Healthy Q & A: Heart Health

Q: A close friend of mine recently had a heart attack; he is only in his mid fifties and in decent health (or so I thought).  It’s made me start to worry about my own heart, and I wanted to write to see what kinds of things you would recommend for heart health.

A: That would certainly be a wakeup call!  Unfortunately many people don’t think much about heart health until they’ve been diagnosed with a problem.  There are many supplements that can make a difference in keeping the heart and cardiovascular system healthy.  I would be remiss however, to recommend a supplement without first bringing up healthy lifestyle choices.  Most of the diseases and health problems people struggle with are a result of having a sedentary lifestyle and eating the wrong foods.  I don’t mean that to be an accusation, but just a comment on our society.  Many people have jobs where they have to sit behind a desk for eight or nine hours and then and eat take-out food every day.  With a job like that it can be difficult to find time to exercise because often people are so worn out by the time they get home that 30 minutes of exercise almost sounds like an impossibility.

Exercise however, can actually help with reducing stress and help with increasing energy levels. If you aren’t able to set aside a half hour block of time each day to exercise, you can still make small lifestyle changes that add up over time to a more active life.  Start parking your car farther away when you go to work or the store, or take the stairs rather than waiting for an elevator.  At night when watching television, use the three minute commercial break to do some stretches or keep a set of hand weights to exercise with next to the couch.  It has been shown in studies time and time again that regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and a host of other problems.

The first supplement I would recommend for heart health is Coenzyme Q10 (or CoQ10).  To explain how CoQ10 works we need to go down to the cellular level (the human body is an absolute miracle).  Each of our cells contain mitochondria, which work as a cell’s power center, giving cells energy to function.  CoQ10 works with the mitochondria to help them to function and give them energy.   Not surprisingly, the cells that have the most mitochondria in the body are heart cells, which is nature’s way of giving the heart the power necessary to drive the heart’s non-stop pumping.  Countless studies have shown CoQ10’s ability to help the heart to function better and prevent heart attacks.  There have also been studies documenting CoQ10’s ability to increase heart function in patients with congestive heart failure, as well as helping to prevent heart disease.  

Our body naturally produces CoQ10, but the amount the body is able to make reduces significantly as we age.  Statin drugs like Lipitor have also been shown to decrease the amount of CoQ10 that is produced in the body, so if a person is on cholesterol medication it is even more crucial that they supplement with CoQ10.  It’s interesting to note that CoQ10 has been found to help offset the common side effects of statin drugs like muscle pain and weakness.  

Another great but little known supplement for heart health is nattokinaise.  Nattokinaise is a common supplement in Japan which has been found to have the amazing ability to help break up blood clots.  Blood clots are associated with both heart attack and stroke, so nattokinaise can be extremely helpful in preventing both problems.  Blood clots form when strands of protein called fibrin accumulate in a blood vessel.   In a heart attack, the blood flow to the heart is cut off, stopping its oxygen supply.  If blood and oxygen are unable to reach a certain tissue in the body that tissue will eventually die.  Strokes happen in a similar way, where a clot blocks blood flow to the brain, often causing permanent damage.  Nattokinaise is so important because it helps to break down the fibrin in the blood that causes those damaging clots.

Finally, the last supplement I wanted to mention is vitamin K2.  Vitamin K is most well known for helping to ensure proper blood clotting.  When you cut your finger, the reason you don’t bleed to death is vitamin K.  Recent studies have found some very interesting things about a specific form of vitamin K known as K2.   The researchers found that vitamin K2 is able to work in the body to direct calcium to work in the proper places.  Calcium is a wonderful thing when it is deposited in the bones.  It’s not at all good however, when it’s deposited in the arteries, causing arterial calcification and hardening of the arteries.  Vitamin K2 is beneficial for both bone health and the health of the arteries which direct blood to and from the heart, keeping bones strong by making sure they have the calcium they need, and keeping arteries flexible by reducing arterial calcification.  Noted cardiologist Dr. Sinatra regularly prescribes vitamin K2 to his heart patients with wonderful results.  The one reason not to take vitamin K is if you are taking prescription blood thinners like Coumadin.

Heart health really encompasses so much, and I’ve only listed a few of my favorite supplements for a healthy heart- there are many, many more including fish oil, hawthorne, niacin, and others. The good news is there are many natural products that have a beneficial effect on the heart.  It’s much easier to prevent a problem than fix one that has already occurred.  Even if you’re a person who is genetically predisposed to heart problems, there are many steps you can take to prevent heart disease and heart attacks.  Your health truly is in your hands.  Good luck, and be well!