By Michael A. Smith, MD
Many factors can be heavy on your body and especially on your heart such as fat-heavy and sugar-heavy diets. But here’s a question to consider: just as food can cause the problem, could food also solve the problem? We think so.
When looking to improve heart health naturally, we believe there are two important areas to target: vascular inflammation and endothelial cells.
Inflammation is Like Smoldering Embers Ready to Ignite
We’ve always taught that inflammation is the common denominator of age-related disease. And this is especially true for the cardiovascular system. Inflammation is always smoldering in the background causing damage — slowly but surely — to cells and tissues.
But the scary part is that all it needs is a trigger to amplify and accelerate the damage inflicted on important body structures like blood vessels. The inflammatory response can damage blood vessels and the endothelium.1
It’s not exactly clear how inflammation inflicts its damaging effects, but one mechanism involves the enzyme, phospholipase-A2. As inflammation ignites, the enzyme is overexpressed within the wall of an artery and it begins to degrade fat. The result is a robust immune response within the arterial wall which can make the plaque unstable and making it prone to rupture. Researchers believe that this enzyme is the link inflammation.2
If we’re serious about promoting heart health, then easing inflammation and inhibiting phospholipase-A2 has to be a top priority.
It’s about Location, Location, Location
The endothelium is located within the inner most part of the arterial wall. If this delicate tissue is healthy, then most likely the rest of the cardiovascular system is also healthy. Endothelial cells produce nitric oxide (endothelial derived relaxation factor or EDRF) which is responsible for vasodilatation — an important property of healthy arteries.
Scientists have long known that injury to the endothelium is the first step in arterial plaque development. Injury can come from high blood pressure, inflammation, high fat and sugar diets and even infections.3
Healthy Heart Foods & Tea
We’ve put together the following tables to highlight the top healthy food and tea choices for targeting vascular inflammation and endothelial cell health. Eat and drink as much of them as you can, every day for the best results.
Please note: This is not an exhaustive listing. These are the choices we wanted to highlight based on solid evidence in the literature.
|Oily fish like salmon, sardines, anchovies||Suppress multiple steps in the inflammatory process and limit the production of inflammatory cytokines.4,5|
|Whole grains like quinoa, bulgur wheat, barley, oats, rye||Lower CRP, a marker of inflammation, and are helpful in several different types of inflammatory conditions.6|
|Flax seeds||Flax seeds contain alpha-linolenic acid which has been shown to lower CRP.7|
|Black Tea||Research has shown that unique compounds present in black tea called theaflavins can have multiple applications for arterial health.8 In particular, theaflavins can suppress inflammatory proteins.9|
|Pomegranate||Pomegranates support the endothelial cells by protecting them from free radical attack.11 Additionally, this super fruit prevents the oxidative breakdown of nitric oxide while enhancing its biological effects.10|
|Dark Berries||The darker the better! Dark berries are rich source of anthocyanins. These powerful antioxidants fight against oxidative stress, protecting endothelial cells from free radical damage.11|
|Seeds, walnuts and almonds||These foods are not only high in fiber but also are rich sources of arginine, which is the precursor to nitric oxide. Remember, the more nitric oxide the more pliable the arteries.|
- Ann Rheum Dis. 2012 Jan 18. [Epub ahead of print]
- Thromb Res. 2012 Jan 24. [Epub ahead of print]
- Dessy, C.; Ferron, O. (2004). “Pathophysiological Roles of Nitric Oxide: In the Heart and the Coronary Vasculature”. Current Medical Chemistry – Anti-Inflammatory & Anti-Allergy Agents in Medicinal Chemistry 3 (3): 207–216.doi:10.2174/1568014043355348.
- J Nutr Biochem. 2003 Sep;14(9):513–21.
- Nutr Clin Pract. 2009 Aug-Sep;24(4):508-12.
- J Nutr. 2010 Mar;140(3):587-94.
- Obes Surg. 2007 Mar;17(3):341-7.
- J Nutr. 2003 Oct;133(10):3298S-3302S.
- Crit Care Med. 2004 Oct;32(10):2097-103.
- Nitric Oxide. 2006 Sep;15(2):93-102. Epub 2006 Apr 19.