The body is an incredible machine, with no one part isolated from the others. Science continues to reduce the knowledge gaps in understanding how to maintain a healthy body. One key to keeping your body healthy is keeping your heart muscle strong and virile. In this article, we will discuss the connection between a healthy heart and brain. Then, we provide tips for what you can do to promote heart and brain health.
What does the heart do?
Your heart is a muscle located just a little to the left of the middle of your chest. It is approximately the size of your fist. The heart pumps life-giving, oxygen-containing blood to all your organs, muscles, and tissues. The right side of the heart receives blood returning from the body and pumps it to your lungs. The left side of the heart receives blood from the lungs and pumps it out to the body.
What happens if your heart and blood vessels are not healthy?
If your heart cannot effectively pump blood, oxygen cannot reach the body’s tissues. However, even if your heart is strong, blood flow to the tissues can be stopped or slowed down by plaque formation in your arteries – the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood. When plaque builds up in your arteries, space for blood to flow becomes narrower. The narrowing in your arteries, much like a traffic jam, can slow things down quite a bit.
Plaque is a sticky substance made of fat, cholesterol, calcium, blood cells, and more. It is hard to remove when it builds up (think what happens if you don’t brush your teeth regularly) and can lead to the development of atherosclerosis or thickening/hardening of the arteries. These blood flow blockages cause the necessary oxygen supply to be cut-off from other parts of your body. These vital parts of your body include the heart, kidneys, other internal organs, the muscles of your arms and legs, and – importantly – the brain.
What is the connection between a healthy heart and brain?
Plaque that forms in the blood vessels of the brain can cause a blood flow blockage. A stroke occurs when the oxygen supply is cut off from a part of the brain. This interruption of oxygen flow can be transient and barely detectable, or it can be long-lasting and obvious. Either situation requires immediate medical intervention to reduce the risk of permanent damage. In the U.S., someone has a stroke every 40 seconds, and having a stroke is a leading cause of disability.
There are two different types of strokes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 87 percent of all strokes involve blockage of blood flow to the brain – called an ischemic stroke. This type of stroke is usually caused by a clot that lodges in one of the brain’s blood vessels. The other type of stroke is a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a small blood vessel in the brain breaks open, causing bleeding into the brain tissue. While fast access to treatment can reduce the impacts of a stroke, individuals who have a stroke are more likely to have another. Strokes are just one part of the spectrum of cardiovascular disease—which is the top killer of both women and men each year in the US.
How to Keep A Healthy Heart and Brain
So, just like trying to find the best way to get to work to avoid the traffic jams, how can you avoid, or at least reduce, your risk of developing atherosclerosis? Here are a few tips for preventing traffic jams in your body’s critical blood transit system:
Fill your body with healthy fuel.
A regular diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fish can help minimize the amount of free-form fat and cholesterol floating through your bloodstream. You must consume omega-3 fats in fish, nuts, flax seeds, and vegetable oils through your diet. Because your body can’t make these fatty acids, they are referred to as “essential.”
The omega-3s in fish may be particularly beneficial for the heart and brain. Omega-3 fish oils have been shown to decrease inflammation, keep arteries more relaxed and flexible, and decrease arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden death. They may also help prevent heart attack and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (preferably fatty fish) at least twice a week.
For those who do not eat enough fish, a high-quality fish oil supplement may be a good idea. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved health claim states that consuming eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids in food or dietary supplements may reduce the risk of hypertension and coronary heart disease.
Keep water at the ready.
Sugary drinks, like sodas and juices, contribute to increased calorie intake beyond what you need and may lead to weight gain. Overconsumption of caffeine-laden beverages can interrupt important sleep patterns and increase heart rate. The heart pumps about 2,000 gallons of a blood a day. Adequate hydration with water helps ensure that the heart can work effectively and efficiently. When you are dehydrated, you have a lower blood volume, and your heart must work harder to pump it. Water needs vary, but generally, if your urine is dark yellow, you may not be consuming enough. Being in warm weather and when exercising, it is essential to make sure you are drinking water.
Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
Even if you sleep quickly every night, it doesn’t mean you are getting the necessary regular sleep patterns your body and mind crave. Take note of the time you went to bed and how long you slept in the mornings when you feel at your best. Try to mimic that pattern most nights of the week. Keep electronics out of your view, and try meditation to quiet your thoughts before hitting the pillow. The National Sleep Foundation reports that people who don’t sleep enough are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. While exact mechanisms are unknown, it seems to be related to disruptions in blood pressure, blood sugar metabolism, and inflammation management during what should be times of rest for a weary body that has been on the go.
How long have you been sitting at your desk today? If you can’t remember the last time you moved, you have been sitting too long. Moving your body improves circulation, metabolism, and helps with weight management and muscle strengthening. While engaging in medium to high-intensity exercise indeed promotes heart health, small steps are part of the health equation too. Take breaks from work to walk and stretch – and make time for yourself to engage in activities that will ramp up your heart rate and keep your heart strong. It will help you focus your mind too. It is a win-win!
Take action today to keep your heart pumping and your mind strong. It will help you be a better you!
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