Heart Health: How to Care for the Vital Organ
Here’s a fun fact: Your heart beats about 100,000 times a day. It works around the clock, essentially acting as an engine that keeps your body running. The heart supplies oxygen and nutrients to other organs in the body. This fist-sized vital organ needs care as well. A lot of research is directed towards understanding heart health and its functions to make sure that the hardest working muscle in the body keeps pumping blood for all other organs to stay healthy and work efficiently.
How does the heart function?
Oxygenated and deoxygenated blood
The heart is part of the circulatory system, which constitutes a network of blood vessels, responsible for transporting blood throughout the body. The heart receives oxygenated blood from the lungs. It then pumps it out to different parts of the body through the arteries. Deoxygenated blood from the organs returns to the heart through a system of veins, and it is then sent to the lungs for oxygenation.
Cardiac muscle contracts and relaxes
The heart is made of a special type of muscle tissue, which works to pump the blood. As the muscle relaxes, the chambers of the heart fill with blood. As the heart contracts, blood is pumped out. It is a continuous process. However, it may slow down when the arteries are clogged or a blood clot develops after a plaque rupture. Conditions such as an inherited heart muscle disorder, viral infection of the heart muscle, or reduced blood flow to the heart muscle can be detrimental.
The four valves
Tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral, and aortic valves present between the atria and ventricles regulate the blood flow in and out of the four chambers. Any condition that affects the heart valves can disturb the normal flow of oxygen-rich blood circulating throughout the body.
The heart’s electrical system
The heart also has an electrical system, responsible for controlling the heart rate, and coordinating the contractions of the chambers of the heart to maintain a regular rhythm. Any problems associated with the heart’s electrical system may cause rapid, slow, or uncontrolled heartbeats or a condition called arrhythmia.
Risk factors for heart diseases
Hereditary factors may increase the risk of hypertension or other cardiovascular conditions.
Age and gender
Although heart conditions can affect people of any age, the risks increase with age. When compared to men, women are less susceptible to cardiovascular events till the time they reach menopause.
Being on a diet rich in trans fats, saturated fats, and cholesterol increases the risk of heart diseases. Eating a diet high in sodium or salt can lead to hypertension.
Lack of physical activity
Leading a sedentary lifestyle can be a risk factor for lifestyle diseases including heart disorders.
Drinking alcohol and smoking
Too much alcohol and smoking can lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Excessive alcohol can increase blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Tobacco damages your heart and blood vessels; it also increases the risk of heart attack and atherosclerosis. Nicotine can also lead to hypertension. Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide, which can affect the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. A similar effect is seen in the case of passive smoking.
Other health conditions
Diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and too much bad cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), may put you at a high risk for cardiovascular diseases.
How to prevent heart diseases?
If you think heart diseases only affect the elderly, you would be mistaken. People of any age can be susceptible to it. To prevent cardiovascular diseases or lower the risks, you need to take measures and follow a healthy lifestyle early on.
Have a nutritious diet
A healthy diet is essential for maintaining your heart health. It can also help in reducing the risks associated with other lifestyle diseases.
- Include more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and beans in your diet.
- Choose healthier fats and fiber-rich foods.
- Avoid foods that are high in trans fats, saturated fats, and cholesterol.
- Limit the intake of processed foods, sugar, and salt in your diet.
- Avoid excess consumption of alcohol. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that men should not exceed more than two drinks per day and women must not have more than one drink per day.
Maintain a healthy weight
It is important to maintain a healthy body weight because additional weight, especially around the midsection/ torso, can have an impact on your heart health by putting excess strain on the heart and blood vessels. Body Mass Index (BMI) can be an indicator of healthy body weight. Weight reduction even by 3%-5% can help in decreasing the levels of triglycerides and blood sugar. Reducing bodyweight can also help in managing blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
An active lifestyle is key to maintaining good heart health. Physical activities can help in maintaining healthy body weight and managing conditions like hypertension, high blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activities (intensity at which you can talk during workout) or 75 minutes of high-intensity activities, and strength training for at least two days a week. If you are new to exercising or have not been active for a while, start slowly and gradually increase the intensity, duration, and frequency of your workouts. Additionally, you should try to be active throughout the day.
If your work requires you to sit for long hours, try to take a break every 30 minutes and walk around before you come back to your work station. If you suffer from any health condition, it is advisable to get a medical clearance from your physician before you start any exercise regimen.
Avoid smoking and tobacco use
It’s best to not smoke at all. The harmful effects of smoking on heart health begin almost immediately after you are exposed to the smoke, which contains 1000s of toxic chemicals. Seek professional help, if required. Regardless of your history of smoking, you will see positive health effects once you quit. If you are a non-smoker, be sure to avoid second-hand smoke (passive smoking) as even inhalation of second-hand smoke has detrimental effects on your cardiovascular system.
Get adequate sleep
It is essential to get at least seven to nine hours of sleep every day. Those who don’t are at increased risk of developing high blood pressure, obesity, and may suffer heart attacks. Here are some ways to get sufficient sleep:
- Try to follow a sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
- Don’t look at screens of mobile phones or computers at bedtime. Keep the room dark
- Avoid caffeine intake late in the day
Manage your stress
Stress has a significant impact on various systems of the body, including the cardiovascular, nervous, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems. In addition to the physiological effects of stress, some people often tend to deal with stress in unhealthy ways like binge eating and consuming excessive alcohol. You can manage stress by following these steps:
- While dealing with overwhelming situations, break down the problem into small parts, and approach it one step at a time
- Take a break. It’s okay to walk away, take a breather, and deal with the problem calmly
- Perform physical activities. Play your favorite sport or indulge in regular workouts
- Practice relaxation techniques like meditation
- Activities like going for a run or a walk, and reading can be relaxing
There are many effective stress management techniques. Try them out and see what works best for you.
Go for health check-ups
Since other medical conditions like hypertension, high cholesterol levels, obesity, and diabetes can increase your risk of developing heart diseases, regular screenings can help to keep them in check.
Hypertension may not present any obvious symptoms. Therefore, it is essential to regularly check your blood pressure. If you do not have a history or risk factors, check your blood pressure at least every two years. In case of a history of hypertension, follow your physician’s advice for the frequency of check-ups and take prescribed medications.
If you have healthy body weight and do not have any risk factors for diabetes, it is recommended to begin regular monitoring of blood sugar levels from the age of 45. If you have a family history of diabetes or any other risk factors, consult your physician to understand how early you should start screening for diabetes.
Another condition that poses a higher risk for heart conditions is high cholesterol. Depending on your medical history and the presence of other risk factors, your physician can advise you on when to start screening.
If you suffer from any medical condition, consult your physician as required, follow the recommended diet and lifestyle changes, and take your prescribed medications as suggested.
Start by assessing your risk factors for heart diseases. If you have any concerns, consult your physician for advice on health check-ups and screenings. Take adequate steps and start living a healthy active life.
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