4 Foods for a Healthy Heart
With Valentine’s Day behind us, and Mother’s Day and Easter on the horizon, my thoughts turned to love and chocolate. We love with all our hearts. We often gift heart-shaped chocolates. Then, the Nutritional Therapist in me found the link: did you know chocolate is on the list of heart-friendly foods? It’s time to talk about the 4 must-have nutrients for a healthy heart.
Chocolate for… Flavanols
Did you know chocolate is good for your heart? It’s absolutely true! Here’s why.
Plants provide you with a numerous range of phytonutrients (Around 8,000 of these plant-based nutrients have been counted to date). Flavonoids are one of the largest groups, and can be further divided into sub-groups. Flavanols, the most abundant flavanoids in food, are one of these sub-groups. Cocoa beans are naturally-rich in flavanols.
It gets really interesting when you look at what the research shows. Firstly, that the most well-absorbed flavonol, quercetin, has anti-inflammatory actions on blood vessels. Secondly, that regular cocoa consumption improves both blood pressure and mean arterial blood pressure. 
So will any old chocolate bar do? Actually no, as the science says you need 200mg of cacoa flavanols to help maintain elasticity of blood vessels. Getting this will be a little hit-and-miss, unless you opt for a cacao powder where the amounts are guaranteed. Aduna’s Super-Cacao Powder does exactly this – giving 200mg of flavanols in every 20g (that’s double the amount than in other cacao powders). I think that unless you’re a hard-core chocolate lover, this is a lot to eat every day. Luckily, you’ll get flavanols from apples, blackberries and tea, so I recommend you tuck in to these too.
Pumpkin seeds for… Magnesium
Do you know those days when absolutely everything goes wrong?
You can’t get to sleep for ages, and then you miss the alarm… Your train is unexpectedly cancelled, so you start the morning trying to catch up… You’re waiting to get lunch after someone who can not make a decision, and unfortunately slapping them on the back of the head won’t make things go faster… You’re heading home knackered, but still have a full evening ahead.
Do you know what I call these rubbish days when you’re tense, irritable, your blood pressure is up, and you’ve simply had enough? I call them ‘magnesium days’.
I really like magnesium (in fact I’m proud to admit it’s my favourite mineral). It’s Nature’s valium – calming, relaxing, soothing and supporting. It’s what makes newborn babies so floppy and flexible. It’s what helps our muscles and minds relax, and for us to naturally cope with stress. The average diet provides roughly 272mg, but optimum daily intake is 500mg. If your blood pressure is sky-high, you feel overstretched, and you never sleep, then your intake could be very low.
There are some top-notch magnesium-rich foods around. You’d need to eat 1/2 cup of kefir (23mg), a handful of pumpkin seeds (92mg), 1/2 banana (16mg), 1 cup of spinach (157mg), 1/2 cup black beans (60mg), 1/2 avocado (29mg) and 1 square of dark chocolate (95mg) to reach your minimum daily starting point. Of course, supplementing will guarantee you get further.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of how 3 runners in the Chinese women’s track and field team broke 5 world records back in 1992? Their coach, Mr Ma Junren, claimed their success was due to a very specific training regime, which included the chinese medicinal mushroom, cordyceps.
But do you need to have phenomenal athletic prowess or record smashing ambitions for cordyceps to be good for you? Apparently not. For instance, I took a cordyceps mushroom complex for a few months recently. About a month after starting, I was running to the station to catch the train to work when I noticed something was different. Firstly, I’d run to the station in one go. Secondly, I wasn’t out of breath by the time I arrived. Thirdly, I felt like I could keep on running for longer. Wow! I thought.
Similar effects have been reported in studies on young adults and older, healthy, sedentary adults taking cordyceps for several weeks. In one study, younger people were able to exercise full out, for longer, before they reached maximum exhaustion.  In another study, older people were able to exercise longer, finish a 1-mile walk in less time, and enjoy a significant 5.2% drop in blood pressure. 
This is why cordyceps makes the grade as a heart-friendly wholefood supplement. As you know, having a healthy blood pressure is a sign of a strong yet flexible circulatory system. If you’re able to increase delivery of oxygen to your cells (the primary function of your beating heart), then it’s a win-win situation.
Of course, cordyceps might not be right for you. Pregnant and breast-feeding women, those with auto-immune diseases or bleeding disorders, on immuno-suppresant or anti-coaggulation medication, or awaiting surgery should avoid its use.
Oily fish for… Omega 3 fats
The omega 3 fats EPA and DHA are absolute classics when it comes to heart-friendly effects. It’s not surprising, considering the variety of positive changes they produce – improved levels of blood fats (cholesterol and triglycerides), slight reductions in blood pressure, improved blood clotting, not to mention their anti-inflammatory actions.
There’s been a subtle shift in our understanding of heart disease in recent years. Recommendations used to be to eat low-fat foods and restrict cholesterol in the diet. However, recent studies suggest it’s not so much about the type or amount of fat eat, chronic inflammation is an independent risk for CVD. 
So what types of food help reduce inflammation? Exactly! Those that contain omega 3.
It could be why a low-GL Mediterranean diet, which is packed full of fresh fish and nuts and seeds is so good for the heart. In studies it reduced the levels of inflammatory markers found in the blood,  and also reduced cardiovascular disease risk by a massive 15%. 
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
It’s not surprising that our hard-working hearts need a bit of love and attention too. Fortunately, there’s so much more on the list, other than blood pressure tablets, statins and beta-blockers. If you’ve already had a cardiovascular event, or have started taking medications, then I’d certainly be inquisitive, and seek advice and support to see which nutrients might be included in your health care. For those of you in a healthier state, reaching optimum daily amounts of flavanols, magnesium and essential fats, for there antioxidant, relaxing and anti-inflammatory effects, could help keep your heart healthy in the long-term, too.
REFERENCES Hooper et al, 2012 Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic reviewing meta-analysis of randomised trials.  Hirsch et al, 2016 Cordyceps militaris improves tolerance to high-intensity exercise after acute and chronic supplementation.  Zhu & Rippe 2001 CordyMax enhances aerobic capability endurance performance and exercise metabolism in healthy mid-age to elderly sedentary humans.  Espliguero et al. 2009 Predictive value of coronary artery stenoses and C-reactive protein levels in patients with stable coronary artery disease.  Chrysohoou et al. 2004 Adherence to the Mediterranean diet attenuates inflammation and coagulation process in healthy adults: The Attica study.  Vincent-Baudry et al. 2005 The Medi-RIVAGE study: reduction of cardiovascular disease risk factors after a 3-mo intervention with a Mediterranean-type diet or a low-fat diet.