Q: What can I do to reduce my chances of heart disease? Can supplements really help?
A: This is what I say when people ask me, “Do I need nutritional supplements?”
“No. Nor do you need indoor plumbing and electricity. But why in the world would you choose to live without them?” Nowhere is that more true than when we’re talking about the heart.
Here are my top choices for a “healthy heart” supplement program. Remember, the word is supplement—not substitute. You can’t eat a crummy, low-fiber, low-fat, high-sugar diet and expect that a few pills will prevent the damage. But when you add these supplements to a smart eating plan, well, look out world, because your heart is going to be very well taken care of—at least when it comes to nutrition.
Coenzyme Q10—or CoQ10 for short—is a vitally important nutrient that literally recharges the energy production furnaces in the cells (known as the mitochondria). It’s one of the greatest nutrients for energy on the planet, and since the heart cells produce more energy than any other organ, CoQ10 and the heart are a natural fit. Indeed, CoQ10 has been approved as a drug for congestive heart failure in Japan since 1974—it’s that effective at helping the heart produce energy.
Nearly every cell in your body makes CoQ10, but as we age we produce substantially less. And don’t think you’re going to make up the difference with food—CoQ10 is found mainly in organ meats (heart, liver, and kidney). Other foods that have it, like sardines and beef, contain tiny amounts—you’d need a ton of these foods to get even 30 milligrams a day, the absolute minimum dose for healthy folks needing general protection.
CoQ10 is required in order for your body to manufacture ATP (adenosine triphosphate) , the “gasoline” that makes every cell run and every muscle move. ATP becomes especially crucial for heart health since your heart is your most metabolically active tissue—it demands a constant supply of these energy molecules.
Your heart actually contains the greatest concentration of CoQ10 in the body. Simply put, your heart loves CoQ10.
L-carnitine is a molecule that works as a cellular shuttle bus. It loads up fatty acids and transports them into the mitochondria where they can be burned for energy. Along with CoQ10, L-carnitine helps “recycle” ATP rather than to build it.
Your heart gets about 60 percent of its energy from fat, and L-carnitine plays a crucial role in getting those fatty acids into your heart’s muscle cells. This nutrient also works as a powerful cardio-protective antioxidant and lowers triglycerides.
D-ribose is an exception to the “sugar is bad” rule—it’s one sugar that’s not only healthy, but absolutely essential for life.
D-ribose is a five-carbon sugar that provides the structural backbone for ATP. Simply put: without ribose, you don’t make ATP. Without ATP, you have no energy.
Your cells make D-ribose, and your body uses it in numerous ways for optimal cellular function. Any time your muscle’s energy reserves become depleted—e.g., because of exercise or a heart condition —supplementing with D-ribose can restore them.
D-ribose’s benefits really become apparent with heart health. Those benefits include reversing heart failure, cardiac surgery recovery, restoring energy to stressed skeletal muscles,
and reducing free-radical formation in tissues deprived of oxygen.
Remember, your heart depends on ATP. When blood flow and oxygen are compromised—such as in ischemia (an insufficient supply of blood to the heart, usually as a result of blockage)—your heart can lose a large amount of its ATP, and cells can’t make enough D-ribose to replace the lost energy quickly. But when D-ribose is given to patients with ischemia, energy recovery and function can return to normal in one to two days.
Ribose can be of great benefit to people without heart disease, including athletes. Athletes place a lot of strain on their muscles’ energy metabolism. And while it might take a lot for trained athletes to subject their muscles to this kind of stress and strain on energy reserves, a less-conditioned person might experience it gardening or participating in “weekend warrior” activities.
Magnesium, the fourth-most-abundant mineral in your body, aids in more than 300 enzymatic reactions, many of which affect your heart. Researchers estimate about 75 percent of us are deficient in magnesium. And a deficiency in this vital nutrient can adversely affect numerous heart conditions.
Among its benefits, magnesium helps you relax. Think about one of the most relaxing things you can do—soaking in an Epsom salt bath. When you soak in that bath you’re delivering a large dose of magnesium to your body, absorbed right through your skin.
