Your Cardiovascular System
Think of your heart as a muscular pump about the size of your fist which delivers vital oxygen and nutrients into all the cells of your body. This cone shaped powerful muscle has four chambers, and each of these chambers is connected by a series of one-way valves that let the blood flow in one side and then out the other.
Blood which is spent of oxygen, or oxygen “poor” blood returns to the heart in the veins and collects in the right atrium and is then moved into the right ventricle which then pumps this de-oxygenated blood into your lungs for re-oxygenation.
Oxygenated blood then returns to the left atrium passing through the mitral valve and into the left ventricle. Blood is then pumped out with a lot of force (in a healthy heart) into the main artery of your body – the aorta. (see diagram) The blood (rich in oxygen) now travels through the aorta and several other arteries which branch off it into the body.
Most importantly, the oxygenated blood also travels through two coronary arteries to supply you heart itself with blood rich in oxygen. (see diagram). And it is these delicate arteries that are often implicated in a heart attack as they become clogged and affected by atherosclerosis. (plaqueing of the arteries).
Your Circulatory System Is Vast
Did you know that there are an estimated six thousand miles (almost 9,700 kilometres) of blood vessels which make up your circulatory system? The way I think of this system is like imagining a tree with its trunk, then branches and then the finer twigs, or a river with its many tributaries. The larger arteries branch into smaller arterioles and these in turn branch off into the tiniest of blood vessels called capillaries. And it is these miniscule capillaries which end up feeding the cells of your body, supplying them with life-giving oxygen, removing the carbon dioxide as well as the cells waste products. The wastes and blood which is spent of oxygen are transported back to the heart in venules (small veins) and then into the larger veins and finally makes its journey all the way back to the right atrium.
This most elaborate system of pipes needs to be kept clear to accommodate the full force of contractions of your heart which permits an uninterrupted and strong blood flow. It is suffice to say that the walls of all these blood vessels needs to be (and stay) in top shape and free from any obstruction. The main thing to remember is that the arteries are the biggest focus on high blood pressure, rather than the veins.
High Blood Pressure and your Circulatory System
High blood pressure is also known as hypertension. Hypertension is really a by-product of more serious underlying problems which results in the excessive force of blood pressing against the walls of your arteries. An incredible one third of those with high blood pressure have NO symptoms at all and don’t even know they have it.
Unfortunately, high blood pressure when left untreated can lead to serious cardiovascular disease leading to a heart attack, heart failure, stroke, as well as brain and kidney damage. Uncontrolled hypertension ranks as the leading risk factor for having a heart attack and stroke, and post-menopausal women are even more vulnerable to hypertension than men.
Risk Factors For High Blood Pressure
In about 90 percent of cases, the cause of high blood pressure remains unknown. When the cause cannot become established, the high blood pressure then becomes known as “essential hypertension”. Amongst the various factors highly likely in essential hypertension are
- Age – the older a person is the more likely he or she will have hypertension.
- Body-weight – the more a person weighs – the higher the risk for developing seriously high blood pressure.
- Diet – diets high in sugar, salt and certain fats such as hydrogenated (man-made) fats including excess food/calorie intake increase the risk.
- Heredity – having a family history of hypertension increases one’s risk.
- Ethnicity – Maori, Aboriginal, Polynesian, etc – indigenous are at a higher risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
- Kidney disease – those with kidney infection or disease are at a higher risk of hypertension.
- Stress – Those with “A” Type behavioral patterns are at a much higher risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. (competitive, aggressive, impatient, dominant, etc.)
High blood pressure only compounds other risk factors commonly found in those who suffer from chronic ill health, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, toxic heavy metals and oxidised LDL (bad cholesterol) as well as an increase in the (often ignored) inflammatory markers such as Lipoprotein a and Homocysteine. High blood pressure weakens your blood vessels at their bends and junctions and accelerates the inflammatory plaque cascade.
What you may not be aware of is that hypertension stimulates your body to release two proteins – angiotensin II and endothelin which further promote and accelerate inflammatory as well as oxidative mechanisms in your arteries. There is ample evidence that there is a direct connection between hypertension and atherosclerosis.
- Essential Hypertension – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001207/
- Angiotensin II causes hypertension and cardiac hypertrophy through its receptors in the kidney. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693859/
- Endothelin, Angiotensin, and Oxidative Stress in Hypertension. http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/45/4/477.full
How Does the Cardiovascular System Work?
