and women. Risk factors include high cholesterol, atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries), high blood pressure, diabetes, sedentary lifestyle, elevated homocysteine (from folic acid deficiency), and obesity. But those risks can be minimized with commonsense lifestyle changes.

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Antioxidants can help prevent strokes and heart disease. To bolster your diet, seek out these antioxidant-rich foods: dried plums, apricots, apples, broccoli, tomatoes, purple grapes (in juice and red wine), cantaloupe, onions, and green tea. Cholesterol is an essential part of nearly every cell in the body. Yet when it is either produced to excess internally or accompanied by inadequate consumption of antioxidants, cholesterol can cause inflammation of the arteries. Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) are probably the worst type of cholesterol, responsible for causing atherosclerosis. The amount of LDL in your bloodstream is directly related to the amount of saturated fat, trans fatty acids, and total cholesterol in your diet. Conversely, high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) may actually help prevent atherosclerosis by flushing LDLs from the body.

To avoid the bad LDLs and get more HDLs in your diet, you want to eliminate trans fats, one of the dietary "evils" that raise LDL levels in the bloodstream, from your diet. Trans fats are found in most margarines, vegetable shortenings, many baked goods, fried foods, and some meat and dairy products. Avoid these foods and read labels to see whether or not the products contain saturated fats or trans fatty acids.

Conversely, omega-3 fatty acids from fish, and to a lesser degree flaxseed, nuts, and seeds, are beneficial for cardiovascular health. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet can help decrease serum triglycerides, which are linked to coronary heart disease. Other foods shown to protect cardiovascular health include dried plums (prunes), apples, oats, garlic, soy protein (25 grams per day), green tea, wine, olive oil, and whole grains.

Several nutritional supplements may help prevent or even reverse heart disease. Garlic, guggul, artichoke-leaf extract, licorice-root extract, hawthorn, and green tea, for example, may lower cholesterol. Additionally, magnesium, carnitine, coenzyme Q10, thiamine, folic acid, and arginine can all benefit heart health.

Not to be forgotten in terms of heart-disease prevention is simple relaxation. Acute and chronic stress increase levels of blood cholesterol and are associated with coronary events. Therefore, meditation, yoga, laughing, moderate exercise, and relaxation therapy are all beneficial to your health. So be sure to take time every day to nurture your whole self.

James Rouse, ND, is the creator of Optimum Wellness and The Fit Kitchen, seen weekly on NBC's KUSA television news.