In the time it takes you to read this sentence, your heart has probably beaten around 6 times. It was beating before you started thinking about it beating, literally from the moment you were born and it will continue until the moment you die.
With this in mind, we figure we owe it to our hearts to do the best by them: they deserve some care and appreciation! In honor of World Heart Day on Sunday 29th September, we wanted to take a look at what affects our heart health, and how we can make better choices for this most amazing of organs. After all, our hearts are our symbol of love.
The World Heart Federation has three overall recommendations for looking after your heart:
- Eat well and drink wisely: cut down on sugar and prepackaged and processed foods; eat more fruit and vegetables (at least five handful-sized portions a day) and limit alcohol to recommended guidelines.
- Be active: aim for at least 30 minutes of moderately intensive physical activity five times a week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity spread throughout the week.
- Stop smoking: the single best thing you can do for your heart health.
We know that most of you are health-conscious, so the above might not come as a surprise to you. You may even be incorporating a lot of the above into your diet and lifestyle already. So we thought we'd go a little deeper and take a look at a few things that might not be so obvious to your heart health, but are just as important.
Sleep Your Way to Heart Health
According to Matthew Walker in his excellent book, 'Why We Sleep', "Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path towards cardiovascular disease, stroke and congestive heart failure." Walker goes on to discuss studies that have shown the effects of poor sleep on heart health, including blood pressure, heart rate and arterial health.
Regularly getting 8 hours' sleep (as recommended by the World Health Organization) will provide you with benefits far and above just your heart health, so if you think sleep is an issue for you, then it's one to tackle now.
Here are a few 'sleep hygiene' tips that might help:
- Limit your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon. It takes hours for caffeine to metabolize (it has a half life of around 5 hours!) so a 3pm cup of coffee is doing more harm than you might expect.
- Limit your screen time before bed: the lights from the TV, tablets and cell phones can affect levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycle. Try putting your phone down an hour before you intend to sleep and instead read a book, do some light stretching to release tension in your muscles or do a meditation to calm your mind and slow down your breathing rate.
- Take a bath before bed: as well as helping you to relax and release tension, getting out of the bath will help your core body temperature to lower, which it needs to do for optimal sleep. Add some essential oils such as lavender to really help calm your mind and body.
Fiber for Heart Health
Fiber--both soluble and insoluble--is important for a healthy heart as it is thought to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. However, a Harvard Medical School study in 2014 showed that most Americans are not getting enough fiber in their diet. The recommended daily amount for women under 50 is 25 grams and for women over 50, it's 21 grams. However, the average daily intake for Americans, is only around 16 grams a day, which means we can all be doing more for our hearts by incorporating more fiber into our diet.
Here are a few quick tips that could help you increase your fiber intake:
- Make overnight oats for a quick breakfast that is not only nutritious, but will save you time in the morning.
- Eat brown rice instead of white, or for sticky rice dishes such as risotto and paella, try barley instead, which is even higher in fiber.
- Swap white bread for whole wheat.
- For a fiber-rich afternoon snack, spread 2 tbsp peanut butter onto slices of organic apples (or even better, pears) with the skin on.
- Eat more barley. This versatile cereal grain is great for salads and soups and is high in fiber.
- Add kidney beans to salads; 1/2 cup of cooked kidney beans will give you 6 grams of fiber!
Are you Managing Your Stress?
The link between stress and heart disease was often attributed to unhealthy lifestyle habits that people tend to adopt when they are stressed; Eating poorly, drinking more and sleeping less. However, more recent studies by the Harvard Medical School have shown that increased activity in the brain’s fear and stress center may trigger inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease.
The study also pointed to research that suggests that stress-reducing activities such as meditation and yoga, can reduce activity in this fear center and therefore reduce the risks to the heart.
We know that managing stress is easier said than done, but here's a great five-minute breathing meditation as part of your stress toolbox. It will help you to calm your mind and your nervous system when day-to-day stresses seem to be getting on top of you.
Happy World Heart Day, from our hearts to yours!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel is a qualified yoga instructor with a passion for helping people to discover the benefits of yoga and meditations for their own needs - be they sleep, relaxation or energy. She is a lifelong learner with an interest in holistic health, and understanding how we can best support both body and mind to be strong, healthy and happy.