Over the years doctors and researchers have noted that heart disease is more prominent in bald men (1), people with creases in their earlobes (2) and those who are left-handed (3). Obviously these traits, as well as genetic susceptibility to heart conditions, are out of our control. There’s still much we can do to discourage heart problems.
Luckily lifestyle habits greatly influence your heart’s health. A smoke-free environment and physical activity, for example, have a profound impact how whether you’ll develop cardiovascular conditions later in life. The research on nutrition is equally heart warming. Not only does a sound diet enhance cardiac health, but evidence is mounting on how individual nutrients help prevent heart disease.
Food for the Heart
For years, medical experts thought malnutrition didn’t affect the heart. This concept was based on an 1866 experiment that found when cats were starved their hearts didn’t significantly shrink. Almost 85 years later, this information was disproved. We now know that a poor diet is as detrimental to the cardiovascular system as it is to any part of the body.
A pair of Cincinnati surgeons turned up numerous studies supporting the notion that your heart’s health is linked very closely to nutritional status. One graphic example they cite are the deaths, many cardiac in origin, that resulted from an unnamed very low calorie, liquid protein diet popular during the 1970’s. While some of the dieters had heart related problems before death, several did not. It’s more likely that this nutrient-poor diet plan caused malnutrition; postmortem examination revealed hearts that were disproportionately smaller when compared to the victim’s body weight.
“Adequate nutrition is important in maintaining normal cardiac function,” insist the authors. When heart mass declines, so does its ability to pump blood throughout the body. Cardiac rhythm is also disturbed. Most heart problems, however, aren’t a direct result of malnutrition. In this and other industrial nations, lifelong habits such as poor eating are more apt to cause heart disease.
A marginal diet probably won’t create immediate heart problems, unless you need emergency cardiac surgery or hospitalization. One study found nearly half of heart patients nutritionally wanting. Not only is this a major risk factor during surgery, but an undernourished body is more prone to postoperative complications such as infection. (Immunity suffers without proper nutrition.) A hospital stay, with its restricted diets, institutionally prepared food, inactivity and medications, fuel poor nutrition. Ironically, one study found that the poorer a patient’s nutritional status, the longer he remained in the hospital (4).
The Magic of Magnesium
While good overall nutrition is vital, specific nutrients have a place in preventing heart disease too. Magnesium, the second most prevalent intracellular cation in the body next to potassium, is one mineral that is taking center stage in heart research and treatment.
Nerves, muscles, protein synthesis and many of the body’s enzyme systems require magnesium. Because death from ischemic heart disease is more common in regions with water and soil low in magnesium, the heart also seems to benefit from this mineral (5). Magnesium deficiency has also been linked to hypertension, arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. Electrolyte abnormality may also result when magnesium levels drop (6). Low electrolytes interfere with heart contractility.
More exciting than keeping your magnesium levels up with foods like dark green vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains, is how this mineral could be used in hospital emergency rooms. A large British trial tested intravenous magnesium sulphate on over 1000 patients with symptoms of impending heart attack. One month after treatment, there were 24 percent fewer deaths in the group receiving magnesium injections. Magnesium, a simple and safe treatment according to Dr. Kent Woods and his associates, is thought to enhance blood flow, relax blood vessel walls, prevent abnormal heart rhythms and may even stop blood clot formation (7). Approximately one-third of the 1.5 million Americans who succumb to heart attacks each year die.
Antioxidants, which include vitamins A, C and E, beta carotene and various flavonoids, are recommended for preventing cancer, the ravages of aging and heart disease. When you understand that antioxidants diminish free radicals, highly reactive molecules that damage cells and possibly health, it’s clear why these compounds have such far reaching effects.
Dutch scientists measured the intake of dietary flavonoid antioxidants, found mainly in fruits and vegetables, of over 500 men. Five years later men who consumed the most flavonoid-rich foods were half as likely to die from coronary heart disease and have a heart attack than those eating the least amount of flavonoids. Flavonoids are thought to prevent atherosclerosis and reduce blood clot formation (8). Including a hefty amount of beta-carotene packed foods, such as carrots, yams and dark green vegetables, also reduce your chance of heart attack (9).
Other European investigators have discovered that antioxidant vitamins, particularly vitamin E, also protect against atherosclerosis and related chest pain. In fact, a Scottish study revealed that men with the lowest amounts of vitamin E in their blood were two and a half times more likely to suffer from angina than those with high levels. Vitamin C prevents heart disease by sparing vitamin E, and lowering elevated blood pressure and cholesterol (10,11).