Your arteries are the blood vessels that carry the oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood away from the heart to all the major organs of the body. After your organs use up the oxygen they require and the nutrients you take in through your diet (that’s why you need to eat good foods) the blood has come to be depleted and has picked up any toxic residues and wastes such as carbon dioxide. The heart is the main organ that pumps the blood back and forth throughout the body and does an incredible job of doing this, day in and out, beating thousands of time a day it.
Blood is made up of three components
- Plasma, a colorless liquid.
- Red blood cells that carry oxygen and nutrients to cells, as well as transport waste gases and toxins.
- White blood cells which defend against foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses.
What Causes an Unhealthy Cardiovascular System?
Many people are of the belief that cardiovascular disease just “seems to happen” to them, almost as if they are powerless to stop the development of circulatory disease. You may even be wondering how did your cardiovascular system become so unbalanced. The fact of the matter is that chronic health conditions do not just happen, they develop over time. There can be a genetic component that predisposes someone to becoming chronically “unwell,” but research shows there are other factors – often within our control – that are usually the cause.
An unhealthy cardiovascular system may be caused by:
- Long-standing magnesium deficiency. Prolonged magnesium deficiency can lead to poor cardiovascular health in a number of ways. The body uses magnesium to keep calcium dissolved in the cells, soft tissues and muscles – including the heart and vascular system. With insufficient magnesium, blood vessels may go into spasm and cholesterol may rise, both of which lead to blood pressure problems. Read more about the impact of magnesium deficiency.
- Elevated homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an amino acid in the blood. Elevated levels of this amino acid have been associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Mainly, elevated levels of homocysteine increase the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (read more below). Vitamin B-6 (folic acid) and Vitamin B-12 have the greatest effect in reducing homocysteine levels.1 Fruits and vegetables are typically rich in B vitamins. Americans typically eat a highly processed diet devoid of healthy fruits and vegetables. Increasing your fresh fruit and vegetable intake, along with adequate B vitamin supplementation, may help reduce your risk for heart disease.
- Silent inflammation. It has been shown that elevated C-reactive proteins in the blood increase heart disease risk. C-reactive proteins are elevated in the blood when the body is inflamed; in other words, when the body is actively fighting a chronic foreign invader such as Candida (yeast fungi), bacteria, mold, food allergies, and/or environmental toxins such as pesticides, air pollution, and heavy metals. Sometimes the symptoms of chronic inflammation are subtle or vague, which means that treatment becomes delayed due to a lack of understanding about the true causes of inflammation. By paying close attention to your body’s red flags, and by proactively resolving the underlying problems that are causing systemic inflammation, you can reduce the C-reactive protein levels in your blood, and your risk for heart disease.
- The oxidation of bad cholesterol. During the process of oxidation, oxygen binds with low-density lipoproteins (LDL or “bad” cholesterol). Oxidated LDL cholesterol is cytotoxic, which means that it has a toxic effect on cells. Oxidated LDL cholesterol contributes to the formation of fatty deposits along the arterial walls, leading to atherosclerosis (or hardening of the arteries). One way to combat LDL oxidation is to make sure you eat plenty of healthy foods that contain ample amounts of antioxidants (substances that fight free radicals in the blood). Heart-healthy antioxidants include vitamin E, vitamin C, Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), betacarotene, selenium and ubiquinone.
- High plasma fibrin D-dimer levels. Increased fibrin D-dimer levels lead to hypercoagulability, otherwise known as thick blood. Thick blood is caused by an excess of fibrin in the blood. The body normally produces fibrin when it is under attack, in an effort to help the blood clot during an injury or illness. When the body is systemically and chronically inflamed, fibrin is produced in excess, which causes the blood to become thick and unable to circulate freely throughout the body. Anticoagulants such as aspirin or Coumadin (Warfarin) can be prescribed, and/or Heparin (an antiplatelet agent). Nattokinase can also help by dissolving excess fibrin in the blood.
NOTE: Never take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with anticoagulant agents since the combination of these medications can increase the risk of bleeding. Also, never take more than one anticoagulant agent, or interchange medications, without medical advice. Consult your healthcare professional regarding the safe use of anticoagulant agents.
