Did you know you may be 'eating healthy foods' but not actually have a heart-healthy diet? For example, you may start eating differently to lose weight, but the type of food you are eating does not necessarily promote your heart health. With this post, we start a series of articles looking at how to eat a heart-healthy diet and what heart-healthy foods to take. But first - Why is a heart-healthy diet important?
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Why Is A Heart-Healthy Diet Important?
It's easy to forget about your heart when everything feels ok.
But, unfortunately, so many of us in our twenties, thirties or forties hardly give it a second thought unless we are born with a heart condition or develop specific problems like palpitations or chest pain.
However, this is the stage that paying attention to your heart, even if it's simply an awareness of how it works - or as you would do to your hair, face, or nails will be a fantastic investment to avoid future illness.
Heart disease slowly develops, and these days, we are increasingly suffering more forms of illness related to heart conditions.
Why Women Should Pay Early Attention to Their Heart
Women, in particular, are at significant risk of heart disease even though traditionally, we find heart disease earlier and more frequently in men.
One of the reasons for this is because heart disease symptoms in women are often ignored or attributed to something else, so the problem worsens, and women fail to seek help till it is pretty late or complicated.
Another reason is the Oestrogen effect.
As a woman gets into her forties, she is also approaching the transition phase to menopause. Menopause is the natural process of ageing. The ovaries stop making hormones, and your periods stop.
In fact, by 40, many women are already perimenopausal - that means the transition has slowly started though you may not experience too many symptoms at this early stage.
Before you start menopause, your body makes a lot of the hormone, Oestrogen. Oestrogen, in particular, helps protect women, reducing your risk of heart attacks.
But after menopause, the oestrogen levels fall, removing that protection.
The lower Oestrogen levels mean that by the time you are 60 or 65 years, you may have the same risk as a man of the same age to getting heart disease.
However, if you could keep your heart healthy well before your body starts to experience the loss of Oestrogen, you could ensure that you are less at risk for heart problems.
Common Heart Conditions
Maintaining a healthy heart means you are less likely to develop conditions like:
- High Blood Pressure - when the force that pushes blood in and out of the heart is high, we call this hypertension or high blood pressure. High blood pressure may be something you inherit.
- In fact this is the most common way for people to develop the condition. However, problems like Diabetes, Kidney disease and high Cholesterol can lead to high blood pressure.
- Angina and Heart Attacks - Angina is the name we use when you suddenly develop chest pain because of strain to the heart muscle from lack of oxygen.
- Most often it happens because of disease in the coronary arteries. These are the arteries that supply the heart itself.
- The pain is often described as a tightness or discomfort in the center of the chest. It can happen when you are active - like taking a walk or climbing stairs. And it can come on very suddenly - getting better after you stop the activity/rest.
- In some cases, it can begin when you are at rest, which suggests a more serious disease of the heart.
- Angina and Heart Attacks are conditions caused by ischaemia. Ischaemia means a lack of oxygen to tissue. This is what happens when the arteries are not working properly (eg from a blockage). Blood cannot get to the tissue/muscle and as a result, neither can oxygen.
- In angina, the ischaemia is reversible, that is, the pain may last a few minutes, then get better.
- A heart attack (myocardial infarction) is a more serious ischaemic event than angina. The affected coronary artery does not allow oxygen to get to an area of heart muscle causing an irreversible damage to the tissue. Symptoms of a heart attack can be more severe than angina.
- The process of a heart attack can develop quite suddenly or over days or weeks before it actually happens.
- People describe symptoms such as:
- crushing pain in the middle of the chest,
- a feeling of indigestion or heartburn,
- difficulty breathing,
- feeling anxious,
- a feeling of nausea or vomiting.
- Women may have different heart attack symptoms to men.
- Cardiac Arrest - In a sudden cardiac arrest, the heart suddenly stops without warning. It develops because of a breakdown in the electrical function of the heart. This causes an abnormal heart rhythm and it suddenly stops pumping.
- With no blood flowing out to the vital organs from the heart, a person quickly becomes unconscious. There is no pulse and without treatment (using CPR and/or a defibrillator), a person could die from a sudden cardiac arrest.
- It is different from a heart attack, but a heart attack can lead to a cardiac arrest.
- Heart Failure - Heart failure happens when the heart can no longer pump properly. This can result from disease of the heart muscles and valves.
- Symptoms can include:
- feeling short of breath/ struggling to catch a breath with very little activity - or when you are watching telly /lying down
- puffy feet or ankles - you notice swelling to your legs that seems to be progressing up from your feet up the legs
- a cough in which you may bring up sputum that looks frothy or bubbly, whitish or pink (if there is blood mixed with it)
- Fatigue (tiredness) that is not consistent with the degree of activity or exertion is also a common feature. Many women may ignore symptoms like tiredness, or put them down to other causes like anaemia, work, or looking after relatives
- Symptoms can include:
- Arrhythmia or Irregular Heart Rhythm - the heart receives electrical signals which make it pump (contract and relax) pushing blood in and out of its chambers. This follows a regular rhythmn driven by the brain and hormones.
- If the heart rhythmn becomes irregular, also known as arrythmia, it can affect how well the heart pumps.
- Symptms can include fainting episodes, dizziness, palpitations, tiredness and others.
- (Watch this video for signs of illness you should not ignore).
All of these conditions affecting heart health can reduce your quality of life, meaning frequent trips to the hospital with the associated costs.
They can also reduce the number of years you live with the impact of all this on you and your family.
How To Invest for a Healthy Heart
So this is why you should keep your heart healthy - but next, how can you do so?
Fortunately, you don't have to do many BIG things!
The heart is a muscular organ with small and big tubes coming in and out of it carrying blood.
It needs to pump properly, and its tubes need to be free of any blockages to keep you alive. In addition, the average human heart pumps around 9,000 litres of blood around the body every day. That is a lot of work.
To pump correctly, your heart needs lean, non-fatty muscle that responds to instructions from the brain and other hormones.
A fatty heart or one with diseased muscle can't respond to these messages. In addition, if the blood vessels get too thick inside or blocked by fat, the heart's function is also affected.
Just like other muscles in our bodies, what we eat and how we move affects the health of the muscle.
What Is a Heart Healthy Diet?
Thus, your diet and activity are the two principal ways under your control to keep your heart healthy.
Another way is by avoiding stress.
These are three main things we can influence to some extent to promote heart health.
Our focus for this series is a healthy heart diet.
The goals of a heart-healthy diet are to eat foods that help promote the best way for your heart to work.
All of that essentially translates to getting or maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol and blood pressure.
Next time, our focus is what type of eating plan or foods make up a heart-healthy diet?
Drop a line in the comments below what type of foods you feel are good for promoting heart health.
If you wish to discuss this topic with us - contact us here for a one to one chat.
Editing by AskAwayHealth Team
All AskAwayHealth articles are written by practising Medical Practitioners on a wide range of health care conditions to provide evidence-based guidance and to help promote quality health care. The advice in our material is not meant to replace the management of your specific condition by a qualified health care practitioner.
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