It’s inspiring to see that women are now increasingly more aware of health issues. Many perceive breast cancer to be the number one threat to our health. And I’m here to bring the news that it’s actually not! The reality? Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of mortality in women.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should keep our eyes from other health risks. But to give you a picture, someone dies every 36 seconds from CVD — and that’s in the United States alone. ?
Fortunately, this can be prevented! Research shows that CVD can be prevented with lifestyle changes and a better diet! So, in this article, we will start by refreshing our minds about what makes up our cardiovascular system. Oh, did you find that too boring already? ?
Well, stay right there because as we move forward, you will understand more how our diet significantly affects our cardiovascular health in menopause. Very soon, you will see a terrific list of healthy foods and helpful tips to boost our cardiovascular health! Now that sounds interesting, yeah?
Go ahead and make that heart happy! ?
The Cardiovascular System: An Overview
The cardiovascular system is comprised of the heart, blood vessels (arteries, veins, capillaries) and blood. It is responsible for transporting nutrients and removing gaseous waste from our body.
For both men and women, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death worldwide. Although rates have decreased because of advances in diagnosis, prevention and treatment, one in three US women still dies of heart disease — and more women than men die because of CVD.
What are the early signs and symptoms of having CVD?
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Lack of appetite
- Confusion, impaired thinking, brain fog [Is Brain Fog Real? Natural Ways to Beat Memory Loss in Menopause (mymenopausejourney.com)] or memory loss
- Increased heart rate or palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent coughing or wheezing
- Swelling in certain parts of the body (feet, ankles, legs, abdomen) due to buildup of excess fluid in body tissues.
- Weight gain
…and before we keep going, what exactly are cardiovascular diseases? ?
CVD is any condition that involves a malfunction in the heart (cardio) or blood vessels (vascular). Among the most rampant cases of CVDs are:
- When the arteries cannot deliver enough oxygen-rich blood to the heart anymore (coronary heart disease)
- Conditions that affect the blood flow to the brain (cerebrovascular disease)
- Narrowing of arteries resulting in reduced blood flow to the head, arms, stomach and legs (peripheral arterial disease)
- Birth defect that affects the normal development and functioning of the heart (congenital heart disease)
- When the heart valves are damaged permanently due to rheumatic fever, a condition caused by streptococcal infection. Repeated strep infections can cause the immune system to react against the tissues of the body — inflaming and scarring the heart valves (rheumatic heart disease)
- When a blood clot develops in the deep veins, most commonly in the lower extremities (deep vein thrombosis)
- When a part of the blot clot in the veins breaks off, then travels to the heart and lungs (pulmonary embolism)
Now, what makes menopausal women at risk of CVD?
Menopause may be causing so many changes in our body, but it’s not some form of witchcraft for us, sweetie! The risk of CVD in women increases with age, just as much as it does in men. But the increase starts a little later in women. One of the major reasons behind this is the low estrogen levels! ?
You might not have expected that, but yes — estrogen deficiency is a bad villain that can increase our CVD risk in menopause. Let me turn that chunk of information into crumbs for you, starting with… cholesterol!
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in every cell in your body. Additionally, “total cholesterol”, as we’ve mentioned above, refers to the total amount of cholesterol present in your blood. Your total cholesterol includes:
- Low-density lipoprotein or LDL (that’s “bad guy”)
- High-density lipoprotein or HDL (the “good guy”)
- Triglycerides (another form of fat in your blood that can increase CVD risk)
Now, women’s total cholesterol levels have been found to increase after menopause! Total cholesterol levels peak in women between 55–65 years of age — that’s about ten years later than the peak in men.
You see, estrogen levels drop after menopause — often from the mid-40s onwards. One of its most vital functions for our health is regulating the total amount of cholesterol in our body. How? Estrogen works with the liver to increase good cholesterol (HDL) and decrease bad cholesterol (LDL)! Over time, bad cholesterol can accumulate as “fatty deposits” in your blood vessels. This accumulation can lead to blockages that interfere with the delivery of blood to your heart. Therefore, when estrogen levels drop, our body’s natural protective effect against CVD is lost — increasing our risk of heart-related problems!
Again, I say: Hormonal balance, healthy eating habits like fasting and an active lifestyle are more than enough in keeping us away from serious diseases! Ask the believers of functional medicine — in a split second, they will confidently tell you about these preventive measures! ?
How Does Diet Affect our Cardiovascular Health?
The phrase “diet is vital” is almost as basic as saying “life is short”. But now that we are talking about our cardiovascular health, I gathered some science-backed claims to convince you better that diet is indeed vital for our cardiovascular and overall health. As you read on, try to evaluate your eating habits and start embracing healthier ways of eating!
