Managing Mental Wellness With a Chronic Illness

Nearly sixty percent of all Americans struggle with sometype of chronic illness, whether it’s hypertension, heart disease, diabetes or cancer, as reported by the CDC. It’s a sure bet that you or someone you know is currently managing a chronic illness; it’s more common than many of us realize, regardless of whether we’re struggling with the disease ourselves.

Unfortunately, chronic diseases are all too common. What’s worse, however, is that chronic conditions can also beget mental illness. In this blog, we’ll share the connection between chronic conditions and mental health, and provide some tips on optimizing mental wellness while navigating chronic illness.

The link between chronic disease and mental health

A chronic disease is an umbrella term which refers to illnesses that typically last a year or longer and require ongoing medical attention or treatment. Some chronic diseases come from negative lifestyle factors like smoking or excessive alcohol intake, while others are genetic or brought about by stress. Even more unfortunately, some chronic diseases are enigmatic—physicians don’t always know exactly what brought them on, often making prevention and treatment all the more difficult.

People say when it rains, it pours, and that’s often how it is for people living with chronic diseases. Homewood Health reports that people with chronic conditions often experience…

    • More incidences of depression, as people with chronic conditions are twice as likely to develop major depressive disorder
    • Higher levels of stress
    • Increased anxiety
    • Higher instances of mood disorders
    • Changes in self-esteem and body image

And more.

Part of the reason that chronic conditions can become so mentally debilitating is the difficulty of diagnosis for less understood diseases. Patients may experience their symptoms intensely, but those same symptoms don’t always show up on diagnostic tests. This leads many people on a long, frustrating journey of testing, seeing multiple doctors, getting every specialist’s take, and doing a LOT of self-advocating at the doctor’s office.

In addition, managing your health is hard. Whether you know exactly what your chronic illness is or not, it can be like walking on eggshells to ensure you’re eating right, getting enough exercise, sleeping well, staying mentally fit and doing everything you can to boost your health. When improvements aren’t rapid enough, it can feel defeating and further spike anxiety and stress.

Steps you can take to improve your mental well-being

Enough of the Debbie Downer energy, because there’s also good news here. There are plenty of things you can do to boost your mental health and ensure that your mental wellness isn’t majorly affected by any physical health issues. We’ve listed them out for you below:

1. Physical Movement

Exercise is one of the simplest ways to maintain your health and move stress out of your body. Not only does physical activity improve your physical health, but it also is a huge factor affecting your mental wellness. Working out—walking, mowing the lawn, heading to the gym, practicing yoga—signals to your mind and body that stressful events of the day are complete, and you are safe (i.e. your nervous system calms down and isn’t constantly signaling you to worry). Twenty minutes a day is a great start, but some movement is always better than none! You can check out five easy ways to add physical activity into your day here.

If your chronic illness prevents you from being able to exercise, then you can also try Progressive Muscle Relaxation to reap similar benefits. It is a simple process of consecutively tightening major muscle groups in your body and then relaxing them. Research has shown it can provide similar

2. Mindfulness & Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation are research-backed tactics to decrease stress and anxiety, manage mental health conditions, and improve physical health outcomes.

Adding mindfulness into your life means you become more curious about your thoughts. Instead of instantly believing automatic negative thoughts, you question them: Is that really true? Where is that coming from? Do I have to believe this? Becoming mindful is often described as becoming an observer of your inner world, which builds one’s ability to cope with stress, loss, and life transitions.

Meditation is taking time to be present in peace. For some, this is sitting in silence, for others, it’s going on a walk in nature. It can even be spinning clay on a pottery wheel or knitting. There are a myriad of ways people connect into a sense of peacefulness and calm; it’s all about finding what works best for you.

Some guided meditations even incorporate mindfulness; you can check out this 10-minute mindfulness meditation from Calm below.

Also, if you have insomnia or trouble falling asleep, how about trying Yoga Nidra at nighttime?  This video with a calming voice transitions my body into relaxation and sleep mode even after a stressful day.

3. Counseling

When it comes to mental health, getting support from licensed professionals is one of the best ways to go, especially when dealing with the stress and uncertainty of chronic illness. For some, traditional talk therapy is best. You can search for therapists in your area who specialize in chronic disease management or use sites like BetterHelp to access fully remote therapists.

Others prefer support groups with people struggling with similar health issues. Talk to your doctor about whether any support groups are available in your area; with the onset of COVID, plenty have gone fully remote, too. This article from the Mayo Clinic outlines more of the benefits of support groups.

 

4. Social Connections

Feeling supported by your loved ones is key to attaining mental wellness. Even if your friends and family do not struggle with the same chronic illness, many of them want to support you. Take some time to lean into those connections, whether you tell them about your health frustrations or simply spend more time with them. A supportive social network is one of the most important factors for decreasing stress and increasing overall wellness—start prioritizing your close relationships and allow those to be places of encouragement for you.

There are simple things you can add or increase in your schedule that can lead to better mental health and for some, improved physical health as well. Choose one or two from this list to bring into your week!

Sometimes even just knowing that there’s a connection between chronic conditions and mental health can feel validating for people struggling with illnesses; remember that you are not alone, and you can use these tips to facilitate your health journey.

Cardiovascular Disease is Not Just About the Heart

I listened to another great podcast on Dr. Mark Hyman’s Farmacy – Longevity Roadmap series.  He and his guests from The Ultrawellness Center where they focus on a functional medicine approach to treat patients, talk about drivers of heart disease and what we can do to prevent it.

Here are the highlights:

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is not just about the heart

You need to look at the whole vascular, endothelial and lymphatic system.

  • The endothelial layer is the cell layer that lines inside of our arteries and this needs to relax to allow blood to get to all the tissues in the body. If this does not relax, blood pressure will go up. It can take years of endothelial dysfunction before one can develop hypertension.
  • Oxidative stress and inflammation can damage the endothelium.
  • Visceral fat (weight around the belly) actually secretes IL6 and tumor necrosis factors which cause inflammation of the body. So when men gain weight around the belly, they also have a higher risk of erectile dysfunction.
  • Did you know that blueberries are rich in anthocyanins that contribute to the improvement of your endothelium? One cup of blueberries twice a day can drop systolic BP as much as blood pressure medication.

Insulin resistance is the enemy

  • Insulin takes the food we ingest and gets it into cells to use for energy.
  • However, the poor diet we eat forces our bodies to become insulin resistant which means more insulin is produced to get the energy into the cells. High levels of insulin cause you to gain weight around the belly and have been associated with heart disease, stroke, cancer and dementia.   
  • Everyone should get their fasting insulin measured – why isn’t this standard practice?
  • Fasting insulin of less than 12 is considered normal BUT ideal should be closer to 5! So if your insulin is between 7-12, you could be pre-diabetic. A high fasting insulin means you have insulin resistance. My levels vary between 5-9 so I check them regularly.

CVD is NOT about cholesterol

Rather, it’s about inflammation and how cholesterol responds.

