Keeping the Beat

By Polly Rea

Keeping the Beat
The heart has a big job, pumping blood to every living cell in the body, so it’s important to keep it fighting fit with regular exercise and by filling your diet with heart-friendly foods.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to a group of diseases that involve the heart, blood vessels (arteries, veins and capillaries) or both. They range from high blood pressure to aneurysms and ischemic heart disease, most commonly atherosclerosis, where limited oxygen is supplied to the heart. While they can all present with systemic implications, more directly they may lead to a fatal heart attack.

The heart never rests. Even while you sleep it continues to function, pumping oxygenated blood to all other organs. When we breathe in, oxygen travels down to our lungs, is transferred into the pulmonary artery and is carried to the heart. The heart then acts as a pump, sending this oxygenated blood via the arteries to the rest of the body. This transport system relies heavily on healthy blood vessels. In order for blood vessels to perform their function they must remain open and unobstructed, allowing the blood to flow through at an optimum pressure. The walls of these vessels must also remain strong but flexible.

In the case of atherosclerosis, the walls are hardening as a result of plaque that accumulates inside them. The presence of plaque also narrows the space available for blood to flow through. When this occurs in the pulmonary arteries, it reduces the amount of oxygen supplied to the heart. In order to preserve the integrity of the vessel walls and prevent obstruction caused by plaque build-up, nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin C and alpha lipoic acid are important. 

These act as strong free radical scavengers, clearing up any inflammation before plaque can form, and vitamins E and C help to keep the vessels’ elasticity strong. L-arginine is an amino acid that turns into nitric oxide in the body, a strong vasodilator that opens the vessels to allow more space for blood to flow through. 

Nuts are a great source of arginine, and eating almonds will provide both arginine and vitamin E. Omega-3 fatty acids have also proven to be beneficial in improving the elasticity of blood vessels, while providing extra anti-inflammatory support. Eating more fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, and less red meat, has proven beneficial in preventing CVD.

Contractions of the heart are controlled by the muscle that lies inside the wall of the heart (the myocardium). Therefore, in order to keep the pumping action of the heart strong and effective, it is important to provide nutrients that control muscle contraction. These are mostly electrolytes, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Sodium plays an important role also, but given its high intake through the diet, it needs to be regulated with potassium to keep the levels from rising. Balancing the optimum levels of these electrolytes is important, as high sodium levels are a large contributor to high blood pressure.

This is why diuretics must be used with great caution in cases of CVD. While in some cases they can be helpful in assisting with blood pressure – taking excess fluid from the body and therefore relieving the pressure within the vessels – they do present the danger of losing potassium. This is detrimental to the function of the heart. Many diuretics deplete the body of potassium, with the exception of dandelion leaf and nettle leaf. These will provide a net potassium gain, meaning they provide much more potassium than is lost via the kidneys as a result of the diuretic action.  

CoQ10 is a nutrient found in high amounts in the heart muscle and a deficiency has been associated with angina, an irregular heart and heart failure. It is best taken in supplement form to boost the small amount available through diet.

While there is some physiological and morphological damage that occurs inside the cardiovascular system with age, the heart and its associated blood vessels are also greatly affected by diet and lifestyle. CVD is becoming more and more common across all age groups as a result of poor food choices and sedentary living. 

By eating a diet based on whole foods, with lots of vegetables, some fruits and whole grains, lean protein and lots of healthy fats, particularly the omega-3 varieties, while avoiding trans fats in processed foods, CVD can be prevented. Combine this with a regular exercise routine, such as walking briskly for 40 minutes daily, and you should keep your heart happy and healthy for years to come.


This sesame-seed spread is loaded with vitamin E and calcium, essential for heart health. It is delicious on toast with avocado or try it as a winter salad dressing by adding lots of lemon juice and a touch of garlic.


Garlic keeps the blood thin, allowing it to move easily through the vessels while also providing strong anti-inflammatory action to reduce the build-up of plaque in arteries. Cook garlic for cardiovascular health.


Celery contains phthalide, a natural vasodilator. As blood vessel walls relax, they dilate and allow more room for blood flow. Celery provides a gain in potassium, unlike most diuretics. It’s great in soups and salads.

Oily Fish

Oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids. They are versatile and can be eaten on crackers for lunch, steamed for dinner, or mixed into salads to bulk up a side dish


Beta-glucan in oats is shown to remove undesirable cholesterol from the digestive system before it enters the bloodstream. Avenanthramide reduces damage caused by free radicals associated with cholesterol.  

Herbs and spices

Turmeric, ginger and cayenne are circulatory stimulants that can increase blood flow to peripheral tissues. Turmeric and ginger also provide anti-platelet activity, helping to keep blood from clotting. 



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