Have a Healthy Change
of Heart

by Cathy Laws

Get straight to the heart of heart health with herbs, supplements and a positive lifestyle.

When Bruce Springsteen sings, "Everybody's got a hungry heart," you know he's not warbling about the five basic food groups. But everybody does have a heart hungry for nutrition that will keep it healthy and functioning for a lifetime. The right foods and herbs, used in conjunction with a program of exercise, no smoking and stress-reduction techniques, can even reverse certain forms of heart disease.

"Let your foods be your medicines and your medicines be your foods," recommended Paracelsus, a pioneering alchemist of the sixteenth century. Paracelsus's dictum is a good one, as long as you don't carry it too far. Self-treatment for heart disease with herbs and foods is never a good idea. Use the following foods and herbs in conjunction with, not instead of, your health care provider's advice and treatment.

Color it Healthy
The American Heart Association recommends five or more servings a day of fruits and vegetables, many of which are full of naturally occurring, plant-based compounds called phytonutrients that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Most phytonutrients act as antioxidants, scavenging free radicals — highly reactive molecules that can damage DNA and contribute to clogged arteries. Often, phytonutrients give plants their distinctive color or flavor.

"A general rule," says Lise Alschuler, N.D., "is to eat four to five different colors of fruits and vegetables daily. The colors signify different types of compounds, such as orange for beta-carotene and dark, leafy greens for minerals." Alschuler, medical director of the Bastyr University Clinic in Kenmore, Wash., says variations of the same color count: Eating Brussels sprouts (light green) provides you with a good source of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber, while broccoli (dark green heads) yields blood pressure-lowering potassium. In addition, a cup of fresh-cooked broccoli provides twice the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C, one of the most important vitamins for heart health.

Another vegetable your heart will love is that gourmet's delight, asparagus. With no fat, cholesterol or sodium to speak of, as well as modest amounts of cholesterol-lowering fiber, asparagus earns its place on heart-healthy menus. Beets, a great source of folic acid, also earn high marks for contributing to heart health. Recent research has shown that as little as 400 micrograms of folic acid a day may substantially reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and strokes.

Fiber For a Fit Heart
Soluble fiber (found in oat bran, beans, fruits and vegetables) lowers cholesterol. According to Michael T. Murray, N.D., the higher the intake of soluble fiber, the greater the reduction in serum cholesterol. In his book, Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure (Prima), Murray writes that the great majority of scientific studies performed have demonstrated that people with high cholesterol levels will experience significant reductions if they eat oatmeal or oat bran often. Conversely, people with normal or low cholesterol levels will see little change. "I often instruct my patients with high cholesterol, diabetes or obesity to try to achieve a daily intake of 35 grams of fiber," advises Murray, suggesting a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and cereals.

The Soy Solution
Soy, proclaimed "nature's wonder food" by many dietitians and health professionals — and recently endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration — can help your heart, too. James Anderson, M.D., of the Metabolic Research Group at the Veterans Administration Medical Center and the University of Kentucky in Lexington conducted a 1995 meta-analysis (study of many other studies) and concluded that eating soy protein instead of animal proteins led to an average 9.3 percent decline in total cholesterol. And, on soy diets, HDL (good) cholesterol levels increased 2.4 percent. While not considered statistically significant, it is highly unusual because in most cholesterol-lowering programs HDLs go down along with total cholesterol.

The Anderson meta-analysis data show that adding as little as 25 grams of soy protein to your diet each day can reduce your total cholesterol level by an average of 8.9 mg/dL. Replace as many animal proteins in your diet as you can with soy foods. Use soy milk on your breakfast cereal, have a tofu burger at lunch, or toss some cooked soybeans on your dinner salad.

Good Fat vs. Bad Fat
Even though most people think of fats as foods to be avoided or reduced, some fats are the good guys in heart health. These "essential fatty acids," so called because they are necessary in the diet, must be obtained from foods, since our bodies cannot produce them independently and yet cannot do without them.

According to Murray, cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and halibut are good sources of the longer chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids have been shown in many studies to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Murray recommends relying on cold-water fish and one daily tablespoon of flaxseed oil for the omega-3 oils rather than fish oil capsules, since it has been shown that commercially available fish oils can greatly stress antioxidant defense mechanisms. Flaxseed oil contains alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 oil that the body can convert to EPA.

Cooking with natural polyunsaturated oils, such as canola, safflower and flaxseed, can help you meet your fatty acid requirements. Avoid hydrogenated vegetable oils found in margarine and shortening.

Supplements For Your Heart
No matter how great your eating habits are, it can be difficult to get enough heart-healthy nutrients such as folic acid, magnesium and potassium from your foods each day. For that reason, Alschuler recommends a general high-quality multivitamin that is naturally sourced. In addition, Alschuler recommends vitamins C and E as daily heart-disease preventive supplements.

Murray concurs that taking extra vitamin C (500 mg to 1,500 mg) and vitamin E (400 IU to 800 IU) daily are very important for heart health. Vitamins C and E are antioxidant nutrients protective against free-radical damage, a leading cause of heart disease.

Heart-y Herbs
"You can't beat garlic" as a heart-healthy herb, says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. "Garlic is a food — it's safe, ubiquitous and inexpensive. There has been a great deal of modern scientific research on its benefits to cardiovascular health. It has a mildly hypotensive effect (lowering the blood pressure), lowers LDL cholesterol, lowers triglycerides and raises HDL cholesterol," says Blumenthal, who is also senior editor of the Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines (Integrative Medicine Communications).

To get the most benefit from garlic (Allium sativum), eat it raw — cooking lessens its heart-healthy properties. Cut up cloves and toss into salad dressings or sprinkle on entrees. Although the component in garlic that is responsible for its odor, allicin, is also most responsible for the herb's benefits to the heart, supplements are available that still provide sufficient allicin but don't cause the body to smell like garlic. The German Commission E, which has done extensive testing on herbal medicines, recommends the equivalent of 4,000 mg of fresh garlic (roughly one to four cloves) daily .

Teas, tinctures and capsules made from hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha) help to dilate the coronary vessels, thereby improving the blood and oxygen supply to the heart. In The Family Herbal (Robert Heard Publications), authors Barbara and Peter Theiss recommend blending 8 parts hawthorn leaves and blossoms, 4 parts St. John's wort, 4 parts balm leaves, 2 parts motherwort and two parts mistletoe to make a soothing "heart tea" to ease stress and strain on the heart.

Several herbs have positive effects
on the heart and circulatory system. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), improves blood flow throughout the body, particularly
to the brain. "It helps peripheral circulation by vasodilating the arteries," explains Blumenthal.

Ginseng (Panax ginseng), the most famous medicinal plant of China, "is very protective to the heart against free-radical damage," says Alschuler. Gum guggul, the standardized extract of India's mukul myrrh tree (Commiphora mukul), helps to lower cholesterol.

The most important point to remember when you're considering foods, herbs and supplements to enhance your heart health is that as good as they are, they can't do the job alone. "The bottom line," cautions Alschuler, "is if you have uncontrolled stress and you are sedentary, the diet and herbs won't work well." But the right foods and herbal supplements, used in conjunction with exercise, adequate sleep, stress reduction, and, of course, no smoking, can increase your heart's health — naturally.

Cathy Laws is a freelance writer and editor based in Salisbury, Md.