February is American Heart Month! With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to focus on steps that you can take to prevent heart disease and keep your heart and cardiovascular system in tip-top shape.
While it may not be exactly pleasant to think about it, the reality is that heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. And if you have diabetes, you’re twice as likely to have heart disease — and at a younger age — than people without diabetes. But you can take a number of steps to lessen the chances of getting heart disease.
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What is heart disease?
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “heart disease is a catch-all phrase for a variety of conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function.”
You may have heard the term “coronary heart disease,” which occurs when plaque builds up along the lining of arteries. This process is called atherosclerosis. Plaque can cause a partial or total blockage of arteries of the heart, decreasing blood flow, and potentially leading to a heart attack. If plaque builds up in arteries leading to the brain, a stroke may occur. If it occurs in arteries to the legs and feet, it’s called peripheral arterial disease, or PAD.
What causes heart disease?
Heart disease risk is increased by these factors:
• Having diabetes
• Being overweight or having obesity
• Not doing enough physical activity
• Eating a diet high in unhealthy fat and sodium
• Drinking too much alcohol
• A family history of heart disease
How does diabetes affect your heart?
Chronic high blood sugar levels can damage both blood vessels and nerves that control your heart. In addition, people with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure, which, if not controlled, can also damage artery walls. And diabetes can lead to high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol that contributes to plaque buildup, as well as high triglycerides (blood fats) that can contribute to atherosclerosis.
What you can do about heart disease
You might be thinking that the odds are against you when it comes to warding off heart disease. But’s that’s not exactly true. There are a lot of steps that you can take that may seem small or simple but have a pretty sizeable impact. In fact, you might be doing a lot of these already! Let’s take a look.
Choose healthier fats, not “no” fat
There’s so much hype on the internet and social media these days about which fats are good and which are bad. The bottom line with fat is that a) we all need fat for good health and b) trans fats and most types of saturated fats are the types of fat to limit.
• Watch out for saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature, such as butter, lard, shortening and coconut oil. Small amounts are fine to include in your diet, but don’t turn to these as your “go-to” fats.
• Avoid trans fats as much as possible. These are manufactured fats that tend to be found in processed foods and fast foods (although food companies are moving away from using these). Look for “0 grams” of trans fat when reading a food label.
• Switch to healthier fats like olive oil, safflower oil and peanut oil, as well as olives, nuts, seeds and avocado.
Fit some fiber into your meals
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that we don’t digest all that well. Studies show that people who regularly eat high-fiber foods are less likely to have coronary heart disease, as fiber can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also helps to fill you up so that you may eat less and lose weight, if you need to.
• Find fiber in plant foods, such as beans, lentils, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
• Whenever possible, leave the skin or peel of fruits and vegetables on when you eat them to maximize your fiber intake.
• If you’re a woman, aim for 25 grams of fiber daily; men should aim for 38 grams of fiber daily.
If you shortchange yourself on sleep, you run a higher risk of getting heart disease, even if you’re eating healthfully and getting plenty of physical activity. According to the Sleep Foundation, too little sleep affects processes like glucose metabolism, blood pressure and inflammation. Most people need, on average, 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night.
• As best you can, set up a sleep schedule and stick to it, even on days when you’re not working or going to school.
• Buy the best mattress, pillows, sheets and blankets that you can afford.
• Turn off the electronics an hour or so before you go to sleep.
• If you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed and do something that will relax you, such as reading or listening to soothing music.
Keep your mouth and your teeth clean
It may seem odd that there’s a connection between oral hygiene and heart disease, yet researchers have found that there’s a link between gum inflammation and tooth damage and heart disease. Bacteria that cause gum disease can also cause blood vessel inflammation, potentially leading to a heart attack or stroke.
• Brushing your teeth twice a day for at least two minutes (and you have two minutes!) can lower your heart disease risk.
• Don’t forget to floss. Flossing daily helps to dislodge bacteria in between and around your teeth.
• Choose healthy foods that contain a variety of nutrients to keep your teeth and gums in top shape. Skip sugary, refined carb foods that can contribute to tooth decay and raise blood sugar levels.
Speaking of blood sugars, aiming to keep them within your target range can lessen any problems with your teeth and gums.
Everyone has some type of stress in their lives. And everyone reacts differently to stress. The amount of stress that you have and your response to stress can lead to a host of health issues, especially when that stress becomes chronic (think problems at work, an unhappy home life or money issues). Over time, chronic stress can take a toll on the body — for example, stress can raise blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Stress can also lead to less-than-healthy behaviors, such as eating fatty or sugary comfort foods, drinking too much alcohol or smoking. These behaviors can boost the chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
• Take deep breaths. When you’re in the middle of a stressful situation, such as being stuck in traffic, start taking deep breaths. Doing so increases the amount of oxygen to the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting calmness, according to the American Institute of Stress.
• Think about what you can change. Like a challenge? If so, find a solution to the cause of your stress. In other words, change your situation.
• Choose a behavior or activity that you can do when you feel stress weighing you down. Get up and go for a walk, use an app to help you meditate, talk it out with a partner or friend, or pick up a hobby to take your mind off of things, even for a little while.
• Seek professional help. Sometimes the source of stress is more than what you can manage on your own. Talking with a counselor or joining an online community can give you perspective and support.
You’ve got to move it
You knew this one was coming: movement, physical activity, exercise — whatever you want to call it — is key to keeping your heart healthy. This doesn’t mean that you need to start training for a triathlon. But it does mean that you should seriously consider making time to move if you’re not already doing so. In general, the goal is to aim to be active for at least 30 minutes daily, five times a week. Don’t let this trip you up — you don’t need to do all 30 minutes at once.
• Fit in a walk (even for 10 minutes) during your coffee break. Then fit in another walk at lunchtime and again at dinner. It’s OK to gradually build up to this, too.
• Use technology to give you a nudge. Set a timer on your phone to remind you to get up every 30 minutes and move around for 3 minutes. There are apps that can remind you to move around, such as Stand Up! The Work Break Timer, Just 6 Weeks, and Move.
• Get support from family, friends or co-workers to keep you motivated to be active.
• Walking or lunges not your thing? Turn up the tunes and dance like no one’s watching. You’ll give your heart and lungs a good workout and have fun at the same time.
Want to learn more about keeping your heart healthy with diabetes? Read “Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease” and “Fight Off Heart Disease With These Five Heart-Healthy Foods.”