Over the years doctors and researchers have noted that heart disease is more prominent in bald men (1), people with creases in their earlobes (2) and those who are left-handed (3). Obviously these traits, as well as genetic susceptibility to heart conditions, are out of our control. There's still much we can do to discourage heart problems.
Luckily lifestyle habits greatly influence your heart's health. A smoke-free environment and physical activity, for example, have a profound impact how whether you'll develop cardiovascular conditions later in life. The research on nutrition is equally heart warming. Not only does a sound diet enhance cardiac health, but evidence is mounting on how individual nutrients help prevent heart disease.
Food for the Heart
For years, medical experts thought malnutrition didn't affect the heart. This concept was based on an 1866 experiment that found when cats were starved their hearts didn't significantly shrink. Almost 85 years later, this information was disproved. We now know that a poor diet is as detrimental to the cardiovascular system as it is to any part of the body.
A pair of Cincinnati surgeons turned up numerous studies supporting the notion that your heart's health is linked very closely to nutritional status. One graphic example they cite are the deaths, many cardiac in origin, that resulted from an unnamed very low calorie, liquid protein diet popular during the 1970's. While some of the dieters had heart related problems before death, several did not. It's more likely that this nutrient-poor diet plan caused malnutrition; postmortem examination revealed hearts that were disproportionately smaller when compared to the victim's body weight.
"Adequate nutrition is important in maintaining normal cardiac function," insist the authors. When heart mass declines, so does its ability to pump blood throughout the body. Cardiac rhythm is also disturbed. Most heart problems, however, aren't a direct result of malnutrition. In this and other industrial nations, lifelong habits such as poor eating are more apt to cause heart disease.
A marginal diet probably won't create immediate heart problems, unless you need emergency cardiac surgery or hospitalization. One study found nearly half of heart patients nutritionally wanting. Not only is this a major risk factor during surgery, but an undernourished body is more prone to postoperative complications such as infection. (Immunity suffers without proper nutrition.) A hospital stay, with its restricted diets, institutionally prepared food, inactivity and medications, fuel poor nutrition. Ironically, one study found that the poorer a patient's nutritional status, the longer he remained in the hospital (4).
The Magic of Magnesium
While good overall nutrition is vital, specific nutrients have a place in preventing heart disease too. Magnesium, the second most prevalent intracellular cation in the body next to potassium, is one mineral that is taking center stage in heart research and treatment.
Nerves, muscles, protein synthesis and many of the body's enzyme systems require magnesium. Because death from ischemic heart disease is more common in regions with water and soil low in magnesium, the heart also seems to benefit from this mineral (5). Magnesium deficiency has also been linked to hypertension, arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. Electrolyte abnormality may also result when magnesium levels drop (6). Low electrolytes interfere with heart contractility.