Magnesium is a cofactor in manufacturing our old friend ATP, the cellular energy molecule. One study linked magnesium deficiencies with ischemic heart disease, and countless others connect low levels of magnesium with poor cardiovascular health.
Simply put: Low magnesium levels in your cells trigger heart tissue destruction, which can lead to a heart attack.
Magnesium helps widen and relax blood vessels. Relaxing your arteries means your heart can pump blood more easily, thereby reducing blood pressure. Studies show that people who consume more magnesium tend to have lower blood pressure.
5. Omega-3s (Fish Oil)
Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids are one of the best predictors of sudden heart attacks, and people with the lowest levels are at highest risk. Among their numerous benefits, these essential fatty acids help reduce inflammation, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels. (Triglycerides are the main form of fat found in the body and are always measured on a standard blood test.)
Fish oil supplements reduce triglyceride levels by up to 40 percent in some research, an astonishingly high amount. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality analyzed 123 studies on omega-3 fatty acids and concluded that “omega-3 fatty acids demonstrated a consistently large, significant effect on triglycerides—a net decrease of 10 to 33 percent.” The effect is most pronounced in those with high triglycerides to begin with. Even the extremely conservative American Heart Association recommends 2 to 4 grams of the two omega-3 fats found in fish oil (EPA and DHA) for patients who need to lower triglycerides.
The other thing that omega-3s do is lower inflammation. Our bodies make our own anti-inflammatory compounds out of omega-3s, so it’s vitally important to get enough of them.
6. Vitamin C
With regard to heart disease, the most simple argument for vitamin C supplementation goes like this: Oxidative damage is one of the four major promoters of heart disease. Vitamin C is one of the most powerful antioxidants in the world. Therefore, vitamin C should help prevent—or at least slow down—oxidative damage, one of the strongest promoters of heart disease.
We have hard data to show an association between vitamin C levels and heart disease. A 2011 study in the American Heart Journal found that blood levels of vitamin C did indeed predict heart failure in both men and women. In other words, the lower the level of vitamin C in the blood, the higher the risk for heart failure.
7. Vitamin D
Studies show that a low level of vitamin D is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In fact, low concentrations of vitamin D are an independent risk factor for cardiovascular events, in particular for strokes and sudden cardiac deaths.
What’s more, few of us get enough of this spectacularly important vitamin. A number of studies in the last decade have suggested that vitamin D deficiency is widespread. Since vitamin D has been found to help with everything from heart health to osteoporosis to depression to physical performance to weight loss, low levels of this vitamin are a serious problem indeed.
Curcumin is the name given to a collection of compounds called curcuminoids, which are the active anti-inflammatory compound found in the superspice turmeric.
Curcumin is not only a powerful anti-inflammatory, it also provides antioxidant and cardiovascular protective benefits. Among its heart duties, curcumin reduces oxidized LDL cholesterol. In animal studies, curcumin protects arterial wall linings from the damage caused by homocysteine (an inflammatory amino acid found in the blood). Homocysteine is a risk factor for heart disease.
One study found that curcumin could preserve cardiac function after ischemia and tissue damage from insufficient blood flow. “Curcumin has potential as a treatment for patients who have had a heart attack,” researchers concluded. We think it’s got a lot more than just “potential,” and consider it an important supplement for heart health.
Resveratrol—an anti-aging nutrient found primarily in red wine and the skins of dark grapes—protects your arteries against blood clots, improves elasticity, and reduces blood pressure as well as oxidized LDL. A powerful antioxidant, resveratrol inhibits several inflammatory enzymes that can trigger heart disease. Resveratrol also stops certain molecules from sticking to artery walls, where they hang out and create inflammation.
Even if you don’t take every one of my favorite heart-healthy supplements, you’ll do yourself a huge favor if you take most of them. Your heart will thank you for it.
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, aka “the Rogue Nutritionist,” is the author, with cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, MD, of The Great Cholesterol Myth. His program “Unleash Your Thin” can help you conquer cravings and food addictions and is available at jonnybowden.com. Visit him at jonnybowden.com and follow him on Twitter @jonnybowden. Do you have a health question for Jonny? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write “Health Q&A” in the subject line.