20 ways to save your heart

We fear cancer and are appalled by growing rates of diabetes. But heart disease is still the number-one killer of both women and men. You already know the usual advice for heart health: eat right, don’t smoke, exercise regularly, lessen stress. What does that mean in practical terms? Add these twenty habits to your daily life, and keep your heart beating strong for longer.

1. Know your (trans) fat facts. We now know that trans fats—found in French fries and commercially processed foods—scary fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, decrease HDL (good) cholesterol, and reduce blood vessel function by 30 percent, compared to saturated fat. They’re so dangerous the FDA now requires food labels to list trans fat content. Here’s the catch: under the regulations, if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams, manufacturers can claim their product is free of trans fats. So a product containing 0.4 grams can be labeled as trans-fat free—but eat three servings of three of these foods, and you’ve consumed 1.2 grams, enough to put you at risk.1 The best protection: stay away from any food that lists “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” on its ingredient list or, better yet, skip packaged foods altogether in favor of a whole foods diet.

2. Go for the grit. Foods high in soluble fiber, like oatmeal, apples, prunes, pears and beans, can hamper the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream, and eating 5 to 10 grams or more of soluble fiber a day has been shown to lower total and LDL cholesterol. If you don’t get enough, certain fiber supplements can help. Blond psyllium, at a dosage of 10 to 12 grams a day, has been shown to lower LDL levels.

3. Let the sun shine in. Getting enough vitamin D can reduce your risk of heart disease by as much as 47 percent. The best source is direct exposure to 20 to 30 minutes of sunlight, without sunscreen. If you have dark skin, skin cancer fears, or live in northern states, vitamin D supplements can help. Dosage recommendations range from 400 IU to as much as 3000 IU per day for cardio-protective benefits.

4. Supplement with sterols. These naturally occurring substances block the body’s absorption of cholesterol, and some studies suggest that sterols can lower LDL by as much as 15 percent, without affecting HDL levels. You’ll find them in small am0unts in a wide variety of foods, as well as some fortified foods. Or choose a plant sterol supplement; studies show effects at 2 grams a day.

5. Eat your (cran)berries. They keep blood cells from clumping, increase HDL levels, and have potent anti-inflammatory effects.  2, 3, 4 The antioxidants in cranberries also keep LDL cholesterol from oxidizing; oxidized cholesterol is more likely to stick to artery walls and cause atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Skip the sugary cranberry juice “cocktail,” and add 100 percent cranberry juice to water or your usual juice. Or use cranberry extract supplements for the same benefits. And wash them down with plenty of water: five or more glasses a day is associated with reduced risk of heart disease.5

6. Get excited. Long-term, chronic stress is hard on the heart, but occasional adrenaline boosting can naturally upset heart rhythm and boost heart health. Alternate excitement stress reduction; playing hooky from work every once in a while can lower heart attack risk. And practice calming your mind. In one study, people with heart disease who practiced meditation daily halved their risk for heart attack, stroke and death. 6

7. Swap sugar for honey. Studies in the 1960s7 first linked higher sugar intake with increased cardiovascular disease, and later studies found that eating sugar lowers HDL levels and boosts LDL and triglycerides.8 Even teens are at risk; those who eat too much sugar substantially increase their risk of heart disease later in life.9 And any food with a high glycemic index, especially sugar, pasta, rice, potatoes and bread, can impact the heart. In one study, women with the highest intake of these foods were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease compared to women with the lowest intake.10 Steer clear of high glycemic foods in general, and swap sugar for honey in small amounts; studies have shown it contains antioxidants, which can protect the heart from damage. 11

8. Don’t skimp on protein. Many studies show that eating adequate protein lowers heart disease risk by as much as 26 percent, probably because it replaces high-glycemic carbohydrates in the diet. Good sources: beef, chicken and eggs are high in B vitamin to reduce levels of homocysteine, a dangerous compound that can cause narrowing of the arteries; eggs also contain betaine, which can lower homocysteine by as much as 75 percent. Always choose lean, grass-fed and organic protein sources; they’re lower in fat and calories, and contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that can reduce cancer risk.

9. Kill your grill. Grilling and other high-heat cooking methods form compounds in meat that cause inflammation and oxidative damage, and increase heart disease risk. For safer grilling, use lean meat and marinate it in lemon juice and olive oil before cooking. Or wrap foods in foil pouches and place them on the grill to avoid direct contact with heat and lessen the formation of dangerous compounds. Even better, dust off your crock pot, and cook meat the traditional way: slow and low.

