Author: Catherine Guthrie
Source: Natural Health, February 2008
You know, of course, that the most effective way to keep your heart in top shape is a balanced diet and regular exercise. But if you’re like most people, you’ve got a heap of good intentions, a head of broccoli wilting in the crisper, and a set of weights languishing under the bed. The good news: Supplements like fish oil, herbs, and vitamins can help fill in the nutritional and exercise gaps and fortify your heart’s health.
“The vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you get from supplements can absolutely help keep the heart going strong,” says Jim Roberts, M.D., a cardiologist in Toledo, Ohio, and coauthor of Reverse Heart Disease Now (Wiley, 2008). But, he warns, don’t wait until your heart calls for help. “If you start early and stay ahead of the damage, you’ll be much better off.” That said, it’s also never too late to start taking natural supplements for your most vital organ. Mark Houston, M.D., director of the Hypertension Institute in Nashville and author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Hypertension (Grand Central Publishing, 2003), advises, “Supplements can not only prevent heart disease, but even reverse damage that’s already been done.”
We did some homework to find out exactly which supplements you should be taking – and provided this cheat sheet of the very best ones for overall heart health, including those most effective for high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Best for Overall Coverage
In the 1970s, researchers in Denmark noticed something curious: Inuit in Greenland ate 70 grams of fat a day – mostly from fish, seals, and whales – and when food was abundant, the fat fest could hit a belly-clutching 600 g. (By comparison, Americans who eat 2,000 calories a day are told not to consume more than 67g of fat.) Yet only 3.5 percent of Inuit died of heart disease. Today, everyone knows the secret in the Inuit’s sauce was fish oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Twenty-five years later, scientists are still slack-jawed over the oil’s healing powers.
Omega Power. Omega-3s can put the kibosh on high blood pressure and tamp down triglycerides, a group of damaging fats in the blood. They can also slice your overall odds of keeling over from heart disease by more than 30 percent. A recent meta-analysis – the combination of several research studies for enhanced accuracy and clarity – found that a person’s risk of dying from heart disease drops by 7 percent per 20 g of omega-3 rich fish consumed (up to five servings a week).
How It Works. How does swallowing fat fight a disease that can be caused by eating too much fat? Because fish oil’s omega-3s don’t act like fat in the body; they act like hormones, explains Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., a scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center at the Stanford Prevention Research Center at the Stanford School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif. Fat is fuel, period. But omega-3s, like hormones, help to regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and inflammation – all key factors in heart disease. Although scientists are still figuring out exactly how fish oil works its magic, they do know that omega-3s interfere with the body’s ability to whip up a class of chemicals that raise and lower inflammation levels.
And you don’t need to relocate to Greenland, load up on fish fillets, or worry about mercury levels to cash in. Just 3 g a day of fish oil supplements – impurities like mercury are filtered out during processing – can boost heart health.
Bottom Line. Fish oil is remarkable safe and effective. “Every American should take fish oil,” advises Roberts. “You’d be nuts not to.”
Buying Guide. When choosing a fish oil supplement, look for one that delivers both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) -the two omega-3s found in fish.
Best for Maintaining Normal Blood Pressure
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10 for short) gooses every cell in the body into functioning at its peak. Cells that make up high-energy organs like the heart require more CoQ10 than cells in less-hardworking parts of the body like the fingernails. Although your body makes its own CoQ10 supply, reserves dwindle as you age, and heart disease takes an extra toll. High blood pressure depletes CoQ10 stores, making the heart weaker, so the vicious cycle continues. But you can boost your heart’s stash of energy by supplementing with CoQ10.
In a 2007 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Human Hypertension, scientists distilled the evidence from 12 CoQ10 studies and found a significant decrease in high blood pressure among volunteers who took the supplement. “Anyone who has any form of heart disease stands to benefit from CoQ10,” says Roberts. “It helps to meet the needs of an overworked heart.”
Here’s another case for combining conventional and complementary medicine: While statins can save lives, the drugs impede the body’s ability to make CoQ10. “If you take a statin, it will lower your CoQ10 level by 50 percent,” says Roberts. “However, if you take CoQ10 with your statin, you’ll get the benefit of the drug without any of the downside.”
Buying Guide. Since it needs fat in order to be absorbed into the body, CoQ10 is best taken either with food or in an oil-based softgel.
Carnitine is an amino acid that helps turn fat into fuel by pulling fat molecules out of the bloodstream and ushering them into cells, where they are burned. Carnitine if vital for heart health; whereas most muscles like to burn sugar, the heart prefers to burn fat. And while a healthy body makes enough carnitine to meet the heart’s needs, when the heart is weakened, supplemental carnitine can ferry extra fuel to the hard working muscle.
In studies, carnitine has been used with conventional drug therapy to ameltorate symptoms of chest pain, hardening of the arteries, and congestive heart failure. But Roberts also recommends it to his patients with high blood pressure. “Both CoQ10 and carnitine are necessary to accommodate the increased demand of the heart under stress,” he says.