  • Cholesterol is not water soluble so it must be carried by lipoproteins (HDL/LDL). 
  • LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to parts of the body where it’s needed.
  • HDL carries it from the periphery of the body back to the liver for disposal. Like giant dump trucks taking away the trash, HDL carries cholesterol away to dispose of it so it is considered “good cholesterol.”
  • Cholesterol has an affinity for inflammation. When the endothelial lining of the blood vessel wall gets inflamed, it creates an opening in the protective lining. When this happens, the immune system recognizes it as a foreign body and initiates an immune response – which makes the LDL flood to the inflamed area to cover it. This grows and turns into plaque which eventually prevents blood flow, leading to ischemic heart disease. That’s why cholesterol gets a bad rap even though it’s inflammation that’s causing it.
  • Standard American diet staples like refined carbohydrates, processed vegetable fats (corn, soy, sunflower) and sugar all cause inflammation. It’s no surprise why heart disease is the number one killer in the US.  
  • Statins for primary prevention have no role. Statins are poisonous to the mitochondria and can increase insulin resistance and diabetes. Statins should NOT be used for preventive heart disease. High cholesterol is NOT a statin deficiency!
  • Around 0.5% of the population have what’s called familial hypercholesterolemia which is a genetic trait where one cannot get rid of cholesterol easily. If you have total Cholesterol of over 300 with LDL levels higher than 190, you may want to get tested to see if you have this genetic variation. This group of patients would really benefit from a cholesterol controlling medication like statins.
  • Did you know that you can make your LDL get bigger and fluffier by removing sugar and processed foods from your diet? You should ask your provider for an NMR Lipid Profiles Test to determine the molecular structure of the lipoproteins (number and size). “Particle number” is a measure of how many LDLs you have and the size is how big/fluffy they are.  Small, dense LDLs penetrate into the endothelial layer and build plaque quickly. But if you have big LDL particles and fewer of them, you are at less risk. It’s covered by most insurance so ask your provider for the test.

What to take to optimize your cholesterol

  • Plant sterols (compounds found in plants) will bind to cholesterol in the intestines and remove them via the stool. It’s been shown that 2 grams of plant sterols can lower LDL cholesterol by 10%. So make sure to include legumes, nuts and seeds in your diet as these are rich in plant sterols.
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin) can have a positive impact on cholesterol – it can lower triglycerides and LDL and raise HDL. But work with your provider if trying niacin as it can cause very uncomfortable hot flushes.
  • Fish oil has been widely studied to lower LDL cholesterol, TG and raise HDL. The rule of thumb is that if you eat less than 1.5 servings of oily fish per week, supplement with ~1 gram of fish oil per day. If you’re mostly pescetarian, you may not need additional fish oil.  Not a fan of fish? Flaxseed (1-2 TBPS) and nuts (1 oz daily) can also impact cholesterol. To minimize the healthy oils going rancid, buy fresh flaxseed and raw nuts and keep them in the freezer and take out as needed.
  • If you’re taking statins, you should supplement with Co-Q10 as statins are known to inhibit Co-Q10. Co-Q10 is vital for body and mitochondrial function. Also, as we get older, our Co-Q10 levels drop so it may be a good idea to supplement.

Genes may load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger

  • Inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance, hormonal imbalance and toxins from bad diets, stress, nutritional deficiency, lack of exercise, etc. all lead to high cholesterol, high BP, high sugar levels and ultimately heart disease.
  • BUT, 90% of all diseases including CVD are caused by the sum total of all our life inputs into our body: diet, activity, stress, sleep, relationships, connections, meaning, purpose, toxins, microbes, allergens and more.  So the good news is that we have control over almost all of it.

Adopt these 4 behaviors to prevent heart disease

  • A multinational study of over half a million participants showed that four simple behaviors prevented 93% of diabetes, 81% of heart attacks, 50% of strokes and 36% of all cancers.  No medication can do that!
    • Stop smokingStick to a plant rich diet, low starch, nuts, seeds, with a moderate amount of quality fish and meatExercise – at least 150 minutes per week including resistance training
    • Maintain strong mental health with stress-relieving meditation and breathing techniques

Click here to listen to this podcast.

Hypertension – It’s Not Just About the Salt

Hypertension is one of the most prevalent medical conditions in the nation, affecting nearly half of all adults in the US. However, many people are unaware of the risks and complications associated with high blood pressure. Before delving into the lifestyle modifications that can reduce the risk of and manage the diagnosis of high blood pressure, let’s start off with the basic tenets of Hypertension Comprehension:

  1. Hypertension is characterized by a blood pressure of over 130 systolic and over 80 diastolic. (If you’re unaware of your blood pressure and fear you may be at risk of hypertension, see a doctor to obtain an accurate reading).
  2. High blood pressure puts you at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the US.
  3. African-Americans and males are at a higher risk of developing hypertension.
  4. High blood pressure does not come with any warning signs or symptoms, causing most unaffected individuals to be unaware of their condition.

It is generally well known that excess salt consumption can play a factor in elevating blood pressure levels. However, recent research has shown increased intake of sugars and carbs to play an equal, if not more significant, role in developing hypertension. A 2018 study published by the Journal of American Medical Association found an increased prevalence of hypertension in participants with a diet high in processed, fried, and sweetened foods. The REGARDS (Reasons for Geographical and Racial Differences in Stroke) study indicated an association between this finding and the high disparity of hypertension prevalence in African-Americans.

 

The hidden risks of processed foods

Processed foods, as defined by the USDA, are foods that have undergone a procedure, whether that be canning, freezing, or pasteurizing, that alters the whole food. Most processed foods are chocked full of additives, including preservatives, sugars, and salts, which frequently destroy the natural nutrients produced by the food. These time-saving meals are part of the diet for many households but their effects can be detrimental to our health. How does this happen?

  • Processed foods contain an unnatural ratio of salts, sugars, and carbs to healthy nutrients. The excess amount of sugar, salt, and carbs cannot be digested properly, causing many of the nutritious vitamins and minerals to dissipate and leaving only the influx of salt, sugar, and carbs to enter your blood stream.
  • Your body craves balance, a concept known as homeostasis, and the excess amounts of processed foods in your diet hinder this equilibrium and cause your body to over-compensate for the imbalance.
  • In response to the carbohydrates, your body will over-produce insulin, which in turn causes your kidneys to decrease sodium and water excretion, constrict your blood vessels, and increase your blood pressure.
  • An influx of sugar in your diet inhibits your body’s ability to produce a molecule called Nitric Oxide, which serves to dilate your blood vessels. Lack of nitric oxide leads to constriction of your blood vessels, directly increasing your blood pressure.

Processed foods contain very high amounts of sugars, carbs, and salts, all of which significantly increase your risk of hypertension.

