Health Heart 101
For millennia the heart was thought to be the seat of emotions — the source of love, of course, but also kindness and courage. To lose heart is to lose the fight, and perhaps even one’s life.
If you reach a certain age without developing cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, chances are you’ll never get them. At that point, barring an accident, you’re more likely to die from simple cardiac arrest, probably in your sleep. A painless death, but one that can be postponed with proper diet and exercise.
However, before we consider how we can make our hearts stronger, let’s first consider not only those at risk from common cases of cardiac arrest associated with aging, but also those who experience sudden cardiac arrest or heart attacks.
Like all other organs, the heart weakens with age. Sudden cardiac arrest, however, is most likely to occur in men (twice as likely as in women) in their mid-30s to mid-40s. A family history of heart complications also makes for a higher innate risk, as do health issues that directly or indirectly affect the heart.
For instance, high cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis (a hardening and narrowing of the arteries) and coronary heart disease. There is an additional risk of both cardiac arrest and atherosclerosis for diabetics, as diabetes increases the likelihood high cholesterol and blood pressure associated with obesity.
Other factors constitute an increased risk of heart complications. Smoking narrows blood vessels, making it an especially hazardous habit for diabetics. A poor diet can affect your heart indirectly, notably by increasing your chance of being overweight and of developing diabetes. Stress often causes high blood pressure, with a concomitant strain on the heart. Finally, just being sedentary means your heart will never grow stronger, which can become a problem as you get older.
How you can help yourself
Having a strong heart doesn’t just mean living longer; it also means aging better. A weak heart isn’t only less durable; it’s also less efficient at sending blood to your different organs, including the brain.
So how can you help your heart? Being aware of your innate risks of heart complications is beneficial, but only insomuch as it can further motivate you in addressing your increased risks of heart complications.
Start with one step at a time.
If you’re smoking, then quitting should be your first step, and it’s often the hardest to take. Different methods exist, though, and if one fails you, another may work. And if you can’t manage this alone, don’t hesitate to get help, be it from a professional, from friends, or from a dedicated community.
Exercising is next, because it helps in different ways. Directly, by making your heart stronger. Indirectly, by helping you keep a healthy weight, by reducing your chance of developing health issues that can affect the heart, and by taming stress. Chronic stress can also be addressed through meditation, yoga, or improving your sleep quality.
And yes, a healthful, balanced diet is another necessity. Regular exercise will help you keep a healthy weight and will reduce your chances of developing health issues that can affect the heart. Further, some specific foods do have the ability to support heart health.
3 foods for better heart health
Of the different foods that can help, three come on top: garlic, nitrate-rich vegetables, and chocolate. Yes, chocolate.
To be precise, what you want is 1 gram of cocoa polyphenols per day. That means about 30 grams of cocoa powder or 40 grams of dark chocolate with a 75 percent cocoa content. Neither milk chocolate nor white chocolate is a good source of polyphenols — sorry.
You could also eat 6.4–12.8 milligrams of nitrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day (about 2.9–5.8 mg/lb/day). Nitrates cannot be supplemented, but enough can be consumed through nitrate-rich vegetables, such as arugula (328 milligrams of nitrates per 100 grams), turnip greens (285 milligrams of nitrates per 100 grams), or Chinese cabbage (139 milligrams of nitrates per 100 grams). Another advantage of those three vegetables is that they’re not too high in oxalate.
And you could eat three to six cloves of garlic per day over two or more meals. If you do, you should first cut or crush them, to activate their bioactive compounds; you can then cook them or eat them raw.
Those three foods can increase your nitric oxide levels, separately and synergistically. Since arteries narrow when these levels are low, higher levels benefit the heart. Garlic can also lower blood pressure by enhancing hydrogen sulfide signaling, and it can inhibit atherosclerosis.
So you may need to stop smoking, start exercising, limit your intake of alcohol and junk food … Yes, you’ll need a strong heart to make your heart stronger! But when you start feeling the benefits, it does get easier. Because a stronger heart doesn’t just mean a better chance of living longer, it also means feeling more energetic and more alive at any age.