Myths or Miracles? 5 Heart Supplements in the Spotlight
Is your ticker in danger? Though your risk is partly determined by your genes, which means it’s beyond your control, there’s plenty you can do to protect yourself. In fact, changing your lifestyle could save your life. As we enter National Heart Month, learn which foods can keep you from becoming another statistic, and which supplements amount to little more than hype…If you haven’t read up on heart health in a while, it might surprise you to learn that cholesterol limits have changed. A few decades ago, experts set target total cholesterol levels at anything under 240 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Today, your doctor is likely to recommend that your total cholesterol levels be 200 mg/dL or lower. Some guidelines even set the bar at 180 mg/dL or lower.Total cholesterol includes all forms of cholesterol – LDL and HDL. Recent studies have put LDL or “bad” cholesterol in the spotlight. Those at low risk for heart disease should strive for levels below 130 mg/dL; those at a higher risk should keep their total below 100 mg/dL.
With heart-health goals becoming stricter by the year, it’s no surprise that consumers are flocking to foods and supplements that promise to protect their cardiovascular system. Let’s review the basics of heart health, from diet to supplement.
Feeding Your Ticker
A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found a strong link between a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and legumes and improved levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol. Additional HDL-boosters include salmon and other omega-3 rich foods like flaxseed.
It’s wise to limit refined carbs and sugars, but avoid the strict fat-free diet regimen popularized in the 1970s and ’80s. New research suggests that the types of fat you consume are more important than the quantities.
Good vs. Bad Fats
Monounsaturated fats found in olives, canola, avocado, nuts, and seeds are among the best sources of “good” fats – the ones that improve HDL levels without raising LDL cholesterol. However, loading up on polyunsaturated fats like corn, safflower and soybean oils can lower both your LDL and HDL levels.
Another item to avoid: trans fat. Formed when unsaturated oils are partially hydrogenated, these fats raise harmful LDL levels and lower beneficial HDL cholesterol. To steer clear of trans fats, limit processed foods, especially snacks and packaged bakery items containing hydrogenated oils.
Heart Supplement #1: Psyllium
Fiber is a hot topic in health circles these days. Although whole-grain foods are important, you can also get fiber in the form of psyllium, a supplement long promoted for improving bowel regularity. Psyllium increases the soluble fiber content in your diet, which helps keep your total cholesterol levels low. Other good sources of soluble fiber include fruits, vegetables, legumes, and oats.
Heart Supplement #2: Policosanol
A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition used evidence from independent U.S. laboratories to conclude that the popular anti-cholesterol supplement policosanol is less effective than once thought. The study refuted health benefits cited by past reports, which came mainly from a single research group in Cuba, where policosanol is especially popular.
Heart Supplement #3: Vitamin B
Studies have found elevated levels of homocysteine in the blood of people with heart disease, which raises the possibility that lowering these levels can prevent heart trouble.
However, no study has proven this conclusively. In fact, the European Society of Cardiology recently stated that, although vitamin B supplements can dramatically lower homocysteine levels, they offer no heart protection. Their research also warned that folic acid and vitamin B pills – taken by some people to reduce homocysteine levels in the blood – may be harmful when combined.
Heart Supplement #4: Garlic
People have used garlic (Allium sativum) in heart tonics for centuries in many forms, from concentrated powder to liquid extract. Though it has no harmful effects, the social effects of the stinking rose (as it’s so lovingly referred to) can be unpleasant to say the least.
Several scientific studies suggest that garlic supplements may produce a moderate, short-term reduction in total cholesterol of 4 to 12%, including decreases in triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. However, garlic alone is probably insufficient to treat people with significantly elevated cholesterol levels, since it has not been shown to improve HDL cholesterol.
One drawback of garlic is its tendency to “thin” the blood. To avoid bleeding problems, never take it prior to or immediately after surgery, near giving birth, in combination with blood-thinning medications like aspirin or warfarin, or with high-dose vitamin E or ginkgo biloba. Another caveat: Garlic preparations may decrease the effectiveness of birth control drugs.
Consult your doctor before taking any supplements.
Heart Supplement #5: CoQ10
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10 for short) is a vitamin-like substance found in many foods. Our bodies produce it, too, particularly in muscle cells of the heart, though production decreases with age. Studies suggest it aids in the treatment of congestive heart failure.
Researchers have found that taking some cholesterol and blood pressure drugs, including statins and beta-blockers, disturb the body’s production of CoQ10. However, most health organizations have taken no position on the use of CoQ10 supplements.
Five Heart-Boosting Foods
Next time you’re at the supermarket, point your cart toward these real-life “miracle” heart foods.
- Beans: Shown to help lower both cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
- Fish: May help decrease inflammation and prevent irregular heartbeats and blood clots.
- Nuts: Can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
- Oats: Can help lower total cholesterol, especially LDL levels.
- Olive Oil: May help stave off atherosclerosis (hardened arteries), protect against free radicals and prevent inflammation.