Eat right, exercise and…get a massage? In honor of American Heart Month, six lesser-known ways to boost your cardiovascular health
By Gabriella Burman
Every 36 seconds in the U.S., someone dies from heart disease. That amounts to about 655,000 deaths per year — almost double the number of Americans who died of Covid-19 in 2020.
In fact, cardiovascular disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the United States, despite advances in medicine and initiatives to promote heart health for every American. And no one is immune: The condition affects both men and women, and is a leading cause of death for people of nearly every race and ethnicity.
We all know the major risk factors for heart disease (obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, physical inactivity, smoking, etc.) and what it takes to mitigate them. But there are several lesser-known ways to boost cardiovascular health, too. Read up on them in honor of American Heart Month — and keep in mind that while these behaviors may sound small, they can make a big difference.
Relax your body (and mind)
Massages work wonders on tense muscles, but they also help with overall wellness. According to several mid-2000s studies, a proper Swedish or deep-tissue massage lowers blood pressure and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. “Massage also increases dopamine and serotonin in the body, thereby lowering stress,” says Jenaveve Biernat, a licensed massage therapist and co-owner of Meta Physica Wellness Center in Detroit.
While massages may be “off the table” during the pandemic, meditation — which has been proven to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate — is another good option. Hundreds of apps are available for both novices and experienced practitioners; we like Calm and Headspace.
Gross but true: Our mouths contain 700 different species of bacteria. Some of these organisms are harmless, but as a “traveling biome that enters the blood stream,” as Dr. Doug Thompson of Integrative Oral Medicine in Bloomfield Hills calls them, others can do things like stiffen your arteries, cause leaky blood vessels and increase the formation of fat deposits in the blood vessel wall. All of these conditions elevate your risk of heart disease and stroke. “There is a community of bacteria that live on and around the teeth,” says Thompson, “and some of those bacteria affect vascular biology.” Individuals with gum disease are especially susceptible to cardiovascular problems, he adds.
Fortunately there are simple ways to keep oral bacteria at bay. For one, be diligent about brushing (at least twice a day) and flossing (shoot for once daily). Eat foods high in fiber, which are known to create more saliva to help wash away extra food. And don’t skip your regular dental cleanings.
Snooze or lose
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults log seven hours or more of sleep, but more than one-third of Americans say they get less than that — a potentially harmful habit because a good night’s sleep is essential to heart health, says Dr. Mark Goldberg, a board-certified, Beaumont Hospital-affiliated cardiologist at Cardiovascular Specialists in Farmington Hills.
“When a person is sleeping, their heart rate is lower, and their blood pressure is lower,” he says. “This places less demand on the heart, and less stress.” Need tips on boosting your sleep quality? Experts recommend sticking to a regular schedule (even on weekends), avoiding your computer or smartphone’s artificial light near bedtime, and keeping your bedroom dark, quiet and cool.
Studies show that married people are healthier than single people, but most health professionals interpret this data to mean that social support and companionship are important to overall health no matter your marital status.
“Social support in marriage sometimes means that you have someone to watch out for you before and after an illness, which can improve outcomes,” says Christine DeKraker, an exercise physiologist at St. Joe’s Hospital in Pontiac who has over two decades of experience treating cardiac patients.
Still, your “person” doesn’t need to be a romantic partner. “I’ve also seen that other relationships can reduce and reverse the effects of heart disease,” she says. “People with grandchildren, widowers with neighbors and friends who look out for them, even people with pets that provide comfort and loyalty; these individuals tend to do better when they’re recovering from an acute event.”
Track your ticker
There are all kinds of devices designed to measure wellness markers, from fitness trackers to blood-pressure cuffs. And while these tools won’t make you healthier, of course, they may increase your chances of seeking help if a health crisis arises. Take the Apple Watch, which can do everything from count your steps to record your heartbeat to even detect heart arrhythmias.
It may also be worth investing in a blood pressure cuff and a pulse oximeter, which provide accurate, real-time heart information. (Maintaining a blood pressure of 120/80 or less is key in reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack, while a pulse oximeter measures the level of oxygen in your blood.) Irregular readings on either device may indicate that you need to follow up with your doctor.
Many people hit the sauna to relax tense muscles, but a stint in the heat can also benefit your cardiovascular system. Studies show sauna users experience a drop in blood pressure and arterial stiffness after a 30-minute session in the heat, and a bump in heart rate that’s similar to the effects of a moderate workout. “The increase in body temperature increases your heart rate, and that’s like a workout for your arteries that promotes blood flow,” says Biernat. Then again, she adds, “To melt in the heat without distraction — that alone would cause someone to relax and cortisol [a stress hormone] to drop.”
That said, if you feel chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling, rapid or irregular heartbeat at any time as you go about your daily activities, seek prompt evaluation from your physician. “Delay,” says Goldberg, “can have major consequences.”