February is American Heart Month, which is why we are going to discuss it here today.

Twenty-two hundred deaths per day.That’s the toll heart disease takes on American lives. That adds up to more than 800,000 deaths every year in American directly caused by heart attack and stroke. It is the leading cause of death in the United States.

Women and Heart Disease

While many people still consider heart disease to be primarily a man’s ailment, the public has recently been made aware of just how dangerous it is for women, as well. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women. In fact, 1/3 of all women die from heart disease, and about 42 million women live with it. After the age of 50, about half of all women’s death are resultant of cardiovascular disease.

Why is this? While there are many reasons, let’s examine a few of the most significant ones.

Risk Factors for heart disease include:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Menopause
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Obesity
  • High fat, high-cholesterol diet
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Increased c-reactive protein (CRP)
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • High blood pressure
  • Use of birth control pills

Menopause

After a woman reaches menopause, her estrogen falls rapidly. Along with the many reproductive functions estrogen regulates, it also keeps white blood cells from sticking to the insides of blood vessels. Premenopausal women have higher levels of annexin-A1 on the surface of white blood cells than their post-menopausal counterparts, as well. Annexin-A1 is linked to lower levels of inflammation, another condition that correlates with heart disease.

Inflammation

As previously mentioned, annexin-A1 levels fall after menopause. This may lead to a lowered ability to manage inflammation and inflammatory conditions. Inflammation is present related to other conditions as well, such as autoimmune disorders and food sensitivities. According to the American Heart Association, inflammation is a natural immune response that can further narrow vessels around arterial plaque buildup, leading to heart attack and stroke. Doctors can measure inflammation levels by taking a blood test and examining C-reactive protein (CRP). Increased levels indicate inflammation.

Atherosclerosis

Another significant contributor to cardiovascular disease is atherosclerosis, which is a hardening of the arteries. This occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the blood vessels, causing them to harden and narrow. As the condition worsens, blockages and ruptures can occur that lead to heart attack or stroke, as well as causing other symptoms.

Blood Lipids (Cholesterol and Triglycerides)

Cholesterol is found in animal products like beef, chicken, fish, eggs, and many others. Your body also produces about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day. You need this naturally produced cholesterol, because it maintains cell walls and structure and plays an important role in synthesizing many hormones. Foreign cholesterol (that is, dietary cholesterol from animal products), on the other hand, can stick to and line the walls of blood vessels, leading to atherosclerosis. Note that plant foods do not contain cholesterol.

In America, the average cholesterol level is 210 mg/dL, although ideally your cholesterol should be below 150 mg/dL. Your total cholesterol is a combination of high-density lipoproteins (HDL – good cholesterol) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL – bad cholesterol). Total cholesterol is the most important of these numbers. When it falls, it’s true that HDL falls as well, but an overall low number shows you are protected from heart disease.

Maintaining a careful watch of your cholesterol is important, because if it is falling the plaque inside of your arteries is draining, leaving them healthier, more stable, and less likely to rupture. This is important because ruptured plaque in your arteries is the most common cause of heart attack.

Triglycerides are fats that circulate in your blood to provide it with energy. They are the end-product of digesting and breaking down fat. Then, they bundle together into fat globules for transportation throughout the body. Many things affect your triglyceride levels, including dietary fats and simple sugars (as are found in fruit juice and processed foods). Many experts believe triglyceride levels are a more likely marker for heart disease than cholesterol, multiplying the effects of high cholesterol. Eating unrefined whole grains such as millet and quinoa can lower triglyceride levels.

Homocysteine

This amino acid is found in the blood, and it gets there when you eat meat. High levels of homocysteine correlate with increased risk of heart disease, low levels of vitamin B12, and renal disease. Methionine, which also raises homocysteine levels, is found in red meat, poultry, and fish.

Mitigating the Risks

While you cannot mitigate every heart attack risk, such as age or menopause, you can make many dietary changes that contribute to better heart health.

  1. The single most important thing you can do to protect your heart is to cut out (or significantly reduce) your intake of animal products including dairy, meat, and poultry. These foods clog the body, leading to plaque buildup and elevated homocysteine levels.
  2. Add more green vegetables in your diet. Adding these vegetables is also an extremely important step in protecting your heart, because they contain folic acid, which can lower homocysteine levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
  3. Implement glowing green smoothies into your daily routine! This exponentially increases your intake of raw, leafy green vegetables and provides you with important vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients associated with decreased risk of heart disease.
  4. Eat a plant-based diet. Plants don’t have cholesterol, which can help lower your overall levels.
  5. Eat garlic, which helps lower cholesterol, by incorporating it into your cooking.
  6. Oats contain high levels of soluble fiber, which may help lower cholesterol. Eat your oats in an unprocessed form such as oat groats or steel cut oatmeal. Processed and instant oatmeal may be high in sugar. Avoid oats processed in a factory that also processes wheat, or gluten cross-contamination may be a problem.
  7. Brightly colored vegetables such as red peppers and lemons contain high levels of vitamin C. This antioxidant vitamin can protect you against inflammation, and has been shown to lower cholesterol.
  8. Eat chia and flax seeds, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. This helps boost immunity, reducing triglycerides and inflammation. It can also help reduce blood pressure, prevent blood clots, protect your arteries from plaque buildup, and protect you against heart attack.
  9. Eat acai and other berries, which are high in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory, protective properties.
  10. Eat papaya. Not only is it delicious, but it is high in beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, folic acid, and antioxidants.
  11. Drink red wine in moderation. It contains resveratrol (flavonoids), which have been shown to be helpful to heart health.
  12. Eat carrots, which are high in the antioxidant carotenoids, which have been shown to protect heart health.