Women are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, and yet cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women. One in two will die from it. In fact, according to Statistics Canada (2003), the number of deaths from heart disease and stroke is now virtually the same for women and men: 36,823 versus 37,004. That’s why it’s even more important today to prevent heart disease and stroke among women.
UNIQUE RISK FACTORS
While the major risk factors for heart disease—smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol—are the same in women and men, there are risk factors unique to women:
Birth control pills: Modern birth control pills are much safer than forms used decades ago. In women under the age of 35 who don’t smoke, contraceptive use does not increase the risk of stroke. However, in a small proportion of women, oral contraceptives increase the risk of high blood pressure and blood clots.
Pregnancy: Pre-eclampsia is a condition that typically starts after the 20th week of pregnancy, and is related to increased blood pressure and protein in the mother’s urine. Gestational diabetes occurs because a woman’s body produces extra insulin due to increasing levels of pregnancy hormones interfering with the body’s ability to use insulin efficiently.
Menopause: During a woman’s reproductive life cycle, the hormone estrogen provides a protective effect on cardiovascular health. Her risk of heart disease and stroke increases during menopause because the ovaries slowly stop producing estrogen. A menopausal woman may experience an increase in LDL or “bad” cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and a decrease in HDL or “good” cholesterol. She may also begin to have higher blood pressure. Low estrogen may increase body fat above the waist, stop blood from clotting properly, and affect the way the body handles sugar, a precursor condition to diabetes.
FOOD FOR YOUR HEART
Eating a lot of colourful fruits and vegetables provides you with an abundance of heart-healthy antioxidants and essential nutrients. Consume garlic and onions liberally, as the sulfur-containing compounds in them have been shown to lower blood pressure. Eat cold-water fish such as salmon and mackerel at least twice a week; the fats in these fish thin the blood and have numerous beneficial effects on cardiovascular health.
Try following the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). These provide guidelines for healthy eating for your heart, encouraging whole foods and fibre, while limiting saturated and trans fats.
Don’t be afraid of all fats: “good” unsaturated fats such as olive oil can decrease blood pressure and may reduce cholesterol’s ability to damage arteries.
THE BEAT GOES ON
The combination of good diet and daily exercise will significantly improve your chances of living a long and healthy life. Exercise promotes weight loss, healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and stress reduction. All of this has direct, positive effects on your cardiac health. Stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, tai chi, yoga, deep breathing and getting adequate sleep will further benefit your heart. If you’re a smoker, stop. If you don’t exercise, today is the day to start. If you’re under stress, be kind to yourself so you can cope.
Cardiovascular disease is a wide-ranging problem, and is often referred to as the “silent killer.” It’s the rusting of our arteries, literally. The tubes that carry nutrients to our organs rot from the inside. This is not just about dying from heart attacks and strokes. It’s about kidney failure and loss of quality of life. As a female, it’s important to know your body, listen to changes that may be occurring in your health and be proactive to prevent cardiovascular disease.
NATURAL HEALTH PRODUCTS FOR YOUR HEART
Omega-3 fish oils: reduce inflammation; improve cholesterol levels; reduce risk for heart rhythm disturbances and heart palpitations, atrial fibrillation and ventricular arrhythmia
Vitamin C: aids in lowering total cholesterol and blood pressure; raises HDL cholesterol levels; inhibits platelet aggregation
Vitamin E: protects against arteriosclerosis
Magnesium: dilates coronary arteries; reduces the effort with which the heart pumps; improves heart rate
Coenzyme Q10: improves energy for the heart; may help to lower cholesterol and blood pressure
Vitamins B6, B12 & folic acid: reduces levels of homocysteine
Niacin: reduces LDL and triglycerides; increases HDL
Garlic: contains an allicin potential of at least 4,000 mcg, shown to lower blood pressure
Hawthorne: effective at lowering blood pressure; improves heart function
*Always speak to a health professional such as a naturopathic doctor before beginning a supplement regime.