  • The American Heart Association recommends a daily limit of 24 grams (~100 calories) of sugar. For reference, a can of Coca-Cola contains 39g of sugar.
  • The Food and Drug Administration recommends ~300g of carbs each day. A soft pretzel contains 65g of carbs, which is over 20% of your daily intake.
  •  

So, what can you do about it?

Despite the detrimental health qualities of sugar, few people will disagree with its taste. If you’re still feeling a sweet-tooth, try swapping for an alternative. Stevia, monk fruit, Allulose and honey are all great replacements.

  • Stevia is an element of the sunflower leaf containing stevioside, a compound that is 200 times as sweet as sugar. It contains no carbohydrates or calories and has been shown to lower blood glucose levels.
  • Monk fruit contains compounds 300-400 times as sweet as sugar. Again, with no carbohydrates, sodium, or fat, and no effect on blood glucose levels.
  • Allulose is another great alternative, offering limited carbohydrates and no effect on blood glucose levels, due to ability to be absorbed quickly by the digestive tract.
  • Honey is great in moderation, as it is packed full of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals for your body. However, it can still influence blood glucose levels.

Similarly, alternate seasonings can be used while cooking to reduce salt consumption, while still offering a flavorful meal. Garlic, lemon juice/zest, dried/powdered onion, pepper, paprika, dill, rosemary, red pepper flakes, and ginger are wonderful additions to any culinary dish. These seasonings will enhance the natural flavors of the food you’re cooking, which frequently contain enough sodium on their own. When you do want to use salt, keep in mind that different types of salt are not necessarily healthier. An AHA survey indicated that 61% of Americans believe sea salt to contain less sodium than table salt. In reality, these salts all contain the same chemical composition and the same amount of sodium by weight. The type of salt you choose – whether it be Himalayan, Celtic, or Kosher – is purely a matter of taste and preference. The healthiest choice in this regard is simply to limit your intake, regardless of your penchant for a certain type of salt.

For more information on what constitutes a processed food, see this article: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/

Wherever You Go, Go with All Your Heart — Confucius

“Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.” 
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

I received this book from a friend when I graduated school – I was young, ambitious and full of energy. Even now, I still have a LOT of places to go, points to score and games to win but as Confucius says – wherever you go, go with all your ‘healthy’ heart. 

So, in these series of blogs, I’d like to outline ways to keep your ticker running smoothly so you can go to all the places and enjoy life to the fullest.

First some stats:

Heart disease is sadly the leading cause of death for men and women in the US. Every 34 seconds, someone passes away from some form of heart disease (CDC, 2022). Many of us have friends and family who have passed from a heart attack or who have required open heart surgery.

Heart disease runs rampant in America due to our largely sedentary lifestyles (working from home hasn’t helped our lack of movement), high levels of chronic stress, and relatively poor diets that are higher in unhealthy fats and sugar (more to follow in a later blog). In addition, our medical systems rarely put the priority on heart disease prevention that is needed; instead of keeping the issues from starting, the focus is on treating the health issue after it’s developed.

One woman documented how her doctor placed multiple stents (mesh tubes that are placed in arteries to expand them when clogged) in her arteries to fight her heart disease. Only after multiple procedures did her doctor tell her about the means of prevention such as exercise and an improved diet that she could also use to increase her heart health.

Of course our healthcare system, medications, and operations are necessary parts of the equation for fighting heart disease—they represent incredible developments in modern medicine. At the same time, there are relatively simple steps you can take to fight heart disease, whether you’re interested in preventing it or optimizing the medicine you’re currently taking for it.

Here are some habits you can adopt to improve your heart health today!

1. Physical Activity

Move your body in any way you find enjoyable; bonus points if it’s an aerobic exercise (gets your heart rate pumping higher). Walking your dog for 20 minutes a day, doing a Zumba class a few times a week, dancing to the new Beyonce album in your room, practicing yoga from YouTube videos on the weekends—these are all great, enjoyable examples.

The experts at Johns Hopkins recommend supplementing aerobic exercise with resistance training as well; this can be adding weights to your walk or light weightlifting. Research has shown that strength training is a helpful supplement for boosting heart health and managing heart disease.

Aim for about 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week. Mix it up between resistance training and aerobic exercise to boost your health and keep your routine interesting!

2. Eating a More Plant-Based Diet

Now, before you think that we’re asking you to go full vegan tomorrow, don’t worry—we’re not! You simply need to eat a more plant-based diet, meaning more vegetables and less processed foods. Animal products can still be included in your diet in moderation to achieve heart health.

Two recent studies outlined the efficacy of eating plant-based for heart health. One study recorded how people who start eating a plant-based diet in young adulthood have a decreased risk for heart disease in middle age. No matter your age, it’s never too late to start eating well!

Another study saw that a plant-based diet reduced the risk of heart disease in older, postmenopausal women. Easy ways to eat more plant based: add spinach to a smoothie, making a quick zucchini stir fry instead of eating out for dinner, opting for black beans instead of chips as your side on Mexican night. The possibilities are endless!

We also recently wrote a blog about which cooking oils to choose for heart health—check that out here!

3. Decreasing Stress & Managing Your Mental Health

Constantly feeling stressed out and overwhelmed takes a major toll on the body, especially your heart. When you live with chronic stress, you are constantly in the fight or flight response, meaning your heart rate is constantly elevated, your brain is secreting stress hormones, and the processes which would otherwise promote health and healing are stalled. Over time, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the likelihood of developing heart disease

There are plenty of ways to move yourself out of the fight or flight response and rid your body of chronic stress. Physical activity is a huge one, while meditation, mindfulness, and hypnosis can be helpful as well. Check out our article here on the fight or flight response for more information: (https://community.wholistics.health/is-that-a-lion-coming-my-way-managing-our-stress-responses/ )!

In addition, depression can worsen heart health. If you find yourself in a prolonged negative mood, it may be a good time to work with a mental health professional, both to improve your mental health and your heart health.

4. Avoiding Smoking & Alcohol

Lastly, smoking tobacco is a huge contributor to the development of heart disease, especially the build-up and hardening of plaque in the arteries (known as atherosclerosis). If you currently smoke, make a plan to quit. Check out the smoking cessation programs available in your area—they vary by state and region.

Alcohol can similarly contribute to heart disease, specifically heavy drinking or binge drinking. Blood pressure increases with excessive drinking, which can in turn lead to heart attacks or strokes. In addition, alcohol is often a source of weight gain and excess sugar, both of which can lead to heart disease.

Whether you’re currently managing heart disease or are eager to take steps to prevent it, there are a variety of simple steps you can take to boost your heart health. Eat more veggies, move your body, quit smoking, reduce drinking and take time for activities that de-stress you!

And remember — “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

You are the Salt of the Earth – Common Myths About Hypertension

Hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, is a catalyst for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States. Nearly half of the adults in the US have high blood pressure (characterized by a blood pressure of 130/80mmHg or higher) and only one quarter of those are properly managing their condition. Hypertension is known as the “silent killer”. Because there are no warning signs for high blood pressure, many people are unaware that they are living with this condition, and thus do little to maintain control over it.