- Obesity. The inability to lose weight is actually related to inflammation. When the body is chronically inflamed, metabolism is disrupted, and triglyceride, cholesterol, blood sugar, and key hormone levels all become imbalanced. Then it becomes extremely difficult to lose the extra pounds because the body’s ability to process foods efficiently is severely disrupted. High triglyceride and cholesterol levels due to excess weight have the potential to lead to heart disease. Furthermore, studies have shown that your heart is at risk if you have:
- An apple-shaped body. Studies have shown that people who have an apple-shaped body (fat around the waist) have a greater risk of heart disease than those who have a pear-shaped body (fat around the hips). In fact, waist-to-hip ratio has been shown to be a better indicator of the risk of heart disease than body mass index (BMI). To find out your risk, calculate your waist-to-hip ratio.
- A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Those who have a high BMI are at increased risk of developing heart disease.
- Metabolic disorders. A metabolic disorder disrupts the body’s ability to break down food properly so that it can be used for energy. Left untreated, metabolic disorders such as pre-diabetes (insulin resistance), diabetes, and Syndrome X (also known as Metabolic Syndrome) have the potential to damage the heart and arteries.
- Hormone imbalances. Studies are now identifying that hormones can have a dramatic effect on the heart.
- Low testosterone levels: Researchers in Japan have found that low testosterone levels in men can contribute to hardening of the arteries. Studies are now revealing that testosterone is heart protective, much like estrogen is for women. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy may be considered an option for men with low testosterone levels.
- Low estrogen levels: Post-menopausal women who lack estrogen are at greater risk of heart disease than pre-menopausal women who have naturally higher levels of estrogen. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy may be useful to not only curtail menopausal symptoms, but also to protect the heart against disease. On the other hand, women who use synthetic hormone replacement therapy (HRT) experience increased CRP levels (an inflammatory marker for heart disease).
- Age (55 or over). The risk of heart disease increases with age, especially for postmenopausal women who have lower levels of heart-protective estrogen, or men who have lower levels of testosterone as they age.
- Family history of heart disease or stroke. Your heart disease risk increases if you have family members who have suffered from cardiovascular disease.
- High blood pressure (HBP). Also known as hypertension, HBP is considered a “silent killer” because it typically has no visible symptoms. Think of your blood vessels as a garden hose, and the water as your blood. Blood that is pumped through the body at excessively high pressure has the potential to rupture a vessel, much like a ruptured garden hose that’s been damaged by high water pressure. Blood pressure is considered normal when it falls below 120/80mmHg. Below are standard blood pressure guidelines:
- Pre-high blood pressure: 120/80mmHg to 139/89mmHg
- Stage 1 high blood pressure: 140/90mmHg to 159/99mmHg
- Stage 2 high blood pressure: Over 160/100mmHg. Blood pressure over 160/100 can become life-threatening.
- Hypotension, or low blood pressure, can also occur, if systolic and diastolic pressure drop 25 mmHg lower than normal.
- High triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are chains of high-energy fatty acids that provide much of the energy for body cells to function. High triglyceride levels are strongly linked to metabolic disorders that increase the risk of heart disease. If triglycerides are high, a fasting glucose test should be done to rule out underlying chronic conditions such as diabetes, insulin resistance, and Syndrome X. Normal triglyceride levels should be less than 150 mg/dL.
- Cholesterol imbalance. There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). High LDL (bad) cholesterol is potentially heart-damaging; while high HDL (good) cholesterol is potentially heart protective. Total cholesterol measures both LDL and HDL together. High total cholesterol levels (which cause heart disease and stroke) can be equally as damaging as low cholesterol levels (which cause depression, anxiety, aggression and mental dysfunction).
Here are your guidelines for cholesterol.
- Total cholesterol less than 220 mg/dL is desirable.
- LDL (bad) cholesterol less than 100 mg/dL is optimal.
- HDL (good) cholesterol greater than 40 mg/dL is desirable.
- Chronic stress. Stress affects the body’s ability to efficiently produce the right amount of hormones, particularly cortisol. Improper hormone production slows metabolism and creates the potential for metabolic disorders and weight gain—all of which increase the risk of heart disease.
- Prolonged use of medications such as glucocorticoids (steroids or corticosteroids), and anti-inflammatory medications such as NSAIDs. Studies show that these medications increase the risk for heart disease.
