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Countdown to a Healthier Heart

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By the time James Young started coughing up blood and went to the doctor, he had diabetes, high blood pressure, and numerous other cardiovascular health risks. Oh, and he also discovered his heart was failing. But in just two months, Young wowed his doctor with a dramatic heart-health turnaround.

From denial to diagnosis

Young could taste the blood in his mouth as he was shovelling snow. “It must be allergies,” he told himself—a testament to how much in denial he was about his health.

The following summer, Young was gaining weight daily and having trouble breathing. He was finally at the point where self-treating with online searches and over-the-counter medications just wasn’t cutting it.

He saw a doctor, who immediately ordered a heart sonogram and a series of tests. The results were sobering: Young’s heart was functioning at only 30 percent. His blood pressure and cholesterol numbers were through the roof. And his high blood sugar had manifested in full-scale diabetes.

Having any one of these conditions is a serious red flag for your heart. Young had managed to collect them all.

The heart of Canada

Right now, 2.4 million Canadian adults have heart disease. It’s the second biggest cause of death in the country.

A change of heart

“My cardiologist recommended surgery and a pacemaker,” says Young. “I said, ‘What’s option B?’” His doctor told him there was only one other option, something he rarely recommended to patients: change your life.

“My doctor said people rarely adhere to change,” Young recalls. “He said, ‘I’ll give you two months, and if I don’t see improvements in your heart, we go back to option A.’”

Young set out to prove his doctor wrong.

“I quit drinking,” says Young. “It took me longer to kick the smoking, but I did. I cut the sugary drinks. I started exercising for the very first time. I shifted to more plant-based foods. When I went back to my doctor two months later, he literally couldn’t believe his eyes, or the numbers on the chart.”

Nine out of 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Thankfully, 80 percent of premature heart disease can be prevented through healthy habits. By simply being aware of what heart-health numbers to watch for, you can keep yourself and your heart happy and strong.

Cholesterol

“Everyone should check their cholesterol once every five years,” says Dr. Yasmine S. Ali, MD, a preventive cardiologist.

Get it checked

Your doctor will give you a personalized target depending on you, your lifestyle, and your medical history. However, in general, you want to hit the following targets:

  • LDL (bad) cholesterol: below 190 mg/dL (150 mg/dL is considered mildly high)
  • HDL (good) cholesterol: higher than 60 mg/dL

Not all cholesterol is bad. “HDL cholesterol protects against cardiovascular disease,” says Ali. On the other hand, she says, “LDL cholesterol clogs the arteries and raises the risk for heart attack.”

Get it fixed

One of the most important things you can do for healthier cholesterol numbers is change your diet. Michelle Routhenstein, RD, is a preventive cardiology dietitian. She says eating a more plant-based diet, just like what Young did, is the top diet change to consider.

“Swap out red meat, and consume more plant-based protein such as lentils and kidney beans,” says Routhenstein. “Plant-based proteins are lower in saturated fat (which clogs arteries) and higher in soluble fibre (which prevents plaque buildup) compared to meat. This switch, even once a week, decreases your chances of heart disease.”

Blood sugar

Type 2 diabetes is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. It also increases your risks of other heart-health red flags, such as high blood pressure.

But the dangers start long before you have full-blown diabetes. “Consistently high blood sugar levels damage arteries,” warns Ali.

Get it checked

Canadians over the age of 40 should get their fasting blood sugar checked every three years.

Your ideal targets:

  • Fasting: less than 100 mg/dL
  • One to two hours after a meal: less than 140 mg/dL

Get it fixed

“Once again, diet and exercise play the starring roles here,” says Ali. She recommends avoiding anything that’s refined (such as white bread) or made with added sugar.

Add healthy fats

Eat more healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fatty acids. This fat, which you find in avocados, has been linked to healthier blood sugar levels.

Enjoy more fibre-rich foods

Try whole grains, nuts, and beans. Aim for 30 to 50 g of fibre a day to improve your blood sugar. As an added bonus, high-fibre diets may also help manage blood pressure, control your weight, and lower your cholesterol.

