8 Vital Steps to a Healthy Heart

September 08, 2019

"Since this organ is so vital to our existence, we had better know how to take care of it."

Dr. Keller is talking matters of the heart today! It's our most vital organ and none of us can live without it. That's why on today's Inside Health with Dr. Keller Wortham, MD, we'll learn how it works, how to recognize symptoms of possible heart health problems, and 8 steps to follow to keep it beating healthy and strong!

Video Highlights

  • 01:20: Heart Basics
  • 02:09: Heart Statistics
  • 04:45: Heart Attack Symptoms
  • 05:48: 8 Steps to a Healthy Heart
  • 15:23: Wrap-Up

Do you ever think about how miraculous your heart is? It starts beating when we are just a few weeks old, in our mother's womb, and it keeps beating every day until the day we die (obviously, because we can't live without it).  It's often associated with love, which makes sense because it really must love us. It's with us day and night doing the unflagging work of keeping us alive!

Since this organ is so vital to our existence, we had better know how to take care of it. If we neglect it, that could mean serious trouble. You can neglect a human lover (although you shouldn’t), such as your husband, wife, girlfriend, or boyfriend. You might get divorced, you might get separated, but chances are you'll live. But if you neglect your heart, the results could be devastating. So, let's talk about heart health. 

Heart Basics

The heart is a muscle about the size of our fist, which sits right in the center of our chest.  Primarily, it's a pump that is responsible for getting blood throughout our body. It's got a complex system of four different chambers that keep the blood pumping in the right direction.  And it's got an even more complex system of wires and electrical circuits that allow it to beat automatically our entire lives, but also allow it to change with our environment and our activity — so it can beat faster or slower based on our exercise level, whether we're sleeping, and our stress level. So, it's an amazing machine. 

Heart Statistics

The heart will beat over 2 billion times in a normal lifetime and it will move over 200 million liters of blood.  That is enough to fill over 100 Olympic sized swimming pools! So, it's just mind blowing. But instead of talking about how it accomplishes this feat of beating day and night for years and years and moving such a massive amount of blood despite being the size of a medium-sized mango, we want to talk about what we can do to protect our hearts and to encourage them to keep beating all those years and keep us alive.

The sad reality is that most people in this country have a good probability of dying from something heart-related. Heart attacks and cardiovascular disease are the number one cause of death in both men and women. One in four people will suffer from heart disease and eventually die from it. So this topic is really important.

In the relationship with your heart, just like your human relationships, step one to treating it right is understanding it. The information we’re going to give you today will help you understand your heart, and why and how to take good care of it. 

We've talked about the fact that the heart is a muscle, and just like other muscles, the heart needs oxygen. It gets that oxygen from these tiny little arteries called the coronaries and they're basically infusing the heart with blood and oxygen so that it can keep beating. The problem with the heart is that unlike other muscles, it never gets to take a break.  If you've ever overworked your biceps or your triceps, and it starts to hurt or you get a cramp, that's usually due to not having enough oxygen in the muscle and a build-up of toxic chemicals within the muscle. When that happens, you give that muscle a rest. But your heart doesn't have the luxury of taking a break. So, if it stops getting the oxygen that it needs — due to something like a clog in one of those tiny arteries — it keeps on beating, it builds up toxins and the muscle eventually starts to die. That is what a heart attack is. 

Heart Attack Symptoms

Heart attacks are very serious, so let’s go over some of the symptoms just so you're aware of what heart attack symptoms are. The main symptom that people experience is chest pain, but it can also feel just like chest pressure and sometimes in women it's even more subtle.  Sometimes people can even think it's just like some heartburn or acid reflux, but it actually could be a heart attack.  

Some of the other symptoms associated with a heart attack include:  

  • Shortness of breath. 
  • Nausea and sweating 
  • Pain in your jaw and down your arm.  Typically, it's the left arm, but it can be either one.  
  • Dizziness

8 Steps to a Healthy Heart

So, what's our mission? Well, our mission is to prevent our heart from getting heart disease.  How do we do that? To that end, we’re going to give you some steps to help protect your heart.  

Exercise

The first thing on this very important list is exercise — it is so important to your heart.  Basically, your heart is a muscle, and it likes to be trained. And the more it's trained the more efficient it gets. Like any muscle, if you work it out well, it'll perform more optimally. In your heart’s case, this usually means something called aerobic exercise. This just means its exercise that gets your heart rate up and your breathing rate up for an extended period of time. Usually the magic number is between 20 minutes and 45 minutes. 

Everybody has a target heart rate that they want to get to based on age. Loosely, you're looking for about 80% of your maximum heart rate, and you can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from the number 200. So, if you're 50 years old, your target heart rate is 150 (200 - 50) and then you want to get to about 80% of that during exercise. So your goal should be to do aerobic exercise three to four times per week, for at least 20 minutes, or longer if you can.