- More than two-thirds of heart disease-related deaths worldwide can be linked to food choices. The authors of the study estimated that 6 million deaths could have been avoided through better diet!
- The traditional Mediterranean-type diet, which primarily includes plant foods and plant protein sources, provides a well-tested healthy dietary pattern to reduce CVD!
- A 2017 study found that over 700,000 cardiometabolic deaths (caused by heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes) occurred in US adults. 318,656 of these deaths were contributed by poor dietary habits — insufficient intake of nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, high intake of processed meats and low intake of seafood omega-3 fats.
- Nowadays, sodium (salt) is hidden in many processed foods because it enhances the taste like a champion. The problem with today’s salt is it has become too processed! On the other hand, real salt like Himalayan pink salt or Celtic Sea salt contain higher amounts of trace minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron). Generic table salt ends up being about 97.5% sodium chloride with almost no nutritional value! You see, it is important for us to know the difference between real salt and processed salt because studies show that excessive sodium intake ranked high among the triggering factors associated with heart problems and metabolic conditions.
Interested to learn more about the facts and myths of salt? Check out this article from Chris Kresser — a renowned expert in the field of Functional Medicine!
Sugar is also a notorious villain behind cardiovascular problems because it causes inflammation. It may not be a very popular opinion, but inflammation is actually a very bad beast for our cardiovascular health and entire body! According to John Hopkins Medicine, inflammation may result in the growth of plaques and trigger blood clots — the primary cause of heart attacks and strokes. In the words of Mark Sisson, the founder of Primal Kitchen and a New York Times bestselling author:
“When you get down to it, any explanation of the links between smoking and heart disease, stress and heart disease, exercise and heart disease, cholesterol and heart disease, and even genetics and heart disease must include inflammation to be accurate.”
So, if you want to protect your heart, start by reducing inflammation through a healthy diet.
How? Well, this leads us to our next discussion — the best foods to support our cardiovascular health in menopause! ?
What are the Best Foods to Boost Cardiovascular Health?
To ensure optimal cardiovascular health, it is important to know the best heart-healthy foods! Go for healthy fats, grass-fed meat and plant-based proteins! They are abundant in the Mediterranean diet and Keto-Green way of eating. Below are healthy food choices to keep your cardiovascular health in tiptop condition:
- Fish (high in omega-3 fatty acids: salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and trout
- Healthy nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashew, pistachio, chestnut, hazelnut
- Berries are chock full of heart-healthy phytonutrients and soluble fiber
- Seeds (omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein and phytoestrogens): flaxseeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Legumes (high in fiber, B-vitamins and minerals: dried beans, lentils, garbanzo, pinto, kidney beans or black beans
- Green veggies: spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard/mustard greens, bok choy, broccoli, asparagus, arugula
- Dark chocolate (the higher the percentage of cocoa the better!)
- Avocados (rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats)
- Fresh herbs: hawthorn, garlic, turmeric, motherwort, basil, cilantro
- Plant-based oils: olive oil, avocado oil, nut/seed oils
- Lean poultry
- Pomegranate (rich in flavonoids that can prevent the development of atherosclerotic disease)
Dr. Eric Berg also talked about how low-carb foods, ketogenic diet and fasting can do wonders to your heart health! He also mentioned some of the best foods to “clean out” your arteries from plaque. Watch his video to understand better how food can be a powerful tool to stay away from CVD!
Want great recipes to boost your heart health? Try some below!
Moreover, there are vitamins and supplements proven to be your heart’s best buddies! If you have a condition that may be stopping you from getting enough nutrients from your diet, studies recommend taking:
- Coenzyme Q10
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin D
- Green tea extract
Now we’re done with heart-healthy foods and nutrients to promote our cardiovascular health. It’s time to discover more ways to stay away from CVD! Remember, CVD can be a very serious problem for us women in menopause. So, we must also be serious about our lifestyle! ?
More Ways to Promote Women’s Cardiovascular Health
1 – Know your risk and stay filled with knowledge!
Some risk factors for heart disease such as your age, sex or family history cannot be controlled. But you can take steps to lower your risk by changing what you can control — certain health conditions, poor habits and stress! Here’s a great video from Heart Foundation® for you to learn more about the factors you can hold at the palm of your hands. ?
2 – Get moving!
Physical activity is an important part of looking after your health and reducing your risk of CVD. Regular exercise improves your long-term health!
Weight-bearing exercises and walking are found to reduce the risk of heart problems. They also give more energy, help manage your weight and promote healthy cholesterol levels!
3 – Maintain a healthy weight!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are overweight are at increased risk of many serious diseases and health conditions. That includes high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke. So, shed off those pounds for a happier and heathier you, sweetheart!
