Understanding Heart Disease

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Commit to understanding heart disease and its impact on your health

So this is where my personal story began fourteen years ago.   My father had to undergo emergency open heart surgery– a triple bypass– because of blockages.   I was 32 years old and had no idea what was happening.  That event, and my dad’s long but miraculous recovery, became a watershed moment for me.  Understanding heart disease became my number one focus. And as I did more research and as I became more educated, here is THE most important thing that I learned.  

"First, nutrition is the master key to human health. Second, what most of us think of as proper nutrition—isn’t.”― T. Colin Campbell, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition

In today’s world, there is a study that can fit any belief.  So how can we understand our hearts, and whether we are healthy?  Furthermore, is there really anything we can do about it?  And the good news is a resounding “YES!”   We CAN do something about it, we can find health and we can understand ourselves in the process.  So let’s look first at the accepted definition of heart disease.

Heart disease. or cardiovascular disease, can be classified in these ways:

  1. Blockages in blood vessels
  2. Blood vessel disease (such as high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries)
  3. Arrhythmia–Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is probably the most well know of the heart arrhythmia classification
  4. Heart Attack
  5. Stroke
  6. Heart Valve problems
  7. Aneurysms

There are other contributing symptoms and conditions related to heart disease but these are the main culprits and we all know someone with one or more of these problems, and how debilitating they can be in our lives.  So let’s figure out what we can do as individuals to improve the quality of our lives and to support our loved ones.  There is so much we can do for prevention and reversal of this disease.

statistics for heart disease deaths

Education is the key. Teaching yourself strategies and techniques for prevention starts with YOU.

Science  is important. When I look at the value of the study, I think long term studies with many participants gives us the most stable results.   Two really important studies to note are the Framingham Heart Study and the Nurses’ Health Study.  These are both large in scope and participation and have yielded some important results.   So according to the research that cite these large studies, what causes heart disease?  What are the main factors?  The two major causes can be split into two areas:  Diet and then lifestyle.   Of course– it seems cliche.   But let’s break it down.

Dietary decisions are made by you and your beliefs.  It seems difficult to decipher all the information that’s out there today.   These studies that I cited above specifically point to the benefits of plants.   Ultimately it comes down to cultivating a respect for the messages that your body is sending to you, and trust in the instinct that your body actually craves plants.   But why would that be true?   Because plants are the highest source of nutrients on this planet.  There is a very good reason you love fresh fruit in the summer and root vegetables in the winter.  We crave the goodness of plants because ultimately, they are healing foods. 

 You may have beliefs from your childhood that counteract this.   You may have family members or friends that choose a different lifestyle. Now comes the decision to put yourself first.   It all comes down to listening to yourself, taking a hard look at the large cohort studies that are backed by science, and trusting in your body’s wisdom rather than the slogans you see on an advertisement or on the supermarket shelves. Changing your beliefs to fit your new lifestyle is part of the process of healing and of lifelong goodwill and health.

Stress management and self care is just as important as diet.  It is really important that we understand the role of the mind and of our emotions to maintain a healthy body. Stress contributes a number of symptoms that are related to heart disease:

  1. High blood pressure– negative emotions raise our blood pressure as a stress response
  2.  High cholesterol and triglycerides— In this article, we can see a direct response to our stress and to elevated cortisol levels.
  3.  Interrupted Sleep– Having less sleep increases our blood pressure, in part because we have a harder time responding to stress when we are already tired.   It can also lead to a change in the circadian rhythm, contribute to brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s Disease, and lead to heart arrhythmia and chronic cortisol and adrenaline release.
Stress is a big indicator of overall health.  Eating a healthy diet leads us to less physical stress, which leads to more emotional stability, which in turn leads to a better sense of overall well-being, which lowers our stress response.   This then lowers our risk for heart disease related events and improves every part of our lives.  So let’s find out how we can improve our heart health!

Understanding heart disease means you must make changes to your diet. Here's my five top picks for heart health:

A plant based diet is a great way to improve your heart health.  Plants are the great healers of this world, so let’s look at five ways you can add more plants to your diet.