Have you ever heard the saying: “Be careful what you believe, even salt and sugar look alike”?

Allow me to apply it in de-bunking a common myth about hypertension. While salt and sugar have similar characteristics in terms of size, shape, and coloring, their effects on your body couldn’t be farther from the same. Many people believe excess salt intake to be the primary cause of high blood pressure. Physicians are unestablished on where this consensus arose from, as studies dating back 100 years have been unable to indicate a positive correlation between salt intake and blood pressure. In fact, a 1998 review study comparing dietary sodium intake and mortality rates actually found little correlation between the two, indicating that decreasing your salt intake can lower your blood pressure, but that was only found to be a short-term fix. To that end, a study published by the American Journal of Medicine in 2006 examined a similar relationship and actually found that too little salt (<2400mg/day, as advised by the AHA) can significantly increase your risk of heart disease by 50%.

So, if it’s not just salt, what is the culprit behind hypertension? You might’ve guessed…it’s the not-so-sweet “look-alike”, Sugar.

Obesity, insulin resistance, and increased levels of Triglycerides have been dubbed the Triad of Hypertension. The commonality among them? Sugar. Let’s break them down one-by-one:

Obesity. There are a lot of factors at play when correlating obesity and hypertension. Obesity can alter your sympathetic nervous system (your body’s fight-or-flight response) and induce hormone signaling pathways. One important effect of obesity is the over-compression of your kidneys, which is caused by the increase of visceral fat tissue in your midsection. Your kidneys work to excrete water and regulate the salt levels in your body to maintain the body’s blood pressure. But the increased stress caused by the excess visceral fat tissue can inhibit proper kidney function, which in turn, causes high blood pressure.

  • Insulin Resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when the cells in your body are unable to use insulin effectively. Due to this, your body attempts to produce more insulin, leading to increased levels of glucose in the blood, increased water and sodium retention, and, as a result, increased blood pressure.
  • High Levels of Triglycerides. Triglycerides are a form of fat created by your body after eating, which your body will store for energy use between meals. High levels of triglycerides can occur from over-eating, under-exercising, and high consumption of alcohol. When your body encounters a chronic build-up of triglycerides in the blood, your arterial walls begin to harden and thicken, causing them to narrow. The excess strain on your arteries will, in turn, increase your blood pressure and cause hypertension.

Now that we’ve uncovered the medical causes behind hypertension, here’s how you can manage your blood pressure to prevent hypertension.

  1. Eat well. Your body requires sufficient nutrients to survive. Eating a well-balanced meal is incredibly important in allowing your body to reach its peak performance.
  2. Exercise. It is crucial to allow your body some movement daily. Yoga, walking, or an at-home workout video are great ways to manage your weight and ensure you are keeping your blood pressure under control.
  3. Limit your sugar, salt, and carb intake. Processed foods are chock full of excessive amounts of salt and sugar, both of which are negatively impacting your blood pressure.
  4. Avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Many alcoholic beverages contain high amounts of sugar and carbs, which are directly affecting your blood pressure. Excessive consumption of alcohol is also a common cause of obesity.
  5. Eat anti-inflammatory foods. Healthy fats, such as fish, eggs, turkey, avocadoes, and nuts are great sources of antioxidants, and help to limit inflammation of your blood vessels and reduce your blood pressure.
  6. Avoid inflammatory foods. While anti-inflammatory foods can lower your blood pressure, inflammatory foods can significantly increase your blood pressure. Grain products, fried foods, processed foods, soda, fast foods, and commercial salad dressings are all known to cause inflammation in your blood vessels. It’s best to avoid these to reduce your risk of hypertension.

Excess salt intake is blamed for hypertension, and while it can have negative effects on your blood pressure, excess carb and sugar intake are stronger forces causing hypertension. People with high blood pressure should take care in limiting their salt intake but be conscious in avoiding excess amounts of carbs and sugars, as well. Remember, you’re sweet enough already!

Read more on the 1998 review study here: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2897%2909092-2/fulltext

Read more on the 2006 second NHANES study here: https://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343%2805%2901046-6/fulltext

You may also be interested in this book where evidence points to other factors beyond salt as the enemy of good health: The Salt Fix – How Experts Got it Wrong

Don’t Go Breaking Your Heart – Myth-busting and Top Tips for a Healthier Heart

I recently listened to a healthy heart masterclass sponsored by the Food Revolution Network where Dr. Mimi Guarneri, a holistic cardiologist, shares tips on how to prevent or reverse heart disease without relying solely on drugs, surgeries or stents. So, in this blog, I’ll highlight the top myths along with health tips to keep your blood pumping machine in optimal condition.

Myth #1:

  • Your genes are not your destiny. Did you know that 90% of heart disease is related to lifestyle? And because these lifestyle and environmental factors are passed down from previous generations, you see family histories of heart disease. 
  • And according to Dr. Dean Ornish who is a proponent of a plant-based diet, four out of five cases of coronary atherosclerosis can be reversed using diet, exercise, meditation and group support. I’m personally a fan of the pegan or flexitarian diet (mostly vegetables and fruits but occasional meat and fish consumption) which is considered mostly plant-based.
  • Age and genetics do not seal your fate. You’re never too old to adopt new habits in spite of what all the old, ‘not-so-wise’ sayings indicate. Based on this Johns Hopkins study, conducted on 6,000 atherosclerosis patients aged from 44-84 years old, healthy lifestyle changes decreased risk of death by 80% no matter what age group they were in. 

Myth #2:

  • There is more evidence pointing to the lack of evidence on dietary cholesterol as the main risk factor in heart disease. In fact, up to 75% of people who experience heart attacks have what’s considered normal cholesterol levels.
  • Read my earlier blog on the role that cholesterol has in heart disease: https://community.wholistics.health/heart-disease-and-the-role-of-cholesterol/
  • In order to avoid or reverse heart disease, you need to consider all pillars of health (nutrition, exercise, mind and sleep) and stop focusing on just a number that is not even a good predictor of heart disease.

Myth #3:

  • According to Dr. Guarneri, if medicine took care of heart disease, it wouldn’t be killing eight million people every year. She states that 92% of first heart attacks are totally preventable.
  • Medications can decrease heart disease risk but they are almost never as effective as sustainable and lasting lifestyle changes.
  • Addressing root causes of heart disease is what’s important, not reducing symptoms with medications.

