No roadway intersection will ever come close to the intricacy found in our own internal highway system, our arteries, veins and capillaries. Running a complex network that reaches every inch of our body, our blood vessels serve to deliver essential goods to their desired destination and then carry wastes away. The overall health of our body relies heavily on this highway system being free from roadblocks and potholes.
Heart disease (or cardiovascular disease) is the number 1 cause of death worldwide, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives per year. Cardiovascular Diseases include coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease (affecting the brain), rheumatic heart disease (affecting the lungs) and other conditions. With the newest pandemic having cardiovascular health implications, it’s more important than ever that we arm ourselves with the tools to keep our arteries and veins flowing freely and smoothly.
Roadblocks within our circulatory system are caused by a build-up of a substance called plaque. This leads to a narrowing of the artery walls, and restricts the flow of blood to and from the heart. Eventually this can lead to serious outcomes such as a heart attack or even death.
Previously the belief was that plaque simply built up over a lifetime much like the rings on a tree. Now we know that irritation of the lining of the blood vessels is the main cause. When the lining of our blood vessels is inflamed or damaged, it triggers an immune response to fix the problem. While well-intentioned, it’s this immune response that ultimately leads to the development of plaque, where scar tissue is laid down to cover damaged areas.
Many factors contribute to the build-up of plaque in our blood vessels, but a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle can certainly help keep your arteries clear, flexible and free-flowing.
Simple Swaps You Can Make Today
1. Swap the escalator for the stairs
Exercise is fantastic for artery health. It lowers blood pressure, helps you maintain a healthy weight, reduces stress, increases your good cholesterol levels, and improves blood sugar balance. When given the choice, always choose to take the stairs or park slightly further from the entrance to a building whenever possible. If you’re working from home or bound to your office chair most of the day, try to take short breaks in between tasks or meetings to simply stand up and move around. This increases your “background” movement.
Top Tip: instead of shaking your smart watch or strapping it to your pet to get your 10 000 steps per day, aim to actually achieve that yourself through your daily tasks. It’s surprisingly easy once you’ve gotten into a good habit.
2. Swap your pre-packaged snacks for whole foods
Whilst not true for every product on the shelf, nine times out of ten, the pre-packaged product will contain more sugar or fat or salt (or all three!) than a typical whole food. Eating mostly foods that are free from any kind of additive or preservative is crucial for healthy arteries. Whole foods include fruits (not fruit juices), vegetables, whole grains (such as rolled or steel-cut oats), nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, poultry and healthy fats (avocado, olives, olive oil etc.).
Top Tip: instead of munching on dried fruit or snack bars, simply grab a fresh fruit and a handful of nuts for your mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack. Make things more interesting with a homemade dip such as hummus.
3. Swap your Takeout for Homemade Meals
Eating out or getting take-aways is convenient, and we all love a night off from cooking. However, many of these foods also contain more added fats or sugar or salt than we would typically use at home (hopefully). Fast-food outlets are also more likely to use refined oils or refined sugars, which are terrible for the health of your arteries. Aim to limit your takeaways or meals eaten out to only once or twice per week (unless you are certain that the restaurant uses whole foods in their dishes).
Top Tip: instead of having to prepare everything fresh from scratch each and every day, spend time on a Sunday to prepare a few side dishes in advance. Most cooked dishes can be kept in the fridge for 4 – 5 days or frozen for much longer. This will save you time in the week. Also, find some one-pot dinners that you and your family love and are easy to quickly throw together!
4. Swap Monotone Meals for Rainbow-Coloured Plates
All of the brightly coloured whole foods each carry different sets of vitamins, minerals, and most importantly antioxidants. Antioxidants fight to prevent inflammation in our blood vessels and are incredibly cardio-protective. When putting your meal together, try to include as many different coloured whole foods as possible to experience the benefits of these different antioxidants.
Top Tip: It’s not always possible to include a variety of fruits and vegetables every day due to the expense. However, challenge yourself each week to pick up a new brightly coloured whole food to prepare. Whilst you may not get a rainbow plate every day, you’ll still be getting the variety you need over time.
5. Swap (at least one of) Your Daily Cups of Coffee for Green Tea
Green Tea is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols and catechins. Like most heart-healthy foods, green tea has been associated with decreased low-density-lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad cholesterol”), and lower triglyceride levels.
Top Tip: if you’re not a fan of the taste of green tea here are some ways to sweeten the deal: add ½ tsp honey, add fresh mint or cinnamon, blend with other fruit teas, add a squeeze of lemon juice, or make your own batch of iced tea.
6. Swap Your Refined Oils for Extra-Virgin Cold Pressed Oils
Whilst it has been debunked that you need to eliminate fat from your diet to improve your heart health, the quality of the fat in your diet still is important. Exchange hydrogenated, refined and highly saturated fats for the monounsaturated fats found in avocado, olives, fatty fish, and nuts and seeds for healthy arteries. These healthy fats are known to lower your risk of heart disease, decrease inflammation, lower LDL cholesterol, and lower blood pressure.
Top Tip: mashed avocado with a squeeze of lemon makes for a delicious dip for fresh vegetables as a quick and easy snack.
7. Swap Late Nights for Sweet Dreams
Poor sleep increases the level of stress hormones in your body. These in turn can lead to increased blood pressure as well as unbalanced blood sugar levels. Poor sleep also tends to make us crave more unhealthy foods than fresh fruits and vegetables. Protect your sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene, decreasing stress levels where possible, and establishing a routine around your bedtime.
Top Tip: avoid blue light exposure (tablets, cellphones, and TV) at least 1 hour before heading to bed, get your daily exercise, and get into bed at the same time each night.
All of these steps will get you closer to free flowing, healthy arteries (as well as improving your overall health in the process). If you need further support with any of the above steps, feel free to visit us at Lifestyle Health for some personalised guidance.