Ok... it's February... so it's all about Valentine's Day, right? Sorry if I don't sound more enthusiastic about it, but I have to admit, Valentine's Day is not my favorite holiday. Don't get me wrong. I love "love"! In fact, my totally awesome boyfriend in college, and my (now ex) husband of 13 years both arranged first dates with me on Valentine's Day. Random coincidence, and I found it very romantic. Yet it's normal to feel a bit jaded and faded about loves past – making me go around mumbling things in my head like "Love doesn't last!" and other forlorn proclamations. I'm sensitive when it comes to romance. Thankfully, we have our herbal allies to soften the blow and open us up to new possibilities again.
While matters of the emotional heart are tricky, matters of the physical heart don't have to be. Simple changes in diet, lifestyle, and some herbal support to help steer things in the right direction can make a huge difference in prevention and improvement of cardio vascular disease. My article on this topic (below) does some serious myth busting about the role of saturated fats and cholesterol in the diet. We've been lied to and cheated on by medical researchers, pharmaceutical companies, the US Department of Health, and giant agriculture industries including sugar, canola oil, soy, wheat and corn – all promoting hidden agendas for profit and using our declining health to line their pockets.
It's time to break up with the cheaters and liars, and reunite with our true love – the one that has always loved us from the very beginning – Nature! Plants, animals, water, wind, sun...
This article was lovingly written for the February Edition of AromaCulture Magazine, an online publication featuring informative articles written by respected aromatherapists and herbalist. I am humbled to be included among them. This issue is a nice blend of articles and recipes that speak to all aspects of taking care of our hearts.
Matters of the Heart – Nutritional and Herbal Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases
By Malia Thompson, CN, CCH
The health of the cardio-vascular system is greatly impacted by chronic conditions such as atherosclerosis, diabetes and high blood pressure. All of these conditions have roots in inflammation due to dietary choices. By removing inflammatory foods like processed sugars and carbohydrates, processed oils, and factory farmed meats; adding high quality fats and oils; as well as incorporating supportive herbs into our daily dietary routines; we give our heart the opportunity to perform at peak levels for years to come.
As controversial a topic that it is, it is impossible to discuss cardiovascular health without talking about cholesterol. Let us first establish what cholesterol is and how it functions in the body before we wade into more treacherous waters of the “good or bad” debate.
Its functions are
Seventy-five percent of the body’s cholesterol needs are produced by the liver and circulated in the blood. Because of the importance of cholesterol, it is tightly regulated and is not haphazardly influenced by diet. (8) It is a wax-like substance that is found in every nucleus-containing cell of your body regulating, among other molecules, the passage of water through the cell membrane and protecting the cells from dehydration. Cholesterol in the cell membrane is part of the cell’s survival mechanism and its excess can point to dehydration. Blood lacking in hydration wants to pull water from other cells in order to thin the blood, but cholesterol is the cell’s survival mechanism and builds more cholesterol to prevent water from the cells passing through the cell membrane. Thicker blood means higher blood pressure and a heart that has to work harder to push the blood through the body. (10)
In 2015, the US Department of Health reported that after 40 years of promoting low fat diets, “cholesterol is no longer considered a nutrient concern for over consumption”. (1) There is caution for about 5% of the population who have an inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolemia and should closely monitor their cholesterol intake as their levels may be influenced by dietary intake. (8)
Testing for cholesterol is another area in the discussion of cholesterol that is proving to be antiquated. Most physicians use a blood test that measures total cholesterol, which puts cholesterol numbers in two camps: LDL’s (the “bad” ones) and HDL’s (the “good” ones). It is now known than there are at least five different types of LDLs and five different types of HDLs. LDLa is light, fluffy and harmless; while LDLb is a dense atherogenic, oxidized particle that causes big problems. Particle tests look at each division of HDL and LDL, giving a much more complete and nuanced view of cholesterol in the blood. (8)
The crux of the contention about cholesterol and its questionable link to coronary heart disease (CHD) has to do with the roll of dietary fats in the diet. In the article An Examination of the Evidence Supporting the Association of Dietary Cholesterol and Saturated Fats with Serum Cholesterol and Development of Coronary Heart Disease published in the Alternative Medicine Review, Marion Volk, MSHc, states that her article “revisits the origins of the dietary fat-coronary heart disease (CHD) paradigm and discusses the methodological problems involved. [Physiologist Ansel] Keys’ linear association between dietary fat consumption and CHD found its empirical verification in the Framingham Heart Study (FHS).” The FHS is of particular importance because a CHD predictor model was developed from it, which has been used as baseline for epidemiological studies and for treatment protocols ever since. Despite the difficulties of drawing clear conclusions from the Framingham studies, researchers continue to use them, and may partially explain why there is still such debate about the connection between both dietary and serum lipids and CHD. (2)
While the FHS showed there are many factors that contribute to the development of heart disease including smoking, stress, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise, the FHS originally found that there was no relationship between a participant's intake of calories from fat and his or her cholesterol level. It also seemed as if a drop in cholesterol levels correlated with an increase of cardio vascular disease death for those over age 50. These findings puzzled the researchers and were not included in their official report. (2)
After reading several studies on the correlation between dietary fats – especially saturated fats from animals – and cardiovascular disease, one thing is remarkably clear to me. The tests do not specify what type of meat the people in the study are eating. This is a very important factor in the discussion of saturated fats, because not all fats are created equal. There is a radical degradation in the quality of meat and fat from an animal that has been raised in deplorable conditions, fed unnatural diets of GMO grains, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, and more. Toxins are stored in the fat, and if a person is eating this toxic meat, the health results will be quite different from those that eat pastured healthy animals.