Heart Health Tips #1:

  • Eat more of the right omega oils (omega 3) like oily fish and fish oil to get the right balance.
  • You need omega-6 oils but we consume way too much with oils like corn, safflower, soy, sunflower and canola and these processed vegetable oils create a pro-inflammatory response in our bodies.
  • The best vegetarian sources of omega-3 oils are flax seeds and chia seeds which should be ground up prior to consumption so they are digested properly.
  • Of the three types of Omega 3s (ALA, EPA, DHA), ALA is found in flax and chia seeds but EPA and DHA are mainly found in fish and algae. And your body needs all three, so if you don’t like the idea of consuming oily fish, you can opt for algae. Here’s my favorite that’s been tested to be free of heavy-metals:

https://www.energybits.com/energybits.html

Heart Health Tip #2

  • White flour, sugar and other processed foods cause inflammation and increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
  • When consuming grains, opt for whole grain to ensure you’re also getting the soluble fiber and the phytonutrients.
  • Pseudo-grains like quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth are good options.
  • I’m personally not a fan of a lot of whole grain consumption – eating a bowl of whole grain pasta will make my glucose monitor sing but when eaten sparingly, it’s fine.

Heart Health Tip #3

  • Dr. Guarneri suggests to NOT eat red or processed meat. Although I agree with avoiding processed meat which is high in salt, nitrates and other additives, I think eating clean, grass-fed meat in small portions should be ok if you are generally healthy and want to avoid heart disease.

Heart Health Tip #4

  • If you don’t visit the dentist regularly for oral check-ups and cleaning, you should know that periodontal (gum) disease is related to heart disease. Evidence has shown that bacteria in the mouth that causes gum disease travels to the heart and triggers inflammation in the blood vessels and increases your cardiovascular disease risk.
  • So keep up the daily flossing, Waterpik (which I love) and the bi-annual visits to the dentist.

Heart Health Tip #5

  • Did you know that evidence shows that emotional intelligence plays a significant role in the occurrence of coronary heart disease? When you experience feelings like anger and hostility, you can increase your risk of heart attack by more than 200%!
  • It’s important to be in loving relationships with family and friends as it will have a physical impact on your heart health.
  • Make sure to take actions to support your emotional well-being with mind care (yoga, meditation, etc.) and positive social interactions.

Heart Health Tip #6

Heart Health Tip #7

  • Dr. Guarneri suggests dancing as an excellent form of exercise as it’s not only great physical movement but the music and the rhythms elicit positive emotional responses which are great for the heart.
  • If you prefer regular exercise over dance, keep it up 3-5x per week and make sure to include aerobics, strength training and stretching into the regimen.
  • Remember – variety, frequency and FUN are key to a sustainable program of movement.

Heart Health Tip #8

  • Did you know that more than 70% of all visits to the doctor are related to stress? And research shows that chronic stress can raise your blood pressure, cause inflammation and increase your risk of a heart attack.
  • Engaging in activities like yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises can calm your heart and your brain.
  • I like Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise to shift the energy balance to a peaceful state: https://www.drweil.com/videos-features/videos/breathing-exercises-4-7-8-breath/

Heart Health Tips #9

  • The journey is as important as the destination so focus on progress with small, tangible steps that you CAN do that will become a habit over the long term.

To learn more about this masterclass visit: https://heart.foodrevolution.org/masterclass/?orid=174172&opid=364

Heart Disease Fighting Foods

As mentioned in my previous blog, cholesterol is just one factor in a comprehensive approach to managing risks for heart disease. Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, alcohol, smoking, and toxins/pollution have a significant impact on our vascular health. So in this blog, I will highlight some superfoods that you can incorporate into your diet to keep your arteries in tip-top shape. 

Avocados and avocado oil

Avocados are nutrient dense and packed with healthy, monounsaturated fat. In this study, participants who ate an avocado daily had significantly lower levels of oxidized LDL (the kind that clogs up your arteries).

Avocado oil is mild so it doesn’t impart flavor to the food and comes with a high smoke point (over 500F) so it’s a great option for cooking and stir-frying all types of food. I no longer use olive oil for frying as the high cooking temperature can damage the oil. In general, the safest way is to stir-fry the food in water or some broth and then add in oil towards the end to minimize high temperatures.

Here is an avocado oil to try:

Berries

Berries are low in sugar and loaded with disease-fighting phytonutrients like flavonoids and antioxidants. In this study of over 1,200 subjects, regular consumption of berries significantly lowered LDL cholesterol, systolic blood pressure, fasting glucose levels and Hemoglobin A1c.  What’s not to like about blueberries, raspberries and blackberries? I buy fresh berries in season but most of the time, I opt for frozen – they store well with many varieties available anytime.

Broccoli sprouts

Compared to standard broccoli, broccoli sprouts have 30-50X more glucoraphanin – a known antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic compound. In this study, consumption of high glucoraphanins resulted in significantly reduced LDL. You can find broccoli sprouts in the produce section – they come in a small container by the alfalfa sprouts section. You can add some broccoli sprouts to top off salads or add them to your morning shake. 

Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is a rich source of flavonoids (powerful antioxidants) due to the high cocoa content and has been proven to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. In this study, an analysis of interventional studies done with dark chocolate/cocoa products showed it reduced low-density LDL and total cholesterol levels. If you love chocolate but don’t want the sugar, try these sugar-free options. I ate these while wearing a continuous glucose monitor and noticed how my blood sugar was smooth and steady even after eating a whole bar!

55% Cacao:

My personal favorite:

70% Cacao:

Fibers from legumes and beans

  • Chickpeas, which are a type of legume, are full of fiber and have been shown to reduce total cholesterol levels and fasting insulin.
  • Lentils are another great plant fiber food. In this study, the substitution of red meat with legumes improved glucose control and cholesterol profiles among diabetic patients. 
  • Other heart-healthy beans to try include kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans and cannellini beans.

Green tea

Green tea is rich in catechins, which are antioxidants (a major active compound is epigallocatechin gallate – EGCG) and have been widely used and studied for reducing inflammation, aiding in weight loss and preventing heart and brain disease. In this clinical trial, subjects treated with green tea extract showed significant reduction in LDL cholesterol and an increase in leptin (the satiety hormone). In this study, daily supplementation with green tea extract improved blood pressure, insulin resistance, inflammation and oxidative stress along with lipid profile.

It’s a superfood with many benefits. In lieu of extracts, I prefer to drink green tea daily. Here are the ones I would try:

Green tea has also been highlighted for fighting diabetes – check out my blog on this topic.  

Konjac root fiber

Konjac plant, or the root, is a Japanese root vegetable that is full of fiber. It has been used by people in East Asia for thousands of years and is mainly grown in Asian countries. Similar looking to an odd-shaped potato (as they come from the same family as potatoes), it contains a fiber called glucomannan – a viscous soluble fiber that is being studied as a dietary intervention for reducing cardiovascular risk. In this study, the use of konjac root significantly lowered LDL cholesterol and non-HDL cholesterol. Did you know that konjac root is used to make noodles and rice? They are called shirataki noodles and are available as a low carb, low calorie substitute for pasta and rice dishes. I use the shirataki noodles to put in soups and the shirataki rice to blend with regular white or brown rice. Here are my favorites:

Spaghetti

Rice

Oat Bran

Oat bran contains high levels of beta-glucan, a viscous, soluble fiber that is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. This systematic review showed that oat beta-glucans have a lowering effect on LDL cholesterol and very low density lipoproteins (which are artery clogging) and hence recommended as part of a vascular health dietary regimen. 

