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Each year, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) declares February as National Heart Month in the UK. Whatever the time of year it's always a good time to be thinking about keeping our hearts beating happily, but what does it take to make a healthy - and happy - heart?
Well, we’ve probably all heard that heart health is associated with other health conditions: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney disease to name a few of the more major connections. So there is a definite physiological aspect to consider when supporting heart health, but is there another angle?
Hmmm…maybe so – as my nickname at Optibac Probiotics is ‘Kooky Kerry’, you can always rely on me to think outside of the box! So I thought it was time to be a bit more ‘touchy-feely’ about this subject… to open our hearts and minds to some other, less conventional viewpoints…
We know that the heart is the most written-about organ in the body due to its association with love and romance, and the heart area is where we appear to feel all of the emotions related to happiness. It’s also where we experience the feeling of sadness, and there’s nothing more painful than an apparently ‘broken heart’. But did you know that some scientists actually recognise ‘broken heart syndrome’, or stress cardiomyopathy, as a cause of cardiac issues that can result in death1?
As the great Leonardo da Vinci once said: "Tears come from the heart and not the brain". Had this wise man realised that there was more to the heart than merely blood and tissue?
So what exactly is the deal with this enigmatic organ? Is the heart just a biological pump that is present merely to propel the blood around our body, or is it a highly-sophisticated organ that may even possess the ability to ‘think’ for itself?
We've all heard about the 'Gut-brain' connection - you can read more about that in our recent blog 'Couple of the Year: The Gut and the Brain'. But cutting edge fringe science also suggests a very strong heart-brain link, with the heart being in a constant two-way dialogue with the brain, and what is most exciting of all is that research suggests that the heart may send more signals to the brain than the other way around1!
What an amazing thought! And did I think it with my heart or my brain?
The Director of Research at the ‘Heart Math Institute’, Dr. Rollin McCraty, has focused the latter part of his career on exploring the effects of our emotions on heart–brain interactions and the subsequent effects on autonomic, cardiovascular, hormonal, and immune system function. Certainly some of his latest research into neurocardiology2 has firmly established that the heart has a highly sophisticated intrinsic nervous system that he and other scientists believe qualifies the heart to be considered a ‘brain’ in itself, and that it is able to process information and react accordingly.
Dr. McCraty also believes that our HRV – heart rate variability – is a key indicator of good health, and that our HRV is directly affected by our emotions, and this is a viewpoint that’s becoming validated by other recent studies3,4.
I like to look at everyone – and every health issue – holistically, and believe that we should look at supporting our health through an all-round approach that encompasses diet, lifestyle and mindful living, with some natural supplements and/or medications where necessary. So I’ve put together five tips for a holistic heart health approach, based on some old-school, tried, tested and scientifically-proven diet and lifestyle tips, with a few more ‘touchy-feely’ things to think about too…
From a dietary perspective, research shows that, again, it’s a combination of the right foods in a ‘whole diet’ approach, rather than just the inclusion of a couple of heart-friendly ‘superfoods’. A couple of recent studies5,6 suggest that the much-lauded Mediterranean Diet is a good dietary framework to follow: more vegetables, nuts, healthy oils from sources such as olive, nuts, avocado, and oily fish, and a small amount of lean meat. Also think about HOW you eat: enjoy those healthy meals in a leisurely fashion with family and friends, with maybe a little glass of red wine in moderation.
Most people appreciate that we need to exercise our muscles to keep them toned; well, the heart is a muscle too, and research shows a positive link between regular exercise and fitness and improved cardiovascular health7. Exercise can make us feel good too, and improve our overall health and sense of well-being. Don’t think that you need to become an athlete – regular moderate activity can be just as beneficial – just do anything to can to keep active within your own limitations, and gradually build up your exercise regime.
You knew we couldn’t go for long without mentioning gut health! We always say that ‘good health starts in the gut’, but how can this apply to heart health too, I hear you ask? Amazingly, research suggests that certain strains of bacteria, via a combination of active mechanisms, can work to lower serum cholesterol. Lactobacillus plantarum CECT 7527, Lactobacillus plantarum CECT 7528, Lactobacillus plantarum CECT 7529 are the first probiotic strains available in the UK to have been shown in a clinical trial8 to help lower cholesterol.
There are a bewildering array of supplements associated with improved heart health, and it can be difficult to know which one is best for you, so I’d always suggest seeking advice from a healthcare practitioner rather than taking a random cocktail of supplements and hoping for the best. But I’d like to highlight a couple of key supplements that may provide some benefits for cardiovascular health:
We’ve already mentioned healthy fats in our diet, but for some it can be a challenge to ensure that dietary sources provide enough for our needs. Alpha-linolenic acid has been positively associated with cardiovascular health and balanced cholesterol levels9.
But one of my favourite supplements to help support cardiovascular health is magnesium: it’s a mineral that is becoming elusive in the modern diet, and deficiency has been linked to cardiovascular issues10. Because there are a few potential interactions and contraindications with magnesium, I would not advise everyone to self-prescribe this mineral supplement, but it’s certainly one to discuss with your doctor or healthcare practitioner.
Make sure that you are kind to yourself, your body and your heart by keeping stress levels to a minimum, practising mindful, conscious living and considering if your emotions could be affecting your heart health. In fact this is not just fuzzy nonsense – the British Heart Foundation devotes a whole booklet to the effect of your emotions on your heart health11 and vice versa, and studies show a link between depression and heart conditions such as myocardial infarction12.
So it seems that our emotions really do affect our hearts, and despite Oscar Wilde claiming that "The heart was made to be broken", I think we should make every effort to protect our hearts from undue emotional stress. Some people find meditation a great tool, but if this doesn't appeal then just do things that make you feel good. The simplest things are often the healthiest and the best: a walk in the country, a cuddle with a pet (or someone special!), your favourite hobby or a good book.
If nothing else, I hope that these few words have encouraged you to think about the connections between your body, your mind and the the internal organs within us that do such an amazing job of keeping us alive. We need to nurture ourselves and our bodies and realise what amazing beings we are!