Manage Blood Pressure

Do everything you can to keep your blood pressure low. Low blood pressure is really important for the heart because, remember, the heart is pumping blood throughout your whole body through the blood vessels. If your blood vessels are highly constricted and the pressure is up in your system, the heart has to work even harder to counteract the pressure in your blood vessels and get blood where it needs to go. Little shifts in blood pressure over time can create a massive workload for the heart muscle and it could tire out with time. In fact, if the heart is constantly beating against high pressure, it can start to grow. And in a literal sense, a large heart is not a good thing. The muscle starts to get enlarged, it starts to get weaker, and it doesn't have the same capabilities of pumping blood as a nice tight smaller heart.  So keep your blood pressure under control1

Keep Your Cholesterol Low

So, cholesterol is a waxy molecule that you have in your body. It's important for things like cell membranes and hormones, but cholesterol has another property.  It can cause inflammation and it can start to deposit on the inside of arteries — sort of like pouring turkey fat down a drain. In that case, you've got a pipe and you need to have water flowing down the drain. They always tell you don't pour turkey fat at Thanksgiving down the drain because it will harden, it will clog around the pipe and you'll get a blockage. There’s a very similar thing that happens in your blood vessels. As we discussed, the vessels to your heart (which we call the coronaries), are very, very small. They have to get your blood to the heart so that it can keep doing its job, but because they're so small and so narrow, they can become clogged very easily. So keeping your cholesterol levels in check helps ensure that those coronary arteries are going to stay nice and open.  

Eat a Healthy Diet

Why is eating healthy so important? Well, there are so many properties of the food that are so important, including vitamins and minerals that help balance out your metabolism. Fruits and vegetables, they are high in antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation. Just like cholesterol, inflammation is so important to reduce so that you don't cause the corrosion of the blood vessels (kind of  like rusting of the pipes). We know that foods that are high in fiber can help lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure, so these foods are a health double whammy. You want to try for a healthy diet that's low in saturated fats, because if you're eating a lot of cholesterol in your diet, your cholesterol level is going to go up.  If you're eating high saturated fats your inflammation also goes up. So you really need to eat non-processed foods that are low in sodium, so you don't raise your blood pressure, low in saturated fats so you don't cause that inflammation and increase your cholesterol, and also low in carbohydrates or processed sugars.  

Keep Your Blood Sugar Under Control

People with diabetes, which is basically a condition that causes high blood sugar, have almost twice the risk of a heart attack as people without diabetes. So, if you're someone whose blood sugars are creeping up, start working to get that under control. If you have diabetes, do your best to manage your blood sugar with diet, exercise, and medications if necessary.  Sugar, when it travels through the body in high amounts, is very inflammatory and it can deposit on nerves and on those tiny blood vessels including the coronaries. So if your blood sugar is high for long periods of time, that process can start to really corrode the arteries and set you up for a devastating event like a heart attack.  

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Fortunately, a lot of things we’ve already addressed — eating healthy, exercising, etc. — are going to be great for helping you maintain a healthy weight. In general when people are overweight, the heart has to do more work to get the blood throughout the body, and also hormones tend to shift around and your body can tend to be more inflammatory.  As we have talked about before, inflammation is not a great thing for your cardiovascular system. So, maintaining an ideal body weight, or even just getting your body weight down by 5%, can have a huge impact on your heart, blood pressure, and blood sugar. If you're struggling with weight loss, we encourage you to check out some of Dr. Keller’s other videos for some strategies. It can be an overwhelming topic for a lot of people, but there are things that you can do that will help get your body weight down and benefit your heart as well as a lot of your other organ systems.

Stop Smoking  

We know, it keeps coming up, but that’s because it’s bad for you in so many ways. We understand that it's a very powerful addiction, because a lot of people know it's bad for them and they just really struggle trying to quit. 

Smoking is so bad for your heart in two ways:  

  • Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it causes blood vessels to clamp down.  And of course, if you've got tiny blood vessels in your heart clamping them down so they become even narrower, especially if they're already narrowed by some other condition like high cholesterol, can really set up a decreased flow that could lead to a heart attack. So, that vasoconstriction from the stimulant of the nicotine really puts you at a high risk for heart attack.  
  • There are a lot of other chemicals in tobacco that are proinflammatory — carbon monoxide and tar and a bunch of different carcinogens. 

People generally think about the lung issues with cigarettes, but there's this whole other inflammatory aspect that affects your heart and your blood vessels. The good news is as soon as you stop smoking, things start to turn around quickly! Within 48 hours of quitting smoking your blood pressure already starts to come down. Within a week or so, your risk for a heart attack is dropping precipitously because you're not getting the inflammation, and your arteries are healing themselves. So, as you get months and then years away from smoking, your risk of a heart attack can go back to almost what it was before you even started smoking.  So there’s hope!

Manage Stress

There's so much stress in our lives. We all have work and family obligations, demands on our time, and stressful relationship situations. There are so many things in life that can cause stress, but your heart doesn't like stress. So, do whatever you can to lower your stress levels.  Getting adequate sleep can help. Exercise certainly can help lower your stress levels, or just spending time in nature, and deep breathing. Socializing with different groups over a common cause, or volunteering can help lower stress (so long as it doesn’t increase it by adding to your existing obligations… manage your time wisely).  There are so many things that you can do that can actually help you lower stress, and as you lower stress, your blood pressure comes down, your cortisol levels come down, which reduces inflammation in your body, and you're going to do your heart a world of good.

Wrap-Up

So, there you go. The heart is a very important organ. It's there for us, and we need to be there for it. We need to protect it and keep it going until the day we die. So remember to exercise, keep your blood pressure low, keep your cholesterol low, eat a healthy diet, keep your blood sugar under control, maintain a healthy body weight, stop smoking, and manage your stress.

We hope this was helpful. If you've got questions about heart health, please write us.  And as always, have discussions with your own doctor. Everybody is different and your heart situation may be different, so talk personally with your physician and get on the right track to getting your heart in the best possible health. 

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