Heart disease remains the UK’s biggest killer, but there is much to be optimistic about: deaths are plummeting as we get better at preventing, diagnosing and treating the problem. Heart attacks have fallen by 40 per cent since the introduction of the smoking ban in 2007, according to a major review published earlier this year.
Indeed, we’re learning more and more about how lifestyle can wreck – or protect – the health of the heart. Last week, American researchers reported that simply brushing your teeth thoroughly can dramatically reduce levels of inflammation in the body and help protect against heart attacks.
It’s never too early to start thinking about your heart and taking steps to care for it, says Johannes Hinrich von Borstel, prospective cardiologist and former paramedic, and author of a new book Heart: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Important Organ. After all, atherosclerosis – the build up of fatty deposits in the arteries that can lead to heart disease and stroke – starts at the age of 25.
“Atherosclerosis is the only disease that everyone in the world has from the age of 50,” says von Borstel. “One hundred per cent of people have it. It is something you cannot completely stop, but you can influence how fast it develops.”
Drawing on the latest research, and his own experience treating patients with a host of heart conditions, von Borstel reveals some of the surprising ways to keep your heart beating healthily, whatever your age – from having more sex to ditching the weekend lie-ins.
Have sex (with someone you love)
According to von Borstel, exerting yourself between the sheets is one of the most beneficial exercises you can do for your heart. “As well as an entire cardiac workout, before and during intercourse there is a big release of hormones that have a protective effect on our cardiovascular system,” he explains.
An orgasm can release 50 different chemical messengers. One substance, oxytocin, the so-called cuddle hormone, triggered by affectionate physical contact, is proven to lower blood pressure, promote the healing of wounds and reduce stress.
Having sex with someone you love, rather than a stranger, is far better for hearts because genuine affection causes the release of higher levels of oxytocin, says von Borstel.
This was borne out in a recent study of 2,200 people by Michigan State University, which found women over 50 who had regular sex tended to have lower blood pressure, and so a lower risk of heart problems – but the benefits were only seen in those who reported high levels of satisfaction and enjoyment from sex.
Endorphin is another useful hormone released during sex – this helps to lower heart rate and blood pressure to the heart muscle during exercise. Meanwhile, both oestrogen, which is anti-inflammatory, and testosterone, which lowers cholesterol levels in the blood, receive a boost through sex, too. High cholesterol causes fatty deposits in blood vessels to attach to artery walls, causing clogging and arteriosclerosis, says von Borstel, who recommends having “as much loving sex as possible”.
Is sex safe if you have a heart condition? People suffering with angina – chest pain from narrowed arteries – or who have recently had a heart attack or heart surgery often feel anxious about sexual activity. But experts advise that it can be safely resumed as soon as a patient feels well enough after their treatment – normally four to six weeks.
Last year, a study by Ulm University, which followed more than 500 heart attack survivors, found no relationship between how often they had sex and their risk of future heart problems. The authors said sex provided a good form of physical exercise for the heart, and patients should not give it up.
Eat raw garlic every day
“Vegetables and fruits have secondary phytochemicals that have the same effect as different [heart protective] medications but not in a dose that is dangerous for your body,” says von Borstel. He cites ginger, onions and garlic as blood thinners which promote blood flow through vessels and improved blood supply to organ and tissues, and recommends grating a teaspoon of root ginger or two or three teaspoons of grated garlic into a glass of water a day to naturally reduce blood pressure.
“As long as you eat in a balanced way, it is no problem to eat these every day,” he says. Allicin, the key ingredient found in garlic and onions, is thought to act on the kidneys, changing levels of hormones and dilating the blood vessels. Research by the Institute of Food Research found that eating a 100g to 200g serving of onions (one to two onions) had the biggest impact on inflammation.
Sleep well (but not too much)
Sleepless nights are associated with an increased heart rate, high blood pressure and a spike in chemicals linked with inflammation – all of which can strain the heart. Researchers from the University of Warwick recently reported that those who sleep for less than six hours a night and have disturbed sleep have a 48 per cent greater chance of heart disease and 15 per cent greater chance of stroke.
Insomnia is also a source of stress and stress triggers adrenalin, which makes our hearts beat faster and, over prolonged periods, can lead to angina or even heart failure.
However, getting too much sleep can be dangerous too – researchers at the University of West Virginia in 2010 have found that those who regularly sleep for more than nine hours a night have an almost 50 per cent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or other cardiovascular disease.
Increasingly, evidence suggests that irregular sleep patterns – for example, lying in on the weekends – disrupts the delicate balance of our circadian rhythms, which may alter processes in the body such as the metabolism of sugar and raise the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
Although research is ongoing, von Borstel’s conclusion is clear: “Sleeping too much and too little can be harmful to our health. Seven is the perfect number for most adults.”
The lifestyle changes that work like statins
Statins – cheap, cholesterol lowering drugs taken by an estimated 7 million people in the UK – continue to be the subject of debate, with critics arguing they are being inappropriately prescribed to healthy people and cause side-effects such as muscle aches.
This month, scientists from Florida Atlantic University made the startling claim that brushing teeth thoroughly with specialist toothpaste that shows plaque in the mouth could prevent heart attacks and strokes by reducing inflammation in the body close to levels achieved by statins.
Von Borstel says statins can be highly beneficial in patients with dangerously high cholesterol, or who have a history of heart disease, “but the risk of side effects should be balanced with the positive effects of this therapy. Even if the risk of side effects is quite low, it exists.” He says following a healthy Mediterranean style diet, low in saturated fat and rich in healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and oily fish can help to lower cholesterol naturally.
Why the Egyptians had heart disease
X-rays of mummies have revealed that the ancient Egyptians, whose lifestyles more than 3,000 years ago ensured they didn’t smoke, exercised regularly and had typically low fat diets, suffered atherosclerosis. One explanation put forward by experts for their diseases arteries is the fact their diet relied so heavily on bread made from white flour.
White flour is a refined, simple carbohydrate that leads to a rapid rise in blood sugar and increases a person’s chances of weight gain, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes – all of which puts you at a higher risk of coronary heart disease.
“Too much sugar is not good for your heart because it can cause weight gain and diabetes,” says von Borstel. “The biggest problem is that sugar sometimes hides in food and is not recognisable – for example in noodles, white bread and potatoes. One of the best ways to reduce sugar intake is to cut down on food made with white flour.” He advises switching from white carbohydrates to wholemeal varieties, to reduce the spike in blood sugar.