“Oats, barley, flaxseed, and chia seeds contain a high percentage of soluble fibre,” says Routhenstein. “Soluble fibre binds to cholesterol and bile acids in the intestine and promotes their excretion, which helps to decrease ‘the junk’ that can build up in your arteries. Regularly consuming these foods along with a heart-healthy diet can help to prevent heart disease.”

Go for a walk

“In particular, working in a walk after meals has been shown to improve blood sugar levels,” says Ali. One study found that a 10-minute walk after each meal reduced blood sugar better than a single longer 30-minute walk taken at any other point during the day.

Weight and waist size

Many experts consider your body mass index (BMI) to be an outdated and misleading health metric, but it can still provide clues to heart health.

“Being overweight or obese is usually, but not always, reflected in high BMI and waist size measurements,” says Ali. This means your BMI or waist circumference may indicate if you’re at a greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.

Get it checked

A BMI of 25 or higher means you’re overweight or obese. And when it comes to waists, a 40 in (102 cm) or larger waist for men, or anything bigger than 35 in (90 cm) for women, indicates you’re at a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Blood pressure

When you have high blood pressure, your heart is under extra stress and has to work harder to pump your blood through your blood vessels.

Get your blood pressure checked at least once a year (many pharmacies have free blood pressure monitors you can use). These machines will print out two numbers: your systolic and diastolic numbers.

Get it checked

  • Low risk: A result of 120/80 (systolic/diastolic) is your golden target and puts you at low risk for heart disease.
  • Medium risk: You’re at medium risk if you get 121-139/80-89.
  • High risk: The proverbial alarms start sounding at 140+/90.

Get it fixed

To take control of your blood pressure, consider the following.

Eat less salt

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommends a daily maximum of 2,300 mg of added sodium (the equivalent of one teaspoon).

Ease off the booze

For lower blood pressure, men should have no more than two drinks a day, while women shouldn’t have more than one drink daily.

Watch your weight

A tiny weight gain of only 5 lb (2.5 kg) has been shown to elevate your blood pressure.

Soothe your stress

When you’re stressed, your blood vessels tighten and your heart beats faster, which drives up your blood pressure. From long baths to nature walks, to meditation and yoga, experiment with natural, holistic ways to ease your stress.

It’s your turn

If you, like Young, have one or more risk factors for heart disease, pick one small, easy change to get started today.

“Don’t feel overwhelmed,” says Young. He thinks one reason so many people fail at heart-friendly lifestyle changes is because making all those shifts can be daunting. Remember, you don’t have to do it all at once! “I told myself, ‘You didn’t get here overnight. You’re not getting out of this overnight,’” laughs Young.

“When I wanted to eat healthier, I focused just on breakfasts,” he says. “Instead of bacon and eggs, I would do egg whites with spinach. Once I got comfortable with breakfast, I tackled lunch. And then dinner. And so on.”

Create simple goals that you can tackle quickly, whether it’s exercise—maybe start with after-dinner evening strolls instead of signing up for a marathon— or making just one day a week plant-based.

The end results will be worth it. “I lost my dad four years ago to congestive heart failure,” says Young. That was almost his own fate, too, until he decided to walk a new path.

Young’s personal encounter with heart failure, and his ensuing transformation, is what encourages Young to help others rewrite their heart-health stories—starting with getting to know their personal heart- health numbers.

Hearty supplements

“I’m a firm believer in food first, primarily because [supplements] strip food of its fibre, which is essential for heart health,” says Michelle Routhenstein, RD. But, depending on your lifestyle and risk factors, there are three supplements she often recommends for someone at risk of heart disease.

Psyllium husks

This fibre supplement can reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol by 5 to 10 percent. “It’s a viscous fibre that optimizes blood pathways and prevents clogged arteries,” says Routhenstein.

Green tea catechins

“They have protective heart-health effects,” says Routhenstein. Green tea helps lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride numbers, and may help reduce risk of heart attack and stroke.

Probiotics and prebiotics

Routhenstein reports that maintaining a healthy gut with the use of probiotics can improve cholesterol numbers and may help manage inflammation linked with heart disease. Meanwhile, prebiotics help feed your gut bacteria and helps the probiotics flourish.

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