- Bacteria, virus, and fungi exposure. Microorganisms have the ability to weaken the immune system and damage the heart. Myocarditis is a heart disorder caused by viral infections such as coxsackie virus, adenovirus, and echovirus. Myocarditis may also occur during or after various viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections, such as polio, influenza, or rubella.
- Smoking. Cigarettes contain well over 4000 chemicals, many of which are known to damage the heart muscle and weaken blood vessels. Furthermore, smoking increases the production of fibrin in the blood, leading to thick blood.
- Heavy Metal Toxicity. Heavy metal toxicity has been shown to increase the risk of atherosclerosis, mainly because the toxicity increases triglyceride levels. Heavy metal toxicity can also lead to weight gain and an inability to lose extra pounds, mainly because the body’s metabolic processes are disrupted.
- Birth control pills and synthetic hormone replacement therapy (HRT). One study has shown that women who use the birth control pill have twice the level of C-reactive protein levels as non-users. Additionally, women who use synthetic hormone replacement therapy (HRT) also experience increased CRP levels. Since high CRP levels are a significant risk factor for heart disease, women over 35 (particularly those who also smoke) should exhibit caution when using the pill or synthetic HRT. Further research is required to confirm this risk in young women (under 35).
- Sedentary lifestyle. “Use it or lose it.” Heart health is positively influenced by exercise—particularly when choosing activities that increase heart rate. A good way to gauge heart-healthy exercise is to make sure that you can still talk comfortably to another person while exercising.
- Poor diet. A highly processed diet can damage the heart, especially due to an over-consumption of bad trans fats, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, and refined processed grains that are stripped of their important nutrients.
- Periodontal disease. Diseased gums actually put your heart at risk by releasing bacterial components into the bloodstream. These bacterial components raise the level of C-reactive protein in the blood, a known indicator for potential heart disease.
- Depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression really can “break your heart.” Depression can lead to chronically elevated levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can have negative effects on the heart. Furthermore, depressed individuals who have heart disease are less likely to follow medication therapies, putting them at risk for more heart problems.
- Male/female differences. Heart disease is the number one killer of women over age 65. Men and women have nearly the same risk of heart disease before age 65. However, after menopause, women are at a much higher risk of heart disease than men, mainly due to the reduced levels of heart-protective estrogen. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy may be useful in reducing heart disease risk in older women.
- Alcohol and drug abuse. A long-term study on the effects of cocaine showed that during the first hour after using cocaine, the user’s risk of heart attack increases nearly 24 times. Drugs can permanently damage the heart and cause sudden death. Additionally, studies have suggested that the flavonoids and antioxidants in wine are heart healthy. However, moderation is essential, since over-consumption can lead to alcoholism, a debilitating progressive disease that (among many other things) raises triglyceride levels, a known risk factor for heart disease.
What Can You Do to Restore the Cardiovascular System?
- Diet. In order to reduce keep your cardiovascular system healthy, it’s essential to follow general healthy diet guidelines, in addition to making some key adjustments in your relationship with food.
- Decrease your omega-6 and increase your omega-3. Many people consume 11 to 30 times more omega-6 than omega-3. A heart-healthy diet should have a ratio of 1:1. Many people typically consume too many processed foods containing omega-6 polyunsaturated fats such as corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil. On the other hand, many are deficient in omega-3, found primarily in fish, flaxseeds, and nuts. You can increase your intake of omega-3 by consuming organic ground flax meal, wild salmon, minimal-mercury albacore tuna, fish oil, avocados, and sprouted walnuts. Read more about the importance of omega-3.
- Increase your folic acid intake. Folic acid (vitamin B6) and the B vitamins help break down homocysteine, an amino acid suggested in increasing the risk of atherosclerosis. Rich sources of folic acid include mercury-minimal tuna, wild salmon, spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, and organic beef. Also consider a B-vitamin supplement.
- Incorporate healthy saturated fats in your diet, such as organic virgin coconut oil. Saturated fats have received a bad rap, but the truth is they are essential for good health. The true culprit in heart disease risk is trans fat, otherwise known as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. Read more about good fats and bad fats.
- Add blueberries to your diet. Blueberries may reduce the build-up of “bad” cholesterol that contributes to cardiovascular disease and stroke, according to scientists at the University of California. In fact, it has been reported that blueberries contain pterostilbene, a compound which has the potential to lower cholesterol.