10. Drink filtered coffee. Unfiltered varieties (like espresso and French-pressed) contain diterpenes and other compounds that increase risk of heart disease.12 And drink it in moderation: coffee can increase blood pressure and arterial stiffness,13 and drinking more than six cups a day increases cholesterol and boosts blood levels of heart-damaging homocysteine by as much as 10 percent.14 Better yet, switch to green tea; it’s antioxidant flavonoids—the same protective compounds found in cranberries—that relax blood vessels and thin blood.   

11. Learn to love sardines. They’re high in omega-3 fats to prevent clotting, reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure;15 because they’re small, sardines tend to have fewer toxins than larger fish. Wild (not farmed) salmon and tuna are also good sources. If you’re not a fish fan, use supplements; the American Heart Association recommends about a gram (1,000 milligrams) of omega-3s a day.

12. Run in the wild. Exercise strengthens the heart, but beware of jogging down city sidewalks: exposure to air pollution increases risk of heart disease.16 Even short-term exposure to smoggy air can upset electrical activity of the heart, trigger stroke and heart failure, and exacerbate arterial disease. And choose exercise you love; people who stick with a certain activity, even if it’s walking or gardening, are likely to live the longest.

13. Eat your green beans. They a good source of chromium, a heart-protective nutrient that helps the body metabolize cholesterol, and improves insulin sensitivity. Other food sources include broccoli, potatoes, orange juice and turkey. Studies have shown that 200 micrograms a day can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes;17 that’s hard to get from foods, so take a chromium picolinate supplement for insurance.  

14. Make a pot of chili. It’s loaded with fiber-rich beans to lower cholesterol, and tomatoes, which are the best sources of lycopene. In some studies, people who ate four or more servings of beans a week reduced their risk of heart disease by 22 percent.18 And the lycopene in tomatoes inhibits LDL oxidation.19 While you’re at it, toss in a handful of chopped broccoli; another study found that eating more vegetables can reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 22 percent.20  

15. Swap your nuts. Almonds and walnuts are touted as the heart-healthiest nuts, but peanuts may be better. They’re rich in monounsaturated fats, which regulate cholesterol levels and blood pressure.21 In one study, people who ate peanuts lowered LDL and total cholesterol and increased HDL cholesterol, without making any other dietary changes.22 Macadamia nuts have similar heart-protective effects. 23

16. Be a clean freak. Wash your hands, and often; people with the highest levels of antibodies—substances produced when the body is fighting off infections—also had more clogging of their arteries. The same goes for brushing your teeth; studies have shown a correlation between gum disease, cavities, in increased risk of heart disease.24

17. Go out for Indian. It’s rich in heart-protective ginger, garlic and turmeric, the bright orange spice that gives curry its distinctive color. Turmeric contains curcuminoids that can reduce inflammation and prevent atherosclerosis, and may lower total cholesterol levels. 25, 26 Not an Indian-food fan? Take turmeric capsules; dosage recommendations range from 600 to 1200 mg per day.

18. Sleep in. Inadequate shut-eye—5 hours or less per night–can increase your risk of heart disease by at much as 40 percent. It may be that sleep disturbances elevate blood pressure and reduce insulin sensitivity, which can impact heart health. 27 Studies have also shown that people who complain of fatigue have higher fibrinogen levels, a protein that can cause blood to clump and lower blood flow to the heart. Trouble sleeping? Try melatonin, valerian, or other natural sleep aids.  

19. Have a spinach salad. Spinach is high in magnesium, which helps prevent coronary arteries from having spasms, reduces platelet clumping, lowers blood pressure and regulates heart rhythms.28 Pumpkin seeds, Swiss chard, beans and fish are other good sources. Or take magnesium supplements to ensure you’re getting enough; dosage recommendations range from 400 to 1000 mg a day, or in a one-to-one ratio of calcium to magnesium.  

20. Take L-argenine. This amino acid is a precursor to nitric oxide, a compound in the body that keeps arteries flexible, increases blood flow and improves blood vessel function. Some studies have suggested that L-arginine reduces the risk of atherosclerosis and can lower blood pressure. 29, 30, 31 The recommended dosage ranges from 750 mg to 3 grams per day.