Healthy Heart – body and emotions

February is American Heart Health Month, designed to bring awareness to the importance of heart health and encourage healthy habits to reduce the risk of heart disease.

What better time to raise awareness of heart health than the month we celebrate love with Valentines, hearts, and flowers.

Healthy Eating for a Happy Heart

One way to help keep our hearts healthy is with healthy eating habits.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has designed a heart-healthy eating plan called DASH: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The secret to this eating plan, says Charlotte Pratt, Ph.D., M.S., R.D., a nutrition expert at NHLBI,  is “eating nutrient-dense foods and meals that are lower in sodium and saturated fat, rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and legumes.”

DASH includes recipes that are easy to make and family-friendly. Some of the recipes feature healthy versions of comfort foods, such as oven-baked french fries, chicken chile stew, and sweet potato custard. They include traditional African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Vietnamese, Latino, and Filipino dishes. 

You can find these recipes, along with tips about safe cooking, what to stock in your kitchen, and food shopping at healthyeating.nhlbi.nih.gov.

“The DASH eating plan is scientifically proven to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” said Pratt. And NHLBI research shows that increasing your physical activity and watching your calories while following DASH guidelines will not only make your heart happier, it can also help you lose weight. 

DASH requires no special foods, and it helps you set daily and weekly nutritional goals using these simple guides:

  • Eat vegetables, fruits, and whole grains,
  • Include fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils,
  • Limit foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy foods, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils; and
  • Limit sugar-sweetened drinks and desserts.

Combining these healthy eating habits with other self-care activities can help us handle stress and take care of the heart. 

Top of the list: move more throughout the day, get 7 to 8 hours of sleep, and try relaxation exercises such as meditation or yoga. If you smoke, try quitting, and develop a strong social support system to help keep you motivated. Learn more about DASH at www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

Managing Emotions for a Healthier Heart

Heart health is also impacted by stress. With chronic stress, your blood pressure, heart, lungs, and gut can all take a hit. 

The NHLBI also has tips for responding to stress that can help your heart be happier. Try these techniques on your own or find a teacher or class to help you get started. 

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get the hang of it quickly. And if one approach doesn’t work for you, try something new. There are lots of options for destressing. 

Meditation. One of the most studied approaches for managing stress, meditation involves developing your ability to stay focused on the present, instead of worrying about the past or future. Find a quiet location with as few distractions as possible. Get comfortable by either sitting, lying, or walking. Focus your attention on a specific word or set of words, an object, or your breathing. And let distractions, including thoughts, come and go without judgment. 

Progressive muscle relaxation. To feel the effect, first tense your muscles for a few seconds, then relax them. Start by tensing and relaxing your toes, then your calves, and on up to your face. Do one muscle group at a time.

Deep breathing. Take in a slow, deep breath, let your stomach or chest expand, and then exhale slowly. Repeat a few times. Many people don’t breathe deeply, but it is relaxing and something you can do anytime, anywhere.

Guided imagery. This involves a series of steps that include relaxing and visualizing the details of a calm, peaceful setting, such as a garden. 

Getting your mind and body to a place of calm doesn’t always mean being still, however. Other healthy ways to manage stress include taking a yoga or tai chi class, talking to a professional counselor, joining a stress management program or an art class, or meeting up with friends for a brisk walk. Being in nature can be very soothing for some people.

Combining de-stressors like these with other healthy habits can go a long way toward strengthening your heart. Find exercises you actually love and do them regularly. Get enough good, quality sleep. And develop a strong social support system. Then rethink some of the familiar ways you may be coping with stress, such as drinking alcohol frequently or overeating.

Taking care of our heart health is a lifelong journey. To learn more about heart health from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, visit www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.