Grass-fed meats, wild seafood, seeds, and many plant-based foods are high in anti-inflammatory, heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. On the other hand, processed/trans/hydrogenated vegetable oils and factory-farmed meats are high in potentially pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids. Inflammatory foods that consist of much of the standard American diet are trans-fats, factory farmed meats, refined carbohydrates and sugars, and processed non-organic foods. All of these increase systemic inflammation and create highly oxidative waste in the body. This is the point that the quality of the vascular tissues decreases in flexibility leading to the narrowing and blockages in the heart and blood vessels. Cholesterol builds up in an effort to protect the vascular system, but becomes unstable and “sticky” due to poor quality fat consumption, excess dietary sugar and free-radical damage, increasing the chances of heart attacks or strokes. The one situation in which a low-fat diet is recommended is if a person refuses to cut out inflammatory foods. (8)
Omega-3’s have consistently been shown to improve cardiovascular health in a variety of ways. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) has been shown to be more instrumental in lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and improving vascular function. While eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) helps the body produce hormone-like lipids and thin the blood. The blood thinning effect allows the blood to be pumped more efficiently through the body and exerting less pressure on the heart. (4)
The U.S. National Institute of Health recommends 650 mg/day of dietary EPA and DHA for healthy people, and 1000 mg/day for those with heart disease. The best sources of Omega-3’s are from high quality fish oil supplements, wild seafood (cold water fish like salmon, cod, sardines), organic meat and dairy from pastured grass-fed animals, and eggs from pastured chickens. For people that do not eat meat, seafood or eggs, getting adequate amounts of EPA and DHA requires higher amounts of plant-based food sources like flax seed, algae, chia, hemp seeds, leafy greens, purslane, beans, cabbages, and winter squash. This is because the conversion rate of plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to EPA and DHA is extremely low (less than 15%). (4)(6) The goal for healthy, plant-based eaters is 1300 mg of ALA/day from a diet largely consisting of the foods just mentioned and an ALA supplement, while avoiding excess omega 6’s. (6)
It is important to note that the balance of omega-3’s to omega-6’s is key. There are many “ideal” 3-to-6 ratios floating around – 1:1, 1:3, 3:1 and so on. The standard American diet is currently anywhere from 1:16 to 1:25 in favor of omega-6’s. It is not so much that omega-6’s are bad (indeed, they are not an Essential Fatty Acid for nothing), rather it’s the extreme imbalance between the two that causes inflammation problems. Put simply, the closer the two numbers in this ratio are, the better they are for you.
There are many types of healthy fats to be incorporated into the diet whether one chooses to eat meat or not. These include high-quality olive oil, avocados, avocado oil, coconut oil, borage and evening primrose oils, to name a few. The oils to avoid are the processes/trans/hydrogenated types like canola, safflower and soy. These get even worse when used to deep fry foods. A wide variety of oils in the diet help ensure a healthy ratio of omega-3’s and omega-6’s for optimal heart health. (7)
A heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory diet includes:
In addition to omega-3's, supplementation of vitamin D3 and magnesium is recommended to counter inflammation and support blood pressure regulation. Most people are deficient in these three supplements. (6)
There are some wonderful herbal allies that improve heart function and modulate blood pressure. Even for healthy individuals seeking prevention of heart disease, it is strongly recommended to seek the guidance of a qualified herbalist/nutritionist. It is even more critical to work with a qualified professional in conjunction with your doctor if you are on any medications before working with any of the herbs I am about to discuss. As you well know, matters of the heart are tricky.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is the most well-known herb for the heart. It strengthens heart function, and serves as a cardio relaxant. Motherwort is indicated for those that have nervous and anxious tendencies. As a mild sedative and anti-spasmodic, it promotes relaxation and stress relief, rather than drowsiness. (3)
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) has been fairly well researched for constituents that relax and dilate coronary arteries, increasing blood flow, and reducing symptoms of angina. It is high in antioxidants that protect and reduce the degeneration of blood vessels. It has also been shown to normalize an irregular heartbeat. (3)
Linden (Tilia europaea) flowers are commonly taken to lower high blood pressure, especially when emotional factors are involved. When used over a long period of time, Linden lowers systolic blood pressure associated with atherosclerosis. (3)
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) root is not a heart herb per se, but it is important to note that it is contraindicated for those with high blood pressure. Prolonged use of licorice root beyond 6 weeks causes water retention, edema, potassium depletion and hypertension. The side effects are due to the constituent glycyrrhizin. There are glycyrrhizin-free licorice products available for those with hypertension. (5)
Motherwort, Hawthorn and Linden are also wonderful for the emotional heart – another great way to nurture and support an important organ that supports us 24/7.
1. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, USDA, https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/
2. An Examination of the Evidence Supporting the Association of Dietary Cholesterol and Saturated Fats with Serum Cholesterol and Development of Coronary Heart Disease, Marion G. Volk, MHSc (Complementary Medicine), Alternative Medicine Review Volume 12, Number 3, September 2007
3. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, Andrew Chevallier, FNIMH, 3rd Edition, 2016, Penguin Random House
4. Health Effects of Fats: Blood Pressure, Fats of Life – A Science-Based Publication on Healthy Fats, www.fatsoflife.com
5. Herbal Vade Mecum, Gazmed Skenderi, 2003, Herbacy Press
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids, National Institute of Dietary Supplements
7. Omega-6 Fatty Acids, University of Maryland Medical Center
8. The Cholesterol Myth; Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, and Stephen Sinatra, MD, FACC; 2012, Far Winds Press
9. What is Cholesterol?, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
10. Your Body’s Many Cries for Water, F. Batmanghelidj, MD, 2008, Global Health Solutions, Inc.
Malia Thompson lives just East of Boulder, Colorado with a spectacular view of the Front Range.