Keeping our hearts healthy is not only about lowering cholesterol and watching our blood pressure. Just like most other diseases, heart disease comes from inflammation. Inflammation is caused by many different factors, most of which are lifestyle based. Genetics can also be a factor in heart disease.

Our hormones play a big role in inflammation, well-being, and even how healthy our hearts are. Stress hormones such as cortisol play an important role in supporting us mentally and physically. Cortisol also regulates daytime energy and sleep. This level is highest right after we wake up and drifts down throughout the day until the lowest point, at bedtime. This rhythm helps with daytime energy and sleeping well, not to mention feeling great during the day. Too much stress or chronic stress can cause elevated cortisol levels which may cause us to “stress eat”, not sleep and increase inflammation. Stress can even affect other hormone systems. Stress may increase blood pressure and blood sugar. Cholesterol goes up because it is the building blocks of making new hormones, like cortisol.

Male hormone, testosterone, can decrease both with age and stress. The loss of testosterone may increase heart related levels such as cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. Improving testosterone with lifestyle, supplements or testosterone replacement can improve these levels to keep the heart healthier. Blood levels need to be monitored on testosterone therapy, as higher levels can cause the blood to be “thicker” which may increase risk of clot or stroke. Working with your provider to assure testosterone replacement is safe for you is important.

Female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, are also heart protective. Heart disease increases about 5-10 years after menopause due to loss of these hormones with the body trying to compensate with higher cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. The WHI study completed in 2001 showed many benefits in HRT, hormone replacement therapy, but there were concerns with a slight increased risk in cancers and blood clots. However synthetic hormones were used, and research since then has shown benefits with bio identical hormone therapy without increased cancer or blood clot risk beyond your own risk.

Thyroid is the third primary hormone system that can also affect heart disease. Hypothyroid means low functioning thyroid and when thyroid is low functioning it may decrease the heart pump muscle strength. Hyperthyroid, or overactive thyroid, may cause irregular heart beats and changes in the blood that increases heart disease risk.

Inflammation is the key component of heart disease. Inflammation may come from pain or injury, lifestyle choices, hormonal imbalances, and other causes.

Good News! Lifestyle is THE most important factor to improve your heart health, and the factor that you have the most control over! Exercise decreases inflammation in muscle, joint and even in your arteries. The increased blood flow when your heart rate goes up is like a little scouring pad, working away at inflammation in the arteries. *** MAKE SURE YOU CHECK WITH YOUR PROVIDER BEFORE STARTING AN EXERCISE PROGRAM! ***

Healthy eating, including a colorful variety of veggies and fruits, clean proteins and good fats (omega 3’s) can directly reduce inflammation everywhere in your body, including the heart. Decreasing or eliminating sugar and artificial sweeteners is very powerful in improving heart health. This is difficult for most of us. Try substituting something healthy instead of not eating anything to avoid sugar. Starchy carbs can be converted into fat or blood sugar easily so replacing white rice, bread and mashed potatoes, and other starches with whole grains can be healthy as well. Eating foods in their natural state rather than processed is better as well, for instance eating brown rice rather than a slice of bread with a meal.

Dairy can be inflammatory for some people; if your gut has a hard time digesting milk products it may be causing a systemic inflammatory response. Dairy and meats, especially red meat, are high in saturated fat, which in the presence of inflammation can lead to plaque in arteries.

Fasting overnight from supper to breakfast or when you are hungry the next day may improve blood sugar levels as well. Sleep is very important in restoring the body’s metabolic system as well as repairing tissues, decreasing inflammation, regulating hormones and more. 7-8 hours of sleep is best for this reset process.

Stress is present in all life and is subjective, meaning how each of us reacts to the same stress can vary. The goal in life is not to be stress free but to be able to cope with stress in positive ways, which improves inflammation and cortisol. Taking time to destress is very important and can be as simple as remembering to take a breath now and then, taking time to do something you enjoy, journaling, meditation, prayer or therapy. Giving yourself permission to address your response to stress is very powerful.

Great news! You can keep your heart healthy simply with lifestyle! If you need guidance or have health conditions that may affect your ability to change lifestyle, a functional medicine provider can help you to identify these concerns and recommend a treatment plan for you!