Q: I have an acquaintance, a woman who was only 42, die suddenly of a heart attack recently. It's really scared me and has made me worried about my own heart health. Is there anything you would recommend to protect the heart and prevent heart attacks, particularly for women?
A: Women age 50 and younger are twice as likely to die of heart attacks then men. Part of the problem is that diagnosing heart attacks in women is more difficult and less clear cut than the heart attack symptoms men typically experience. One reason women are more likely to die from a first heart attack is that women often attribute pain from a heart attack to non-cardiac causes. Men will usually have textbook crushing pain in the chest during a heart attack, while women can have a variety of symptoms: pain just under the breastbone, or abdominal pain, indigestion, difficulty breathing, nausea and unexplained fatigue.
The main risk factors for heart disease and heart attacks are high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight and not being physically active. Almost everyone can reduce or eliminate those risks with diet and lifestyle changes. Certain supplements can also be very helpful in reducing the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. There are a number of effective supplements which work well in lowering cholesterol, and red yeast rice is one of the most popular. Red yeast rice works in the body similarly to a statin, but without the many debilitating side effects that statins have. I know of a number of regulars at Pass Health Foods who have taken it with good results, particularly the Nature’s Plus brand of Red Yeast Rice, since it’s an extended release formula.
Fish oil is also helpful for the heart in a number of ways. It can help to encourage a regular, stable heartbeat. It also helps to promote elasticity in the artery walls and can lower cholesterol levels, especially triglycerides. When shopping for a fish oil supplement, it’s important to note that not all fish oil supplements are equal. Be sure to look for products that say they have been tested for mercury and lead or that have been molecularly distilled to ensure they are free of heavy metals and other contaminants. Another crucial thing with fish oil is to find a product with the highest amount of EPA and DHA, the beneficial parts of omega 3 fatty acids per pill; it will list it on the “supplement facts” portion of the label. The best I’ve found that has the highest amount of EPA/DHA per pill is a company called Solgar with their Omega 950. Its potency is comparable with prescription fish oil.
For high blood pressure, an easy thing to do to help lower it is drinking hibiscus tea. One study compared drinking 16 oz of hibiscus tea in the morning to taking a popular hypertensive drug. After four weeks the results were statistically similar, reducing diastolic blood pressure (the lower blood pressure number) by 10 points. Another study found that drinking 3 cups of hibiscus tea lowered the systolic blood pressure (the top number in the blood pressure reading) by an average of 7 points. Hibiscus tea is delicious, particularly Republic of Tea’s flavored hibiscus teas, and it’s also caffeine free and full of antioxidants.
CoQ10 is another supplement that’s great for protecting the heart. CoQ10 works in the mitochondria of our cells, which are literally the cells powerhouses. CoQ10 helps give the cells the energy they need to run. Without sufficient CoQ10 cells can literally starve for energy, weaken and die. This is especially notable since the heart has the most mitochondria per cell, and therefore needs the most CoQ10. The body produces its own CoQ10, but those amounts decrease as we age. Certain drugs, especially cholesterol medications like statins, further impede the production of CoQ10, so if you take cholesterol-lowering medication it’s especially important to supplement with CoQ10.
Another benefit from CoQ10 is that it helps to prevent LDL, or bad cholesterol, from oxidizing. There is quite a bit of new research suggesting it isn’t total cholesterol that is necessarily the problem, but rather the amount of oxidized cholesterol. Cholesterol that oxidizes becomes sticky and is the type of cholesterol that sticks to the arteries and begins to form plaque, which reduces the diameter of arteries and makes it easier for clots
to get stuck and cause a heart attack or stroke.
There are a lot of other supplements I could mention, but for space I’ll just mention one more of my favorites- vitamin K2. Vitamin K is best known for its work in helping to ensure proper blood clotting; it also has another lesser known benefit. Research has found that vitamin K, especially in the K2 form, works almost like how a police offer would direct traffic, telling calcium in the body to go into the bones and to stay out of the arteries, preventing calcification of the arteries. Studies have shown that higher levels of vitamin K2 in the body correspond to lower rates of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.