- Add nuts to your diet. Sprouted walnuts have more heart-healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids than any other nut. And one interesting study has demonstrated that eating just a handful of pecans a day can have the same effect as prescription drugs in lowering bad LDL cholesterol levels. Not only do pecans lower bad cholesterol, but they also increase good HDL cholesterol. Sprouted nuts can be incorporated into your diet as a healthy snack in between meals.
- Add healthy herbs to your diet, such as cilantro, cinnamon, and garlic. Anecdotal evidence reveals that cilantro has the ability to bind to heavy metals and help the body excrete them. Crushed garlic contains allicin, a potent detoxifier. And cinnamon has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels in diabetics.
Other Dietary Recommendations:
- Choose high-quality, organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free “grass-fed” meats.
- Add raw, organic vegetables to your diet.
- Add high-quality fiber to your diet, such as organic flax meal.
- Choose organic free-range eggs.
- Choose unpasteurized, raw dairy items that have live, active cultures (probiotics) such as yogurt and kefir.
- Drink purified water throughout the day.
Foods to AVOID to Maintain a Healthy Cardiovascular System:
- All simple or refined carbohydrates (white flour, white rice, white bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, crackers, processed snack foods, etc.), especially if you have any metabolic disorder that may negatively impact your heart
- All foods containing refined sugar or artificial sugar-substitutes such as aspartame. Choose a natural sweetener like stevia instead.
- Limited alcoholic beverages
- Limited cheese and wine
- Pasteurised, sweetened fruit juices, since these spike blood sugar levels too rapidly
- Carbonated soft drinks that cause blood pH levels to become acidic
- Shellfish such as oysters, clams, and lobster that may contain toxic levels of mercury
- Deep-sea fish such as tuna, mackerel, and swordfish that may contain toxic levels of mercury. Choose minimal-mercury albacore tuna instead.
- Farm-raised fish that contain PCBs and not enough omega-3 essential fatty acids, due to their land-based diets. Choose wild-caught salmon instead.
- Nitrites found in processed foods such as hot dogs, lunch meats, and bacon
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) found in many foods as a flavor enhancer
- Trans fats, also known as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, found in many processed foods, deep-fried foods, fast foods, and junk food. Read more about trans fats.
Other Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Cardiovascular System:
- Keep your weight in a healthy range. By maintaining a healthy weight, you greatly reduce your risk of developing a metabolic disorder that puts your heart at risk. Read more about a healthy weight.
- Get proper sleep, and seek medical help if you can’t sleep properly. Sleep deprivation can take years off your life and increase your risk of heart disease. In particular, untreated sleep apnea can increase your chances of developing hypertension, which is a precursor for heart disease.
- Don’t smoke. Cigarettes contain over 4000 chemicals, many of which damage your heart muscle and weaken your arteries and veins, leading to atherosclerosis. Smoking also increases fibrin in the blood, leading to thick blood. Smokers have a 70 percent greater risk of death from heart disease than non-smokers.
- Manage your chronic conditions effectively to protect your heart from damage that can easily be prevented.
- Consider therapy with EDTA. Heavy metal toxicity can increase heart disease risk, so excreting heavy metals can potentially reduce your risk. Additionally, therapy with EDTA has been utilized to treat atherosclerosis, or clogging of the arteries. EDTA is administered intravenously under the supervision of a health professional in a medical office setting. EDTA also exists in capsule form, making it available to take at home. Before considering EDTA, you should consult with your healthcare professional, who can carefully monitor your treatment plan.
- If you have dental amalgams, or “silver” fillings, get an evaluation from a mercury-free dentist who specializes in the safe removal of mercury amalgam fillings. Find a mercury-free dentist in your area now.
- Exercise. If you’re not exercising, then you need to start now! Incredibly, a recent study showed that just a single session of exercise can improve the health of blood vessels and reduce lipid levels. And the benefits even last straight through to the next day. Exercise can lower your cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and blood pressure—all risk factors for heart disease. Incorporate some aerobic activity into your routine, like water aerobics, brisk walking, urban rebounding (exercises performed on a mini-trampoline), and swimming. In order to achieve a healthy target heart rate, make sure that you can comfortably speak to another person while you’re exercising.