NUTRITION and FITNESS

Heart health how-tos: Keeping your ticker in tip-top shape

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Every year, about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack and 610,000 people die of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Luckily, there are measures you can take to keep your name off these lists.

In honor of National Heart Health Month, Fox News talked to two doctors to get the lowdown on keeping your ticker in tip-top shape.

For a healthier heart, take note of the following harmful behaviors:

1. You’re eating too much red meat
While we all love a juicy grilled steak or a hearty burger with fries after a long day at the office, people with diets rich in red meat may be more prone to heart attacks, research suggests. Unlike chicken, turkey and fatty fish, which can promote heart health, red meat contains saturated fat and high levels of cholesterol, Dr. Haitham Ahmed, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told Fox News. Red meat can also trigger production of the compound TMAO, which can accelerate plaque buildup.

What to do instead: For optimal heart health, aim to eat two to three servings of oily fish like salmon and albacore tuna per week, and limit your intake of red meat to only one serving per week, Ahmed said.

2. You’re overexerting yourself
“Every year whenever we see a snowstorm, we see a spike in the number of cardiac arrests,” Ahmed said. That’s because cold weather causes blood vessels to constrict and the pressure within them to increase. “You get many patients who have not worked out for long time and making a huge effort to shovel a long driveway after foot of snow, and that’s like being unprepared for several months and going out in the cold to run a marathon,” he explained.

What to do instead: Pace yourself during physical exertion, and be aware of the symptoms of heart attack so you can know when to seek prompt medical help. Common heart attack signs include chest pain or discomfort, upper body discomfort and shortness of breath, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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3. You’re having sex under risky circumstances
Similarly, engaging in vigorous sexual activity can be risky for some individuals, including those with cardiac dysfunction, Ahmed said. Men who have high blood pressure or have had a previous heart event should also be wary of taking performance-enhancing medication, which can increase strain on the heart under certain circumstances.

What to do instead: Talk to your doctor, and be transparent about what medication and supplements you’re taking. If you recently had a heart event, discuss whether it’s safe to have sex at this time.

4. You’re drinking too much booze
Dr. Steve Gundry, former professor and chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Loma Linda University, and current director at the Center for Restorative Medicine, told Fox News that drinking too much alcohol can adversely affect the intestinal wall and increase the risk of leaky gut syndrome. “This leaky gut allows bacterial particles into our bloodstream that can directly affect the linings of our blood vessels,” Gundry said.

What to do instead: Luckily, you can reverse this effect by reducing the amount of alcohol you consume, Gundry said. Dr. Ahmed cited guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA), which recommends a max of one to two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women. One drink equates to 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.

5. You’re regularly eating packaged foods
Processed foods that come in a wrapper tend to contain more salt, sugar and fat, and thus are not the best choices for your heart. First, Ahmed said, consuming too much sodium over time can increase your blood pressure and put strain on your blood vessels and heart. Second, saturated fat, meanwhile, can raise cholesterol levels and accelerate plaque buildup. Third, excess sugar can increase the risk of diabetes and obesity, which can lead to cardiovascular disease.

What to do instead: Reach for whole foods that are low in salt, sugar and fat. In addition to fatty fish, the Cleveland Clinic recommends oatmeal, berries, nuts, broccoli, and black or kidney beans as some of the healthiest foods for your ticker.

6. You’re using new risky substances
Despite their novelty, substances like energy drinks and e-cigarette vapor hold potential harmful health effects based on what patient cases and basic science tell us, Ahmed suggested. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is addictive, and some studies suggest the devices can offer a gateway to using regular cigarettes. Meanwhile, energy drinks contain sugar and caffeine, which kick the liver into overdrive and lead energy levels to skyrocket then crash. Some energy drink companies also supplement their products with an ingredient called carnitine, which is present in red meat and can increase TMAO buildup.

What to do instead: Steer clear of smoking e-cigarettes, and trade your energy drink for more sleep, or a cup of coffee or green tea, which research suggests may promote heart health.

7. You’re stressed out
It’s not just your diet or activity that can influence your heart attack risk — your mental state can, too. “Stress has a profound impact on the heart, the blood vessels, the heart rate, blood pressure, and all kinds of things,” Ahmed said. “Without having blockages, you can see patients who have massive heart attacks.” Clinically, those events are described as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome. “It’s just a testament to how strong or influential stress is on our bodies,” Ahmed said.

What to do instead: Learn to manage your stress better. Talking to a trusted friend or family member, or finding an outlet like meditation, can help keep your stress levels in check. “Steady exercise is best to keep stress levels low,” Ahmed advised. “During exercise, you secrete endorphins, which naturally relieve depression symptoms.”