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Baby steps, big heart

The road to a healthy heart is paved with tiny pebbles.

By Ivan Olegario, M.D.


Like Rome, heart attacks aren’t built in a day. The fragile, high-pressure blood clots that cause them take years—sometimes decades—of possessing a multitude of risk factors, each contributing a small portion to the overall heart disease risk. These risk factors include smoking; high "bad" blood cholesterol; low "good" blood cholesterol; high blood pressure or hypertension; physical inactivity; obesity; uncontrolled diabetes; and uncontrolled stress and anger. Each day of exposure to any of these factors builds up risk for the heart, which over time creates significant danger that can ultimately lead to an instantaneous “bubble bursting” heart attack.

Unfortunately, there’s no medicine to date that can clean up your arteries the way a drain cleaner dissolves gunk in your pipes. Keeping your cardiac plumbing clear is a matter of day-to-day prevention to either eliminate or lower the tiny but incremental risk that each factor piles on your heart every day.

But this puts us lazy, normal folks in a favorable position. You cannot and should not try to lower your heart risk in one go by starving yourself or running a marathon. Instead, you can take small steps, done consistently from day to day, to reduce your heart risk. Here’s how:

Quit smoking

Cold turkey has always been the method of smoking cessation that reaps the most benefit for your heart and lungs. But for some people, the resulting cravings can be too intense. Try to quit smoking by doing progressive reduction. Lessen the number of cigarettes you smoke a stick a day—or week if your addiction is strong. Sooner or later, you’ll be able to reduce your consumption and eventually quit for good. If you want to fast-track your progress, throw away your cigarette when it’s only half-smoked.

Reducing your bad cholesterol

The simplest thing you can do to lower your bad cholesterol is to follow your doctor’s orders and pop your prescribed cholesterol-lowering medication faithfully. If you haven’t been given a prescription, try the following instead:

• Take an omega-3 supplement, with your doctor’s approval.

• Substitute one red meat dish with fish twice a week.

• Switch to a non-stick pan to reduce your usage of cooking oil. And switch to linseed oil, olive oil or canola oil. Better yet, avoid frying your food—steam, boil, or invest in an air fryer that cooks without oil.

• Add fiber to your meals. Substitute your usual oily breakfast with oatmeal.

• Switch junk food with healthy nuts rich in good cholesterol, such as roasted walnuts, almonds or peanuts; or high-fiber fruits such as apples, pears and bananas.

Managing diabetes symptoms

Diabetes is a serious disease that requires medical attention. As with cholesterol, taking your prescribed anti-diabetes medications daily is the single small thing you can do to control your diabetes. Other tips include:

• Substitute soda with water, or a less drastic alternative—diet soda.

• Use artificial sweetener instead of sugar, but still in moderation, and with your doctor’s approval.

• Drink herbal ampalaya tea. Some studies have found ampalaya effective in helping control diabetes—but keep in mind that it’s meant to supplement, not substitute, your prescribed anti-diabetes medications. Inform your doctor before taking it.

Lower your blood pressure

In addition to taking your medications, you can lower your blood pressure by quitting smoking and eating healthily; exercising and controlling stress and anger; and lowering your sodium intake by:

• Eliminating processed foods, the major source of sodium in our meals.

• Substituting salt, soy sauce, liquid seasoning, ketchup or fish sauce with low-sodium seasonings such as vinegar, black or red pepper, ginger and lime or kalamansi.

Minimizing anger and stress

Toxic emotions can hurt—not just your heart—but also your quality of life and peace of mind. Combat stress and anger in a snap with these simple tricks:

• Breathe deeply. Slow, deep breathing effectively soothes away stress and anger.

• Hydrate with water. The refreshing effect helps calm your nerves and clears your mind.

• Smile! If you don’t feel like smiling, fake it. Studies show that emotions improve even when the smile is artificial. One effective way is to grin while biting a stick. This forces your facial muscles to a smiling position.

Aside from these lifestyle tweaks, studies show that as little as 180 minutes of exercise in a week—equivalent to around 26 minutes a day—can lower the risk of heart disease. See how plyometric exercises can help you achieve that in the February issue of HealthToday magazine, out now in bookstores and newsstands.

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