Here’s one to try:

Olive Oil

The vascular protective properties of the Mediterranean Diet have been well documented, with the importance of olive oil highlighted in lowering the risk of heart attacks and strokes. In this study, consuming at least half a tablespoon of olive oil per day was associated with a 21% lower risk of heart disease. Olive oil, particularly, the extra virgin kind, contains the highest concentrations of polyphenols – the powerful antioxidants which have been shown to reduce oxidized LDL cholesterol, improve HDL cholesterol and reduce blood pressure. 

To insure I’m not ingesting any oxidized olive oil (resulting from high temperature and long storage), I buy olive oil in small quantities and use it as a finishing oil (when stir-frying to minimize heat contact) and for room-temperature dressings and toppings. Unfortunately, the olive oil industry is rife with fakes and oil blends. In a future blog, I’ll share what to look for when buying olive oils. These two have been tested by an independent lab to be pure olive oil and are noted for their high polyphenol content: 

Red Grapefruit

Red grapefruit contains higher quantities of bioactive compounds and higher antioxidant potential than the blond variety. In this study, a diet supplemented with red grapefruit improved lipid levels, triglycerides and serum antioxidant activity.

Salmon

Salmon is fabulous not only for its flavor but also for the high concentrations of heart-protective omega 3 fatty acids. This study has shown that intake of fatty salmon reduced triglycerides and increased HDL cholesterol levels when compared to lean fish (cod). Opt for wild salmon whenever possible as it is higher in minerals and contains less contaminants than farmed salmon (pesticides, PCBs). For convenience, I opt for frozen salmon.

Walnuts

Are you nuts for nuts? How about some walnuts for heart health as they are rich in healthy fats, vitamin E and folate? In this study, inclusion of walnuts in the diet for six months improved endothelial function and LDL cholesterol levels.

More Natural Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure

According to the latest statistics from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), if you have high blood pressure, you are among almost half of all American adults. Hypertension (high blood pressure) is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, stroke and vision impairment and increases mortality by over 200% compared to those who don’t have high blood pressure. 

So, as a follow-up to my previous blog on the subject, I’m going to share some more evidence-based tips on natural ways to keep your blood vessels healthy and strong. 

Beetroot Juice

Beets get their beautiful red color from the plant pigment known as betanin which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Beets are not only delicious but rich in nitrates which get converted to nitric oxide (NO). NO helps maintain healthy blood pressure, is important to vascular dilation and also plays a role in strengthening the immune system by protecting the lungs and lowering the risk of respiratory infections. Beetroot juice is widely used by athletes to enhance their performance.

In this study published in the Hypertension Journal, a cup of beet juice for four weeks lowered systolic blood pressure. 

I love beets in almost every form but am also a fan of adding beetroot juice powder to my daily drink to enhance energy and keep by blood pressure in check. Here is one I love because it’s fermented:

Berries

Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries – these richly colored berries are high in disease-fighting antioxidants called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins work by suppressing the production of blood pressure-raising angiotensin-converting enzymes while increasing levels of energy producing nitric oxide.

In this study, two servings of berries (~275mg of anthocyanins) consumed daily led to an average systolic blood pressure reduction of 7.3 mm Hg, while helping to raise HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol, which absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver which then flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.)

When in season, it’s great to enjoy fresh berries. However, I generally prefer frozen options as they are great year-round and I never have to worry about eating them before they expire. I stock my freezer with wild or organic frozen berries and use them for my shake or snack. Here’s a recipe I use for a healthy post-meal dessert:

  • 1 cup of frozen berries
  • A few drops of Stevia or sprinkle of monk fruit sweetener to taste
  • 2 tablespoons of coconut cream or coconut milk
  • Microwave for 20 seconds to soften the berries just a bit. Top with some nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews) and coconut flakes and enjoy!

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a common herbal remedy used for digestive issues, blood sugar problems and even respiratory infections. One of the active ingredients called cinnamaldehyde is a powerful antioxidant that is also being studied for its ability to decrease blood pressure. In this study, cinnamon had a hypotensive effect on diabetic patients leading to reductions in systolic readings by over 5mm Hg. And this effect can be seen with only 1-2 teaspoons a day.

It’s easy to get in your daily dose by sprinkling cinnamon into coffee, tea, yogurt, smoothie or oatmeal. Here is one to try:

Chamomile

German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) has a long history of use as a medicinal herb and is still used today to reduce stress and ease muscle tension. Chamomile tea is also a popular remedy for blood pressure:

  • Chamomile has anti-inflammatory properties and helps blood vessel walls to relax and dilate
  • Chamomile has a natural hypotensive effect by acting as a diuretic to flush fluids out of the body
  • Chamomile has a relaxing and sedative effect that lowers anxiety and stress and promotes calm and sleep

You should wind down with a cup of good chamomile tea to help you relax and get ready for slumber. Here’s one to try.

You can also use chamomile essential oil and add several drops to your diffuser. If you prefer to apply directly to your skin, make sure it’s diluted with a carrier oil like Jojoba.

Here’s one to try that’s already been diluted:

Garlic

Garlic’s key active ingredient, allicin, has antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It also stimulates the production of nitric oxide which helps dilate the blood vessels and reduce blood pressure. Garlic has been studied for its immune boosting properties and improving LDL cholesterol but it’s also great for reducing hypertension. 

In this study, garlic extracts lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure in hypertensive participants by up to 8.7mm Hg. Meanwhile, in this double-blind, placebo-controlled study, participants with uncontrolled blood pressure taking 960mg of garlic extract daily for three months saw blood pressure drop by 10 points which is comparable to existing blood pressure medications.

Dosages recommended are 4g (one to two cloves) of raw garlic per day. Unless you are chasing away vampires, the easier way to get this in is through a supplement. Here’s an odorless one to try:

Lavender

Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) is in the mint family and has long been used to manage mood and anxiety – but did you know it’s also good for blood pressure? In this study, researchers found that inhaling lavender essential oil after heart surgery caused reductions in both blood pressure and heart rate. Add 4-5 drops into your diffuser or you can dilute 3 drops to 9 drops of carrier oil like avocado or jojoba oil and massage it into the back of the neck. Remember, more is not better and make sure you do not ingest lavender oil as it’s not meant to be taken internally. 

Here’s one to try:

Melatonin

Melatonin, a hormone produced by your brain, is an antioxidant that boosts the immune system, protects us from disease and also reduces blood pressure spikes that occur at night and during sleep. This study found that 2.5mg of a melatonin supplement at bedtime reduced diastolic and systolic blood pressure up to 6mm Hg.

