Your heart is an amazing organ. It beats around 70 times a minute, non-stop for 80 years or more, pumping more than 10 million litres of blood around your body every year. Yet too many of us take it for granted. Heart disease and diseases of the circulatory system account for one in every three deaths in the UK every year.
Hypertension or high blood pressure is probably one of the most common conditions to affect the heart. A measure of the force that the blood applies to the walls of the arteries as it flows through them, blood pressure (BP) is expressed as two numbers: a young healthy adult, for example, could expect to have a resting BP of 120/80mmHg ('one hundred and twenty over eighty millimetres of mercury').
The top figure, the systolic blood pressure, is a measure of the pressure when your heart muscle is contracting and pumping blood. This is the maximum pressure in your blood system. The bottom figure, the diastolic blood pressure, is the pressure when your heart rests between beats. This is the minimum pressure in your blood system.
It's quite normal for blood pressure to rise when you exert yourself or when you feel stressed or anxious, but a consistently high blood pressure at rest places extra strain on your heart. High blood pressure is defined as a consistently increased systolic BP of over 140 and/or a diastolic BP of 90 or over. Approximately 30% of people in the UK are affected.
Another prevalent heart-related problem is of course high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a type of fat or lipid found in all cells in the body (it forms part of their outer layer), which is transported around the body in the blood attached to a protein.
This combination of fat and protein is called a lipoprotein. Lipoproteins can be high density (HDL) or low density (LDL).
Although we often hear how cholesterol is bad for us (and too much of the wrong type is), some cholesterol is actually essential for good health.
HDL cholesterol is mostly made up of protein and a small amount of fat. It helps to protect against heart disease by transporting fats away from the arteries and is often referred to as 'good' cholesterol.
LDL cholesterol is made up of mostly fat and a small amount of protein. It can cause cholesterol levels to build up in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease and is often referred to as 'bad' cholesterol.
The key to healthy cholesterol and a healthy heart is all about balance: high levels of HDL and low levels of LDL. But again so many of us get this balance wrong, with a whopping 60% of men and women in the UK estimated to have raised cholesterol.
If you've been told by your doctor you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, it is important you work with him or her and follow any treatment regime they set out for you. However there's plenty you can do too:
A healthy diet really can work wonders for your heart! Fresh fruit and veg are rich in potassium which helps to maintain low blood pressure; bananas, tomatoes and broccoli are particularly good sources; fibre (found in wholegrains, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds) helps to mop up cholesterol and essential fatty acids (found in oily fish, nuts and seeds) help to keep blood thin and potentially aid weight loss.
Keep artery-clogging saturated fats to a minimum! They raise your LDL levels of cholesterol, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, whereas unsaturated fats, found in vegetable oils, sunflower spreads, nuts and avocados, help to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol.
Reduce your intake of salt or better still cut it down and then cut it out altogether. Processed foods and favourites such as bread, cheese and sliced meats are among some of the worst offenders!
Limit caffeine to once or twice a week; a regular caffeine hit every few hours raises blood pressure due to the effect it has on the adrenal glands.
As far as supplements are concerned, plant sterols have been found to help maintain a healthy heart. They are very similar in chemical structure to cholesterol and therefore interfere with cholesterol absorption, resulting in less cholesterol being absorbed into the blood stream.
There are several ways of incorporating plant sterols into your diet. One very recent development is Finland's Elixi HeartCare MultiBene®. Now available in the UK, each 10g Elixi sachet provides a unique combination of plant sterols, potassium and fibre-rich flax seed, to help with both cholesterol and blood pressure. Scientists agree that reducing both cholesterol and blood pressure is extra beneficial for your heart. Simply sprinkle the contents of one sachet over cereal or porridge, or mix into a yoghurt or smoothie for a delicious, heart-healthy start to your day! Gluten-free and suitable for vegetarians, Elixi HeartCare Multibene® costs £24.95 for 30 sachets, a one month supply, and is available from Holland & Barrett and independent health stores and pharmacies nationwide, as well as online from www.healthy2u.co.uk.
Finally if you smoke, stop; keep your alcohol consumption to within the recommended limits and exercise regularly. Regular exercise, 20 minutes every day, even if it's just a gentle walk or time spent in the garden can also make a huge difference.
If you have any concerns about your heart, consult your GP or healthcare provider.
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