As women, we are often natural nurturers and many of us put the wellbeing of others before ourselves. When we approach our late 40s, nearing menopause, the last thing we are concerned about is our heart health. But we should be.
February is heart health month in North America and is a great time to consider your risk factors and those of the women around you. Heart health is not just a ‘man’s disease’, in fact, more women suffer strokes than men do, and women are more likely not to survive heart attack. Scary, but true. The question now becomes: what can you do about this?
Hormones are part of the picture
After menopause, women’s estrogen levels plummet (and this is often responsible for a whole host of undesired symptoms). This is also when a woman’s heart disease risk increases. As much as many women have a love-hate relationship with estrogen, its protective for heart because it helps to vasodilate (stretch) blood vessels and keep your circulatory system running smoothly. But when levels fall near middle-age, we are now at greater risk of a blocked vessel and a serious health problem.
Unique but common signs and symptoms
Women experience heart attack and stroke symptoms differently than men do. This is a key fact since many of us know the ‘classic signs’ of a cardiovascular issue (chest pain, arm weakness, slurred speech, etc.) but these aren’t always what women report.
Here are a few of the common first symptoms women experience before chest pain:
Don’t ignore these signs when they arise out of nowhere. Listen to your body when something feels off or unusual.
Prevention is the best medicine
In the day of modern medicine, recognizing symptoms early is vital to your recovery from any medical condition. However, considering heart disease is strongly a lifestyle disease, healthy habits can reduce your risk by as much as 80%. Sign me up please!
Eat your veggies
No, I don’t mean vegetable chips or a bit of extra arugula on your pizza. Studies have shown that a diet high in fruits and vegetables (minimum 5 servings, aim for 8) is powerful at keeping your arteries clear and the damage of a poor diet at bay. Does eight seem daunting? Consider what one serving actually is and fear no more. One cup of leafy greens or ½ cup cooked isn’t that large when you put it on your plate. Make a habit of getting at least two servings at lunch (a small salad) and three servings with dinner (half of your plate with your favourite cooked veg). My saving grace? A high-quality greens powder– 1 scoop is equivalent to one serving, so start and end your day with this and you’re good-to-go!
Fill up with fiber
I hate to sound like a broken record, but health is actually simple. It’s just not always easy. Most women aren’t reaching their daily 25g requirement of fiber (let alone the 35g I recommend to my patients). Adequate fiber has been shown to reduce the incidence of stroke, especially when the fiber is coming from whole, antioxidant-containing foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds. Gradually increase your intake by 5 grams per week to limit any digestive discomfort. Need a bit of help? Toss in a scoop of a powered fiber supplement in a smoothie, soup or stew (be sure it contains more than one type for maximum impact).
Let go of perfection
We are all struggling to be the best mom, partner, co-worker and friend. The reality is, we are all human and imperfect. When we let our inner critic get the best of us we are left feeling stressed, anxious and irritated. Unfortunately our heart is the one that suffers the most. Find time to relax and de-stress when things get hectic—don’t simply push through. This gives your cardiovascular system a chance to reset and rebalance, and over time this has an extremely protective impact on your health.
No matter what your age or risk factors, this month be sure to talk to the women in your life about keeping their hearts happy and healthy. Take simple steps today that will improve your tomorrow.