Dr. Sarah Cimperman, ND
Research studies show that love plays an important role in cardiovascular health.1 This Valentine’s Day, forget the candy and celebrate with some heart-healthy activities instead. Whether you’re planning a romantic evening, a night out with friends, or time with the family, here are six ways to connect with loved ones and support heart health at the same time.
Regular physical activity is essential for a healthy heart. Studies show that exercise helps lower high blood pressure, whether people have pre-existing heart disease or not.2 In individuals who do have heart disease, exercise can improve quality of life and prevent heart attacks.3 If you’re not already active, Valentine’s Day is a good reminder to get permission from your doctor along with recommendations for exercises tailored to your abilities and goals. If you’re active already, Valentine’s Day is a good occasion to plan something you enjoy or be adventurous and try something new, like a fitness class (zumba or rebounding), yoga class (hot yoga or partnered yoga), or dance lesson (ballroom, Bollywood, or burlesque). If the weather is favorable, head outside to go hiking or biking, kayaking or climbing, skating or skiing. Runners can even sign up for a Valentine’s Day-themed race.
Relax and have fun
Doing things that bring us joy and pleasure can help manage stress and relax the nervous system, which lowers blood pressure and has a positive effect on cardiovascular health. So plan an event that everyone will enjoy. Go to a concert, museum, or movie. See a Broadway show or a comedy show. Try salsa dancing or wine tasting. And remember that pleasurable sexual activity is also a healthy way to have fun. Studies show that good sex not only relieves stress4 but reduces the risk for heart disease5 and boosts immunity6 at the same time.
Doing things that bring us pleasure can help manage stress and relax the nervous system, which lowers blood pressure and has a positive effect on heart health.
Do some home cooking
A healthy diet is essential for a healthy heart and one of the easiest ways to eat well is to cook at home, where you control the quality of ingredients. A heart-healthy diet is high in anti-inflammatory fats like cold-pressed oils (extra virgin olive, coconut, flax, walnut), raw nuts and seeds, avocados and olives, non-toxic fish and seafood (like wild Alaskan salmon, herring, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, anchovies), and grass-fed and pasture-raised meats, eggs, and dairy products. It’s also high in colorful, whole vegetables and fruits. It’s low in sweets, starches, processed foods, and inflammatory fats like deep-fried foods, cooking oils that have not been cold-pressed, and fake fats like trans-fats, hydrogenated oils, and interesterified oils. If you’re not comfortable in the kitchen, sign up for a cooking class. Make it a fun and interactive Valentine’s date or sign up solo in advance and learn how to make something special.
Share a healthy sweet
Not all chocolate is good for you and the ingredients make all the difference. The darker the chocolate, the better, because it’s the cocoa powder that contains compounds like flavonols, polyphenols, proanthocyanidins, and catechins that have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and cancer. Look for products that are 70% to 85% dark and always read the ingredient list. Avoid any that contain corn syrup, agave, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oil, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated ingredients of any kind, and Dutch-process or alkalinized cocoa powder, made from cacao beans that have been treated with an alkalizing agent to neutralize natural acidity. Some manufacturers favor Dutch-process or alkalinized cocoa powder because it is more soluble, milder in flavor, and darker in color, but alkalizing agents destroy heart-healthy antioxidants so look for products with natural unsweetened cocoa powder instead.
One quick and easy way to make your own dessert is to melt some dark chocolate in a glass or stainless steel bowl set on top of a saucepan filled with two inches of gently simmering water. As soon as it’s melted (do not overheat) drizzle it over fresh fruit or transfer it to a serving bowl for dipping.
Take a sauna
Saunas use heat to warm the body, increase circulation, and stimulate the elimination of toxins through sweat.7 In one study, researchers followed more than 2,300 middle-aged Finnish men for more than two decades to study the association between saunas, cardiovascular disease, and death. 8 They found that the more often men took saunas and the more time they spent inside at each session, the lower their risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and death from any cause. The lowest risk was associated with four to seven sauna sessions per week and nineteen minutes or more per session, yet those who did less still benefitted. Sauna therapy has been contraindicated for people with high blood pressure and/or heart disease, but studies show that individuals with these conditions actually benefit from sauna therapy.9 (Pregnant women, however, should always avoid saunas.)
