Q: Heart disease runs in my family. How do I keep my heart healthy?
— B. Frye, San Jose, Calif.
A: Every year, I write at least one column listing my top supplements for heart health. I try to do this without looking back at what I wrote the previous year. But when I finally do reread what I wrote the previous year, I’m always amused to find that the list doesn’t change that much.
So here’s this year’s list of superstar heart supplements. A good supplement plan isn’t the only thing you’ll need—far from it—but it’s a great addition to a heart-healthy lifestyle. These eight supplements are a great place to start.
Coenzyme Q10: CoQ10
The heart needs a lot of energy. It never takes a vacation, and beats approximately 86,400 times, day after day, year after year. CoQ10 literally “recharges” the energy production factories—known as mitochondria—in the cells. It’s needed to generate the “bitcoin” of cellular energy, ATP. The cells use ATP to power everything you do. ATP is needed to pump your blood, burn fat, snore, digest food, dance the rhumba, blink your eyes—every single operation in your body requires ATP, and CoQ10 helps make it.
Omega-3 fatty acids (known collectively as omega-3s) are found in plant foods such as flaxseeds, and animal foods such as coldwater fish. Flaxseed oil has some marvelous properties—there’s a lot of good research on flax oil and cancer, for example. But for heart health, fish oil has the heavier research pedigree. Fish oil has been shown to reduce the risk for having a heart attack or a stroke. It’s been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. And it decreases the risk of sudden cardiac death.
But for me, the most important action of omega-3s is that they are anti-inflammatory. Inflammation either causes, promotes, or amplifies just about every degenerative disease known— including heart disease, and low levels have been associated with everything from heart disease to ADHD. That’s why I recommend omega-3 supplements for everyone, including children. (Note: Are you thinking, “How would I ever get my kid to take fish oil?” Fortunately, the problem’s been solved. Both flaxseed and fish oils come in formulations called “Swirls,” made by Barlean’s, which taste terrific.
DID YOU KNOW? Fish oil has been shown to reduce the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Magnesium is the ultimate “anti-stress” nutrient. It basically calms things down, functioning as a kind of “relaxer.” It relaxes (dilates) the arteries, which lowers blood pressure and makes it a lot easier for the heart to pump blood. It improves sleep, which in turn lowers stress. It helps lower blood sugar, a major concern of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, both of which wildly increase the risk of heart disease.
According to surveys, almost no one gets enough magnesium. One easy (and fun) way to get your magnesium is to take a relaxing magnesium bath. Natural Vitality makes a terrific magnesium powder just for that purpose called Natural Calm, and it’s a lot more appealing than Epsom salts. Natural Calm is also available as an “anti-stress” magnesium supplement drink in single-serving flavored packets.
Niacin is accepted even by mainstream doctors because it lowers cholesterol. But its real value is that it lowers Lp(a), an independent risk factor for heart disease and heart attacks. It also raises HDL cholesterol, specifically HDL-2 cholesterol which is the most beneficial of the HDL subclasses. The only problem with niacin is the dreaded niacin flush, which is why a lot of people don’t take it. Sustained-release niacin was introduced to remedy this problem, but there’s only one problem: it doesn’t work.
D-ribose is another of the components of ATP, that cellular energy molecule we talked about earlier. Without D-ribose, you’ve got no ATP. Without ATP, you’ve got no energy to do anything, including basic metabolic functions. When the heart is stressed, it can’t make enough D-ribose to replace lost energy quickly.
D-ribose stores in the body are “tissue specific”—the heart can’t “borrow” D-ribose stores from the liver. It has to have its own stash. My coauthor on The Great Cholesterol Myth, cardiologist Steven Sinatra, MD, recommends 5 grams a day as a starting point for cardiovascular disease prevention, athletes, and healthy people who engage in strenuous activities.
L-carnitine is like a shuttle bus that transports fatty acids into the mitochondria—little energy plants within the cells—where those fats can be burned for energy. Because the heart gets 60 percent of its energy from fat, it’s very important that the body has enough L-carnitine to shuttle the fatty acids into the heart’s muscle cells. A number of studies have shown that L-carnitine can improve exercise endurance in heart patients, and in some research carnitine actually improves survival rate.
Vitamin K actually comes in two flavors, K1 and K2. Most people know of vitamin K because it’s involved in clotting, something that’s necessary if you’re not going to bleed to death from a paper cut! But clotting is a property of vitamin K1. Vitamin K2 has a whole different resume. It’s important for the heart, because it helps get calcium into the bones where it belongs, and helps it stay out of the arteries, where it doesn’t. For its ability to help prevent calcification in the arteries (what my parents used to call “hardening of the arteries”), it’s a very important supplement for heart health. Vitamin K2 is found in some foods like natto, egg yolks, liver, and other organ meats, but many people don’t eat enough of those foods to get much K2 from food. Be smart and take a supplement.
I’ve been a fan of citrus bergamot for quite a while because it has an impressive resume of beneficial effects on metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome—also known as prediabetes—is a collection of symptoms (like high triglycerides, high blood sugar, and abdominal obesity) that greatly increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Citrus bergamot, with its rich array of polyphenols, has a beneficial effect on at least three of the defining characteristics of metabolic syndrome. It lowers triglycerides, raises HDL cholesterol, and lowers blood sugar, making it a shoo-in for a well-rounded heart protection supplement regimen. One brand I like and recommend is Reserveage Nutrition Bergamot Cholesterol Support with Resveratrol.
DID YOU KNOW? Citrus bergamot, with its rich array of polyphenols, lowers triglycerides and raises HDL cholesterol.
What’s important to remember is that the heart doesn’t operate in a vacuum. So although supplements such as probiotics, vitamin D, resveratrol, curcumin, Niagen, and fiber may not be directly associated with heart health, they’re associated with processes and metabolic operations that are essential for your overall health. Probiotics nourish the all-important microbiome. Resveratrol and curcumin are very anti-inflammatory. Vitamin D is needed for just about everything. Niagen is a new supplement that helps turbocharge the energy pathways in the cells. And fiber helps manage blood sugar, which in turn helps control insulin levels. Chronically high insulin levels can lead to obesity and diabetes, which greatly increase the risk of heart disease.
And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other ways to help prevent heart disease. Manage your stress. Cultivate loving relationships. Give back. All of these will make a great difference in the health of your heart.