Coenzyme Q10, or ubiquinone, works inside cellular energy packs called mitochondria found throughout your body. The heart, along with the liver and adrenal glands, contains the highest concentration of mitochondria. Coenzyme Q10 is a naturally occurring substance in food and can be synthesized by your body, however, deficiencies may occur. Because cardiovascular disease increases the need for coenzyme Q10, 50 to 75 percent of cardiac patients are reportedly lacking in this enzyme (12).
Coenzyme Q10 is used to treat angina, congestive heart failure and high blood pressure. A University of Texas study supplemented CHF patients already taking conventional CHF medication with coenzyme Q10. Not only did 78 percent of the patients improve, but their survival rate was higher than those receiving only standard treatment. The researchers found coenzyme Q10 to be safe and effective for long term use, yet caution that initial results may a month (13).
Niacin, also known as nicotinic acid or vitamin B3, has been used for many years by both mainstream and natural medical practitioners to treat high cholesterol and triglycerides. Although effective, this vitamin should be used with caution and ideally under the skilled eye of a physician. Aside from the uncomfortable and relatively benign side effects such as flushing, itching and upset stomach, high doses of niacin may increase blood glucose and uric acid, and liver enzyme levels. Occasionally liver damage can occur (14). Niacin should not be used by people with a history of gout, liver dysfunction and diabetes (15).
During the past few years, researchers have been debating whether high iron stores in the body increase risk of heart disease. A Finnish study discovered that higher iron levels tended to increase blood pressure and heart attack risk (16). On the other hand, investigators from the CDC found no such relationship (17). Until information on this subject is clearer, avoid iron supplementation unless you have iron deficient anemia and other signs of low iron.
There are many nutritional supplements that can help prevent or even treat a variety of heart conditions. Besides the above, chromium, taurine, vitamin B6, L-carnitine, pantethine, calcium, copper and lecithin all play roles in cardiac treatment. However, maintaining a healthy heart is more than taking supplements. First and foremost you should make changes in your lifestyle. Then, if you feel a nutrient program is beneficial, consult your physician, nutritionist or other trained practitioner for guidance.
- Lesko SM et al. A case-control study of baldness in relation to myocardial infarction in men. Journal of the American Medical Association 1993;269(8):998-1003.
- Tranchesi B et al. Diagonal earlobe crease as a marker of the presence and extent of coronary atherosclerosis. American Journal of Cardiology 1992;70:1417-1420.
- Lane RD et al. Effects of non-right-handedness on risk for sudden death associated with coronary artery disease. The American Journal of Cardiology 1994;74(8):743-47.
- Ulicny KS, Hiratzka LF. Nutrition and the cardiac surgical patient. Chest 1992;101:836-42.
- Anon. Role of magnesium in acute myocardial infarction. American Family Physician 1992;45(4):1902 & 1904.
- Whang R, Whang DD, Ryan MP. Refractory potassium repletion: a consequence of magnesium deficiency. Archives of Internal Medicine 1992;152:40-45.
- Woods KL, Fletcher S, Roffe C, Haider Y. Intravenous magnesium sulphate in suspected acute myocardial infarction: results of the second Leicester Intravenous Magnesium Intervention Trial (LIMIT-2). The Lancet 1992;339(8809):1553-58.
- Hertog, MGL, Feskens EJM, Hollman PCH, Katan MB, Kromhout D. Dietary antioxidant flavonoids and risk of coronary heart disease: the Zutphen Elderly Study. The Lancet 1993;342:1007-1011.
- Kardinaal AFM et al. Antioxidants in adipose tissue and risk of myocardial infarction: the EURAMIC study. The Lancet 1993;342:1379-84.
- Riemersma RA, Wood DA, MacIntyre CCA, Elton RA, Gey KF, Oliver MF. Risk of angina pectoris and plasma concentrations of vitamins A, C, and E and carotene. The Lancet 1991;337(8732):1-5.
- Manson JE et al. A prospective study of vitamin C and incidence of coronary heart disease in women (abstract). Circulation 1992;85:865.
- Murray M, Pizzorno J. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing: 1991.
- Hall JH, Judy WV, Folkers K. Long-term survival in coenzyme Q10 treated congestive heart failure patients. Circulation 1990;82(4) (suppl III): 675.
- Kreisberg RA. Nicain: a therapeutic dilemma “One man’s drink is another’s poison”. The American Journal of Medicine 1994;97:313-16.
- Felicetta JV. Why aren’t we using more niacin? Archives of Family Medicine 1994;3:324-25. (CP)
- Salonen JT, Salonen R, Nyyssonen K, Korpela H. Iron sufficiency is associated with hypertension and excess risk of myocardial infarction: The Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (KIDH). Circulation 1992;85(2):864.
- Sempos CT et al. Body iron stores and the risk of coronary heart disease. New England Journal of Medicine 1994;330(16):1119-24.