Make sure the sauna you’re using is made of natural wood and nontoxic materials. Prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of extra water before, during, and after a sauna. At the end of every session, wash your body thoroughly to remove any toxins that were secreted by your skin. And at your next meal, consume plenty of electrolyte-rich foods to replace the ones you sweated out. Good choices include artichokes, broccoli, mustard greens, spinach, celery, wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and haddock.
Recognizing and appreciating the good things in our lives can have a real impact on wellness and vitality, even in people who already have heart disease. One study followed women and men with a history of heart failure but no symptoms, which is a critical therapeutic window for stopping the progression of disease. 10 Researchers compared standard psychological tests with several factors including symptoms of depression and fatigue, quality of sleep, and levels of inflammatory markers in the blood that are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease progression. They found that higher gratitude scores were associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue, less inflammation, and a lower risk of fatal heart disease.
Experiencing gratitude is something we can do every day and there are lots of ways to do it. Reflect on something you’re grateful for every night before bed or make a top ten list each week. Write a thank you card, send an email, or make a call to express your appreciation. Incorporate gratitude into a spiritual practice or meditation. Or plan an unforgettable Valentine’s Day for someone special.
Sarah Cimperman, ND is the author of the new book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings. She graduated from NCNM in 2002 and has a private practice in New York City. Her expertise has been featured on Fox News and Huffington Post and in Natural Health magazine, Whole Living magazine, and the Well Being Journal, among other publications. Dr. Cimperman also writes two blogs, A Different Kind Of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet.
- Boehm JK, Peterson C, Kivimaki M, and Kubzansky L. A Prospective Study of Positive Psychological Well-Being and Coronary Heart Disease. Health Psychology. 2011;30(3):259–267. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3165195/
- Santaella DF, Araújo EA, Ortega KC, Tinucci T, Mion D Jr, Negrão CE, and de Moraes Forjaz CL. After effects of exercise and relaxation on blood pressure. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 2006;16(4):341-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16858219
- van Dixhoorn J and White A. Relaxation therapy for rehabilitation and prevention in ischaemic heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation. 2005;12(3):193-202. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15942415
- Kim JI, Lee JW, Lee YA, Lee DH, Han NS, Choi YK, Hwang BR, Kim HJ, and Han JS. Sexual activity counteracts the suppressive effects of chronic stress on adult hippocampal neurogenesis and recognition memory. Brain Research. 2013;1538:26-40. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24041775
- Ebrahim S, May M, Ben S, McCarron P, Frankel S, Yarnell J, and Davey S. Sexual intercourse and risk of ischaemic stroke and coronary heart disease: the Caerphilly study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2002;56(2):99–102. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1732071/
- Haake P, Krueger TH, Goebel MU, Heberling KM, Hartmann U, and Schedlowski M. Effects of sexual arousal on lymphocyte subset circulation and cytokine production in man. Neuroimmunomodulation. 2004;11(5):293-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15316239
- Dahlgren J, Cecchini M, Takhar H, and Paepke O. Persistent Organic Pollutants in 9/11 World Trade Center Rescue Workers: Reduction Following Detoxification. Chemosphere 2007;69(8):1320–25. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17234251
- Laukkanen T, Khan H, Zaccardi F, and Laukkanen JA. Association between sauna bathing and fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events. Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Mededicine. 2015;175(4):542-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25705824
- Crinnion WJ. Sauna as a Valuable Clinical Tool for Cardiovascular, Autoimmune, Toxicant-Induced and Other Chronic Health Problems. Alternative Medicine Review. 2011;16(3):215–25. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21951023
- Mills PJ, Redwine L, Wilson K, Pung MA, Chinh K, et al. The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients. Spirituality in Clinical Practice (Washington, D.C.). 2015;2(1):5-17. http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/scp-0000050.pdf