4 – Bury all bad habits!
Drinking too much alcohol and smoking can raise blood pressure levels and the risk of heart disease. Alcohol increases levels of triglycerides, a fatty substance in the blood that can increase the risk for heart disease!
On the other hand, tobacco use can damage the heart and blood vessels, which increases your risk of having atherosclerosis and heart attack. This doesn’t only apply to those who actually hold ciggies between their fingers! Exposure to secondhand smoke (smoke inhaled involuntarily from tobacco being smoked by another person) can also increase the risk of heart disease.
5 – Always have quality sleep!
Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each night. However, more than 1 in 3 American adults say they don’t get the recommended amount of sleep! Not getting enough sleep, over time, can lead to serious health problems including CVD. So, don’t be shy to sleep like a baby! It isn’t just important for your energy and stress levels — it’s critical for your heart health too!
✔️ Friendly Tip: The typical symptoms of heart problems are totally different between men and women. Moreover, most medications for CVD have been tested on men and again, we don´t function the same way! According to the American Heart Association, women have long been at a disadvantage in preventing and managing cardiovascular diseases. One reason is that medical practitioners tend to lend importance to symptoms that are common in men — such as chest pain. Women, however, sometimes present with a different set of symptoms like nausea, dizziness, jaw or neck pain and a sore back. You see, the symptoms we show for CVD often go unrecognized by conventional diagnostic procedures. Therefore, we must be seriously aware and knowledgeable about our symptoms!
How Do Heart Attacks and Strokes Happen?
Atherosclerosis is a condition that develops when “plaque” builds up in the walls of the arteries. This plaque is made up of “bad cholesterol” or fatty deposits. It narrows our arteries and makes it harder for blood to flow through. If a blood clot forms out of the “growing” plaque, it can block the blood flow — resulting in a heart attack or stroke.
To give you a visual explanation of how plaque builds up, watch this video from Dr. Paul Zollinger-Read of Bupa Health UK! He also briefly discussed the factors that cause atherosclerosis and heart-related problems! ?
Statins: What Are They and How “Safe” Are They?
Statin drugs are prescribed to lower cholesterol and prevent heart problems. The myth is that lowering cholesterol is the key to preventing heart disease. But recent studies say that things are beyond that. Studies show that statins deplete the body’s CoEnzyme Q10 (CoQ10) — a vital nutrient for producing energy in the cells. Of all the organs, the heart requires the most energy. CoQ10 is a vital nutrient that helps make sure that the heart functions optimally. It is also shown to support the heart as well as every cell in the body!
“While I believe in the body’s ability to heal itself in most instances, there are times when you absolutely need medication to treat bothersome symptoms or to decrease the chance of an illness progressing. When this is the case, I recommend choosing the safest medications with the fewest number of side effects whenever possible.” — Dr. Christiane Northrup
What You Need to Know About “Safe Drugs”
According to Women’s Health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup, each drug that you are prescribed or can purchase over-the-counter goes through randomized controlled trials to determine its benefits. The measurement used to determine treatment benefits is called the “number needed to treat” (NNT).
Number Needed to Treat (NNT): NNT refers to the number of patients who need to be treated in order to prevent one bad outcome (like heart attack or stroke). So, if a drug has an NNT of 10, it means you have to treat 10 people with the drug to prevent one person from having a bad outcome. The ideal NNT is 1 — which means every patient who is treated will benefit.
Number Needed to Harm (NNH): NNH indicates how many patients need to be exposed to a risk factor for it to cause harm to one patient (who would not have been harmed). To give you a picture, a comprehensive study on statins given to people with no known heart disease shows why you need to be aware of the NNT and NNH for any drug.
Over 5 years, only 1 in 104 patients had a heart attack prevented, and only 1 in 154 had a stroke prevented. The same study showed that 1 in 100 was harmed because they developed diabetes as a direct result of statins, and 1 in 10 developed muscle damage! To sum up, the lower the NNH of the drug, the worse the risk factor.
“The report on statins also summarizes that the risk of harm may still be underestimated, and that diet and lifestyle interventions are substantially more powerful than medication in protecting your heart and preventing heart attack and stroke — something I have been saying for decades!” — Dr. Christiane Northrup
I hope you are now convinced how big of an influence our diet is when it comes to reducing (or increasing) our risk of having CVD. The bottom line of this discussion is to always keep our cardiovascular health optimized, especially in menopause!
Keep yourself away from the sneaky villain through eating healthy foods and living a heart-healthy lifestyle! Try the recipes I shared and embrace healthy habits that promote your heart and overall midlife health. And hey… never forget the “emotional” side of your heart! Breathe. Feel every beat of it. Appreciate how it keeps you alive to cherish every moment.
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