What do the following have in common: Mornings, between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m.; Mondays; and the winter months, from January to March? 

Answer: they are, respectively, the most dangerous times of the day, week, and months of the year for your heart, the periods when you are most at risk of suffering a heart attack. Winter can be particularly challenging. Heart attack rates are 50 percent higher during the cold months than during the summer.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s the stresses of the holiday season that drives the increase in danger. For people living in Australia, where the seasons are reversed, June and July are the most dangerous months for the heart. Though certainly the holidays complicate things in the Northern Hemisphere, the pattern of heart attacks is clearly rooted in the winter months – not in the holidays.

For those living in the Northern Hemisphere, the time for concern is now. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself this winter.


Dietary Change Can Protect You

1. Restrict your intake of animal foods. The danger in these foods is excess saturated fat and animal protein. The former raises LDL cholesterol, which leads to the creation of atherosclerosis, or cholesterol plaques in the coronary arteries. The latter elevates homocysteine (an amino acid), which combines with LDL to injure coronary arteries and increases the levels of atherosclerosis. Together, the two are the leading causes of atherosclerosis and heart attacks.

The primary sources of saturated fat are red meats and dairy products. Therefore, the best advice is to sharply reduce, and if possible avoid fatty meats and dairy products during winter.  

Some may argue that this advice seems counter-intuitive, since most people feel they need more animal food in winter in order to keep their bodies warm. If you want to eat more animal foods in winter, choose leaner meats, such as fish and the white meat of fowl. Also, eat eggs occasionally.  All of these foods are lower in saturated fat. Rather than broiling chicken, make chicken soup with the white meat of the bird and skim off the fat from the top of the soup.

Whenever you eat animal foods, make sure that your meal is also composed of an abundance of colorful vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants that protect you from the likelihood of heart attack.

Plant foods are the only source of fiber in our diets. Fiber lowers blood cholesterol levels and thus reduces the danger heart attack and stroke.

The antioxidants and other phytochemicals in the plant foods will dramatically reduce the inflammation levels of your body, especially in your coronary arteries, or the arteries leading to your heart. Inflammation is the primary cause of heart disease and heart attack.

That inflammation is caused when blood cholesterol and homocysteine become oxidized (or turn rancid) in your blood. Those oxidized particles trigger an immune reaction, which leads to the creation of plaques inside your arteries, including in the arteries leading to the heart. These plaques become unstable and can rupture. Once they break open, a part of the plaque, called a thrombus, can be released from inside the artery and float down stream. Eventually, that thrombus can block blood flow to the heart or brain, and thus causing a heart attack or stroke.

If you have existing heart disease, restrict your animal foods consumption to white fish only (white fish is very low in saturated fat) and eat fish only once or twice a week.  Eliminate all dairy products, eggs, and red meat for at least the duration of the winter.

2. Restrict your intake of processed foods. In addition, to lowering animal foods, also reduce all processed foods, which can elevate insulin levels and increase triglycerides in your blood stream. Triglycerides are fatty acids, or tiny balls of fat, which can restrict blood flow throughout the body, including in the coronary arteries.

In short, limit your intake of white bread, white rolls, bagels, and foods containing sugar.

Steps 1 and 2 will reduce your cholesterol, homocysteine, and insulin levels. All three changes will make any existing cholesterol plaques smaller, more stable, and less likely to rupture. The research shows that you can substantially reduce your risk of heart attach within ten days of adopting a healing diet. Simply eliminate animal foods, drop your cholesterol and homocysteine levels and increase vegetables. These changes alone will have a powerful and even miraculous effect on your health.
3. Increase your intake of vegetables and beans. During the winter months, make sure that at least two meals contain three servings of vegetables – a green and leafy vegetable (such as broccoli, collard, kale, bok choy, endive, or cabbage); a round or sweet vegetable (such as squash, onion, sweet potato, turnip, or rutabaga), and a root, such as carrots or parsnip. At breakfast, eat a cooked whole grain, such as steel cut oats, brown rice, millet, or quinoa. Make your morning grains moist by adding more water during cooking or reheating. Add rice syrup, barley malt, or some fruit to sweeten, if desired. Accompany your cooked grain with a green vegetable, such as broccoli, collard greens, or bok choy.

Meantime, eat beans once a day. Beans are especially heart-healthy foods. They are rich in folate, which decreases homocysteine; minerals, such as magnesium; fiber; and antioxidants, all of which reduce your risk of heart disease and heart attack. Aduki, chickpeas, black, lentils, kidney, lima, mung, navy, and pinto are just a small sampling of these amazingly healthy and varied foods.

(Incidentally, beans are among the most protective foods against breast and prostate cancers. The Harvard Women’s Health Study showed that women who eat beans regularly throughout the week have a 24 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who avoid beans.) 

4. Do not engage in any vigorous exercise, including shoveling of snow, unless you first make dramatic dietary change. The most common New Year’s resolution, of course, is to lose weight. Unfortunately, people mistakenly believe that the best approach to realizing that goal is through daily exercise. They’re wrong – dangerously so.

Vigorous exercise increases the demand for oxygen from every cell of your body. That means that the heart must work harder to deliver more blood and oxygen to your cells. As the heart works harder, it too needs additional oxygen. But if your coronary arteries have been narrowed by cholesterol plaques, the heart will not be able to get sufficient oxygen. It can begin to suffocate under the increased strain. And if one of those arteries tosses a plaque downstream, the dangers of a heart attack jump dramatically.

The best way to combat this danger is to significantly reduce the flow of LDL cholesterol to the plaques inside your arteries. Within days of doing this, the plaques begin to shrink and stabilize and the danger of rupture is all but eliminated. Once this happens, you can begin a gentle exercise program, which should consist of nothing more than some gentle walking.

During the winter months, it’s better to exercise indoors than outside, for the reasons explained below in recommendation number 5. Also, whenever you exercise, provide plenty of time to warm up so that your body can gradually acclimate by opening your arteries so that more blood can flow throughout your body.   

5. Protect against the cold. Cold weather forces arteries throughout the body to close. If cholesterol plaques have already narrowed the arteries to the heart, the cold weather can bring on angina pectoris pain and increase the likelihood of a heart attack.

When you go out in winter, make sure you dress warmly, especially if you already suffer from heart disease or angina pain.

If you exercise, do so indoors.  

6. Take good care of your kidneys. Traditional Chinese medicine states that the kidneys control the heart. Winter is the season when the kidneys become overly active. If the kidneys are suffering, they can elevate blood pressure and increase the demands on the heart.

(More on caring for the kidneys in the article in this newsletter.)

Winter is the season when all of nature rests, gathers energy, and awaits the spring. Follow nature’s lead, eat well, and your heart will grow stronger this season.