It’s best to let your body do the work to produce sufficient levels of melatonin, and nighttime exposure to “blue” light from electronic devices can disrupt the body’s production of this important hormone. So make sure to turn off the TVs, laptops and other light-emitting devices in preparation for shut-eye so your body knows that it’s time to rest and repair. Here’s more on the impact of blue light on melatonin production:

If you feel like you need a melatonin boost at times, you can try low dosages to begin with and go from there. Here’s one to try:

Olive Leaf Extract

The leaves of the olive tree (olea europaea) have been used for centuries to treat viral infections and speed wound healing, and also exhibit the highest content of bioactive compounds. One of the active ingredients known as oleuropein is garnering attention for its ability to modulate blood sugar, reduce cancer risk, boost the immune system and fight inflammation. It is also being studied for its blood pressure lowering effect by improving endothelial function and relaxing artery walls.

In this study, olive leaf extract was similarly effective as a blood pressure medication in lowering systolic and diastolic blood pressures in subjects with stage-1 hypertension.

Olive leaf extracts are readily available in liquids, capsules and tablets – check with your doctor if you are interested in supplementing. Here’s one that I use:

Pycnogenol (French maritime pine bark)

Pycnogenol or maritime pine bark comes from an evergreen tree (pinus pinaster) grown in France and is rich in compounds (procyanidins, flavonoids and polyphenols) that suppress the production of blood pressure-raising angiotensin-converting enzymes while increasing levels of energy-producing nitric oxide. 

This study showed that diabetic, hypertensive individuals taking 125mg of pcynogenol supplements daily for 12 weeks were able to reduce their blood pressure medication by 50%.

When supplementing with pycnogenol, look for a formulation that is standardized to at least 65% procyanidins and check in with your clinician or naturopath to make sure this will put you on the right track. Here’s one to try:

Watermelon

Not only is watermelon a tasty snack, research suggests that the amino acid called citrulline from watermelon significantly reduces blood pressure and oxygen demand in overweight adults.  

Citrulline is converted to arginine which produces nitric oxide that is necessary to maintain healthy vascular tone and regulate blood pressure.

Watermelon is truly a functional medicine food as its hypotensive and vasodilatory effects are pronounced. A cup of watermelon has 250 mg of citrulline which makes it the highest known natural source of this amino acid. Watermelon is also rich in the antioxidant carotenoid called lycopene – the disease-fighting plant pigment also found in red tomatoes.

When shopping for watermelon, look for firmness with a yellow “ground spot” showing where the fruit has rested on the ground. Watermelon should taste sweet but with a firm texture and a sufficient red color (showing off its lycopene content). If buying watermelon off season, check the frozen fruit section.

For more tips on how to eat your way to better health, sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Heart Disease and the Role of Cholesterol

Cholesterol has certainly gotten a bad rap over the years – remember the low fat craze where butter and eggs were considered ‘bad’ for vascular health? Fortunately, medical organizations have reversed their position on cholesterol but many of us are still not looking at the whole picture.

In an interesting podcast by Dr. Elizabeth Boham on the Doctor’s Farmacy, she discusses how cholesterol is only one factor in cardiovascular disease and in lieu of looking at cholesterol as a symptom of heart disease, we need a more comprehensive and balanced approach in considering all the risk factors. So in this two-part blog, I’ll highlight: 1) factors that contribute to heart disease and cholesterol’s role in it, and 2) natural ways to manage heart disease risk factors.

  • Cholesterol is critical for our body to function – it not only makes essential hormones to keep us alive but one quarter of the body’s cholesterol is in our brain so it’s what keeps us mentally sharp. In fact, several studies have demonstrated higher rates of dementia in people with low cholesterol.

  • Cholesterol is composed mainly of two types: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipo-protein (LDL). Lipoproteins are made of fats and proteins and they are the transport mechanism for cholesterol through your body.
    • HDL transports excess fats and oxidized fats back to the liver for recycling and disposal. 
    • LDL carries cholesterol through the bloodstream along with fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K) and essential fatty acids (DHA, EPA), so it is vital for our body to function. But too much of it can collect in arterial walls and lead to plaque buildup known as atherosclerosis.

  • It’s important to look at triglycerides as they are carried around in your blood by lipoproteins that make up cholesterol. Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood. Oils and butters and fat are triglycerides but your body also turns excess calories and simple carbohydrates like breads, pasta, sugar and alcohol into triglycerides and stores them in fat cells. Triglycerides are essential to the body but in excess, can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

  • There is an association of cholesterol with vascular disease but we need to know what the numbers actually mean as the risk factors vary depending on the individual.

  • 75% of patients with heart attacks have normal ranges of cholesterol. However, what’s interesting is that two thirds of patients with heart attacks have either pre-diabetes or diabetes which are un-diagnosed and un-tested.

  • The problem with standard cholesterol testing is that it only gives you the number with no idea how large the particles are. The cholesterol test you should ask your doctor about is particle size testing. It is called the NMR panel (LabCorp) or Cardio IQ (Quest) – it should be covered by insurance. I had mine done about five years ago and it was covered.

  • Size matters! The analogy used to describe cholesterol and particle size was dirt and dump trucks. Cholesterol is the dirt and dump trucks are the particles carrying the cholesterol. What’s desired are big dump trucks (big particle size) to move the cholesterol. Having too many small dump trucks (small particle size) is concerning as this can cause plaque build-up and lead to heart disease.

  • In one patient with a cholesterol of 300, LDL 150 and HDL 110, particle size testing showed that the patient had large fluffy particles (big dump trucks) so the doctor was not so concerned about the heart disease risk in spite of the cholesterol numbers.

  • There is a genetic component – obviously, if you have a strong family history of heart disease, you need to be more careful. But for most of us, it is lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle.  Insulin resistance is the key driver in heart disease – 88% of Americans have metabolic inflexibility and 50% have pre-diabetes/diabetes, many combined with excess weight. People with metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance typically have higher triglycerides, lower HDL and more small particle LDL.

  • One easy way to determine if you have insulin resistance is your triglyceride/HDL ratio.  Ideally, your ratio should be below 1. If you are above 1, you should talk to your doctor about getting fasting insulin and other diabetes markers tested.

  • Diet is the key lifestyle component – the Standard American Diet is loaded with white processed carbs and sugar leading to insulin resistance, high triglycerides and high small particle LDL.

  • A whole foods-based, low sugar diet with lots of fiber, good fats, B vitamins, folate, fish oil combined with a vigorous exercise program should be a priority for those wanting to improve their heart disease markers.

  • Inflammation and oxidative stress cause heart disease. Belly fat and/or visceral fat secretes inflammatory markers and leads to oxidative stress. The LDL particles get oxidized due to the excessive free radicals and not enough antioxidants to neutralize them.  The oxidized LDL particles cause plaque build-up. So to understand heart disease risk, it’s not just about the LDL number but the level of inflammation in the body that causes oxidation of these particles.

  • Statins are a powerful anti-inflammatory drug so it can help, but as it comes with side effects there are more natural ways to reduce inflammation in the body.