  1. Nuts and Seeds: Nuts and seeds increase your fullness factor.  They will help curb your appetite and you will lose weight faster.  Being at a healthy weight will lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.  Furthermore, if you choose brain healthy nuts and seeds, it will contribute important Omega 3 fats to improve your brain function and long term health. 
  2.  Berries:  Berries contribute high levels of antioxidants and nutrients, which bathe your endothelial linings with happiness!  In short, that means that your blood vessels will stay pliable and plaque free when you add high amounts of polyphenols to your daily diet.
  3.  Legumes:  Beans sometimes get a bad rap, but they are packed with protein, nutrients and minerals, such as iron, folate and magnesium.   They also are full of fiber, half of which remains undigested, which is very good for your immune system and your digestive health.  Eating beans creates a slow burn, releasing insulin at a slow rate, which stops damage to your blood vessels and heart.  Navy beans are an especially rich source of iron and calcium.
  4.  Beets:  Beets are naturally high in nitric oxide, which keeps your blood pressure low and your vessels open.  It is a natural boost to help you exercise better and think more clearly.   The studies specifically cite beet juice, so enjoy this recipe for a great tasting juice to perk up your heart!
  5.  Leafy Green Vegetables:  Are you surprised?  Of course, your mom and Popeye were in collusion, and they were right!  The value of cruciferous vegetables cannot be ignored.  The good news for you is there are lots of choices out there.   Cabbage, broccoli, swiss chard, kale, cauliflower and bok choi are all part of this important sulfurous family.   They provide loads and loads of nutrition, even in small quantities.   Eating these in adolescence has been shown to grow a stronger heart!   It’s never too early to start.

Lowering your stress levels is just as important as what you choose to eat. It all works together.

Making room for stress management techniques is a really important part of understanding heart disease.  We often ignore the signs and symptoms of stress in our own lives so that we can finish a project at work, take care of a child or parent who is in need, or plow through a particularly long day.   But there are some easy ways we can manage our stress, even in the middle of whatever you are dealing with.  Emotions can bring us health or they can hinder us and lead to physical illness, especially heart related events.   After all, emotions come from within, often thought of as the “heart”.


“Emotion is created by a cause, whether that cause is factual or imaginary does not matter, as longer as the believer holds it as true.”― Bangambiki Habyarimana, Pearls Of Eternity

Here’s what I do to manage stress in my daily life, and these simple techniques are what I teach to my clients so that emotions don’t ride high and we can make the right decisions, from the heart.

  1.  Breathing techniques:  A really fast way to diffuse any situation is simply to breathe.  By slowing our breathing pattern, we slow the body’s stress response.  Cortisol and adrenaline are vessel damaging hormones when they are present in the body for long periods of time.  Breathing slowly and evenly returns us to our heart based selves– ready to solve a problem in a natural state, without an overly emotional or tension filled response.
  2. Removing yourself from the situation:   Taking a walk changes everything.   Craving a food you know you don’t need or having an argument with your partner or child?   Removing yourself from the situation clears the head and releases tension and negativity.  Just the simple act of walking into another space, or especially outdoors, elevates our mood and allows us to think more coherently.
  3.  Solve the problem in the present:  Allowing situations to fester and holding grudges keeps our stress response critically high, and it can remain that way for months and years, as long as you hold the situation in your present mind.   It is important to begin the process of letting go and discussing matters as they happen, so that you can move forward and release that stress.  Remember that you are important and valuable, and your thoughts and feeling matter.  DIscuss issues right away to keep yourself healthy both physically and emotionally.

Understanding your personal options when it comes to heart disease means you can take your health in your own hands.

As a health and lifestyle coach, I have learned how to commit to long term changes and implement them in my lives, as well as fostering change in my clients and in my family.   A diagnosis does not have to be the end of your health.  The signs and signals our bodies send out should be a call to action– not a call to doom and despair.   Heart disease, especially, can be very treatable and in some cases, totally reversible.  And my advice???  Make it easy.   If you believe it will be too hard, then of course it will be!   It is important to take your lifestyle as your treatment plan.   What can you do, right now, today?   There are some great takeaways in this article to help you begin your recovery plan.

Believing in yourself. some planning, some intuition, and some support is how you treat heart disease!  The good news is YOU CAN DO IT!!!  At the beginning of the article, I spoke of my father.   He had his first open heart surgery at 69, his second open heart surgery at 78, and now at 82 his vessels are totally clear of plaques and he is optimistic about the future.   Lifestyle change is something he learned for himself and implemented over time, and you can begin too!  Here’s a recent picture of this guy whose story is so powerful.  I hope it inspires you to take charge of your health and start implementing some of the changes I have outlined in this article!


understanding heart disease with a testimonial

Finally, to change your circumstances, become more knowledgeable.

I want to leave you with a video from a doctor I regularly follow.   He has a great three minute explanation of how diet and heart disease are intrinsically related.   More education is the key to our success, so the more you know, the more you grow!  Comment below– share this article– join our Life in Harmony Group on Facebook!   Let’s be committed to better health together!

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