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Why Heart Health is Relevant

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Why Heart Health is Relevant

The essence or central point of an idea is often called the “heart” of the matter. Yet among supplement categories, heart health is often forgotten about.  This may come at the expense of our collective interest to live longer, healthier lives.

The job of the heart is to pump blood throughout the body, sending oxygen and nutrients to the rest of the body, and removing waste products. The heart pumps through the circulatory system, which has about 100,000 miles of blood vessels.  Heart disease is still the #1 killer in the U.S., and when the heart is compromised, so often is the rest of the body.

Dietary antioxidants are strongly linked to reductions in cardiovascular (CV) disease risk. An abundance of evidence on the impact of antioxidant and nutrient intake on mortality from cardiovascular disease has been published in recent years as a result of the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES).  For example, a lower intake of Vitamins D and E was recently associated with high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for CV disease.

In a 2016 study published in the journal Circulation, intake of at least 16 grams of whole grains per day was associated with a lower mortality rate from cardiovascular disease.  But heart health doesn’t always have to taste like cardboard. For example, consumption of 3-4 servings of antioxidant-rich chocolate per week was associated with a 10% lower rate of heart attack in Swedes.

Polyphenols and flavonoids are the most abundant antioxidants in our diets. They are created by plants to protect them from oxidative stress, and they benefit the human body in similar ways.  Polyphenols also exhibit strong anti-inflammatory activities that support a heart-healthy diet. For example, a reduction in anti-inflammatory cytokines by polyphenols leads to reduced levels of atherosclerosis and blood lipids (especially bad LDL cholesterol).  Polyphenols also increase levels of protective markers such as endothelial nitric oxide, which helps blood vessels maintain their flexibility.  The typical, often-found result from consumption of polyphenol-rich fruits and vegetables is a reduction in CV disease markers.

Inflammation is more central to heart health than many previously thought. More recently, a number of studies have been published on the negative impact of pro-inflammatory diet, which can be measured by the Dietary Inflammation Index (DII).  The Mediterranean diet, rich in fish, nuts and plant fats, is a prime example of a low-DII diet. Study after study supports the benefits of a low-DII diet on a number of endpoints, including reduced mortality from cardiovascular and brain ischemic events (heart attack and stroke) in addition to longer telomeres, chromosomal indicators of our biological age.

But when we think of the Mediterranean diet, many picture a nonagenarian drinking a glass of Chianti while slurping sardines from a can. But heart health and longevity isn’t just for old Italians anymore.  Athletes and active people of all ages appear to benefit from heart-healthy diets.  The availability of low-carbohydrate, plant-based, whole foods are keys to maintaining optimal cardiovascular health.  Getting more protein from plants instead of red meat has also been mentioned as a key tipping point towards better CV health for the entire population. Metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes, obesity, CV disease, and other associated diseases, is a big problem for children in America. Plant-based diets and the elimination of highly processed foods are shown to be key to reducing metabolic syndrome, and therefore cardiovascular risk.

Part of the benefit of plant-based diets for CV health (aside from the lower sugar, lower carb, higher antioxidants, and better fats) is the quality of protein. A number of new protein sources are emerging as “better-for-you”, more sustainable protein sources from hemp and pumpkin seed. Yet cow’s milk protein is still thought to be a superior protein, since it is more similar to breast milk than, say, a soybean or an almond. Efforts to improve cow’s milk, including high CLA grass-fed, antibiotic-free milk protein, are now being proven as a superior source of whey protein in the market.

It’s tempting for many marketers to jump on to the next trend, at the cost of forgetting about scientific foundations.  While “fake news” ruled the zeitgeist of 2017, “fake nutrition” has always been somewhat of a part of our industry, defining a lot of the fads that have quickly come and gone.  For physically active people, the weight loss and sports nutrition-driven craze for medium chain triglycerides (or MCT) from coconut and palm oil has been more driven by marketing than science.  Although MCT and other saturated fats may be used by the brain as fuel, and could be useful for epilepsy and extreme weight loss, the benefits of a ketogenic, very-low-carb, calorie-restricted diet fat for long-term health has been called into question by various studies, summarized in a recent meta-analysis. As reams of evidence show, consumption of saturated fat contributes to atherosclerosis and heart disease, particularly compared to diets rich in polyunsaturated fats.

In several recent RCT, combinations of established, established, essential nutrients with antioxidant and heart-healthy properties have been evaluated. A combination of selenium and CoQ10 led to a 12% reduction in CV mortality risk in healthy elderly people. This effect was even more pronounced in subjects with low circulating selenium levels.  Selenium, an essential mineral micronutrient, is shown to have a number of useful activities for cancer prevention and antioxidant support, particularly in its organically bound forms.  It may be no surprise that a significant benefit on CV mortality was found for selenium supplementation in people with low blood levels.

As new science emerges on heart-healthy ingredients and products, we are able to develop smarter and better products.  Over the long term, it will be good, hard science serving at the “heart” of our knowledge on cardiovascular health.

Published in Natural Products Insider, August 2017

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