  • There are also special tests to measure oxidative stress – most likely you will need to see an integrative or functional medicine doctor to get these ordered.

  • There are other factors besides inflammation and cholesterol that affect vascular health and they include: diet, smoking status, calcium and homocysteine levels, vitamin and nutrient status, toxins and pollution, oral health (like gingivitis) and your gut microbiome.

  • And last but not least, heart disease is not a statin deficiency…

To learn more, check out the Doctor’s Farmacy podcast here:

11 Natural Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure

The American Heart Association estimates that over 100 million American adults have high blood pressure or hypertension. If left untreated, this can lead to serious health conditions. There is evidence that suggests that the risk of cardiovascular disease doubles for each additional 20 mg Hg systolic and 10mg Hg diastolic reading above 115/75 mm Hg. So getting blood pressure under control may be one of the best ways to protect your health.

Blood pressure is measured as the force that is exerted by the blood on the artery walls. The systolic reading (top number) indicates the force of each heartbeat and the diastolic (bottom number) indicates the force in between the heartbeats. The clinical guidelines for “elevated” blood pressure is above 120mm Hg systolic over 80 mm Hg diastolic.

In this two part blog, I’m going to share some evidence-based tips on natural ways to manage blood pressure. 

Bay Leaves

Bay leaves are popular herbs to include in recipes such as soups and stews but did you know that they are also good for supporting the vascular system? This recent study on the Indonesian bay leaf showed it to be effective in reducing blood pressure in hypertensive pregnant women.   

You can easily brew bay leaf tea at home. Put several leaves in 16 oz. of hot water and let steep. Add lemon and stevia or honey to taste. Here’s one to try:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bayleaves.png
 
Cranberries

Cranberries are not only for the holidays – they are a superfruit high in antioxidants, nutrient dense polyphenols and prebiotic fiber, which are all beneficial for your heart. This study suggests that cranberry supplementation is effective in managing systolic blood pressure, body mass index and HDL cholesterol.  Cranberries are readily available during holiday season but the rest of the year, look for unsweetened cranberry concentrate. You can add several tablespoons in sparkling water with some lemon for a delicious drink.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cranberry.png
 

Also, be careful when buying dried cranberries – most are loaded with sugar which is used in the drying and flavoring process. Here’s a brand without any added sugar:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is driedcranberries.png
 
Fennel Seeds

These tiny seeds have been used over centuries as a trusted herbal remedy for a variety of ailments. Fennel seeds are rich in minerals needed to regulate blood pressure and they also contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. In a study conducted at UC Irvine, researchers found that fennel along with other herbs activate a blood pressure-lowering potassium channel in the blood vessels.

Here’s a fennel seed tea to try: 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fennel.png
 
Green Tea

Green tea is packed with polyphenolic compounds called catechins – the main catechin found in green tea is called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Green tea has been touted for a variety of health benefits with cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and weight loss among them. Green tea and its active components have also been studied for lowering blood pressure. In this study, subjects who drank four cups of green tea daily (equivalent to 500mg of catechins) showed lower systolic, diastolic and pulse pressures. 

Here are several brands to try – look for organic if possible and check if it’s been tested for pesticides and contamination:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is matcha.png
 
Intermittent Fasting

Time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting (IF) has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and blood pressure. IF is typically done where you eat within a 10 hour window. So if you have breakfast at 8am, plan to have dinner by 6pm – and try to limit snacking because every time you eat, your glucose and insulin levels will rise. Check out my blog on intermittent fasting.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that is involved in more than 600 biochemical reactions in our body like energy creation, nervous system regulation and muscle movements. Magnesium is critical for our cells to function but deficiencies are common. The National Institutes of Health warns that many older adults don’t get enough of this essential mineral.

Studies have shown that magnesium supplementation is effective in lowering blood pressure in hypertensive adults. You can increase your dietary intake of magnesium with leafy green, nuts (almonds, cashews), black beans, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, bananas, avocados, brown rice, yogurt and legumes. Another way to get magnesium is with Epsom salt baths – it is soothing and good for muscles. 

If you are looking for supplements, here is a brand that provides all 7 forms of magnesium our body needs: https://bioptimizers.com/magnesium-breakthrough/

I also use this powdered magnesium in the evening to help relax and wind down…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is calm.png
 
Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Healthy fats containing Omega-3 fatty acids support heart function and lower blood pressure.  This study found that in adults with hypertension, daily doses of omega-3 fatty acids showed clinically meaningful blood pressure reductions. 

Here is the brand I recommend:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fishoil.png
 
Potassium

Potassium is an electrolyte that counteracts the effects of sodium and maintains consistent blood pressure. When diuretics are often prescribed for high blood pressure, it unfortunately accelerates the excretion of potassium by the body which creates the vicious cycle of water retention which was what the diuretic was designed to remove in the first place. The easiest way to replenish potassium is through our diet. Fruits, legumes, vegetables and dark leafy greens are good options.

Here are some foods that are high in potassium:

  • Dried apricots – half a cup of dried apricots contains over 1000mg of potassium
  • Potatoes – a medium baked potato with skin contains almost a 1000mg of potassium
  • Leafy greens – a cup of Swiss chard has almost 1000mg of potassium, a cup of cooked spinach has up to 800mg
  • Lentils – these small legumes have over 700mg of potassium per cup
  • Prunes – half a cup of dried prunes contains 700mg of potassium
  • Carrot juice – a cup of this tasty juice has almost 700mg of potassium
Probiotics

Probiotics have been investigated for their antihypertensive effects; this study shows that supplementation with probiotics resulted in a moderate to significant reduction for either systolic or diastolic blood pressure. Make sure to get plenty of probiotics from fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and yogurt. If choosing supplement form, look for ones with multiple strains and make sure to consume at least 100 billion colony-forming units of probiotics per day for at least two months.

Here are several to try:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is probiotics.png
 
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is rawprobiotics.png
 
Seaweed

If you like seaweed salad or sushi rolls with nori (seaweed sheets), you are in for a treat.  Seaweed is rich in polyphenols and has a range of health benefits including anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties which are also useful for high blood pressure. In this study done on children, seaweed consumption lowered diastolic blood pressure in boys and systolic blood pressure in girls.

I enjoy roasted seaweed for a snack – here’s one to try:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is seaweed.png
 
Vitamin D

Experts indicate that over 40 percent of American adults may be deficient in vitamin D and this could have an impact on the epidemic of high blood pressure in the US. Studies have shown that people deficient in vitamin D are more likely to have high blood pressure. Vitamin D metabolism is involved in blood pressure regulation and works by suppressing the production of renin, an enzyme that promotes the activity of a blood pressure-raising protein. It is easy to get this measured through regular testing – talk to your doctor about obtaining your current level. I struggle with low vitamin D levels especially during winter months so supplement with appropriate dosages based on my test results. 

Here are ones to try:

1000 IU

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vitamind3.png
 

2000 IU

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vegand3.png
 

5000 IU

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is d3.png