Judy Tomlinson's story is all too common. At 36, she was working long hours at a stressful job, eating a high-fat and meat-based diet and made no time for regular exercise.

Little did she know that her blood pressure and cholesterol had crept up to dangerously high levels, and these so-called silent killers would be the catalyst of her near fatal heart attack.

According to the American Heart Association, “cardiovascular disease is not a single killer, stalking its victims one by one. It is part of a gang of killers, including improper nutrition, obesity, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol profiles, and physical inactivity."

Cardiovascular disease, principally heart disease and stroke, is the number one killer among men and women of all races and ethnic groups in the United States. Of the one million deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease each year, 160,000 affect people between the ages of 35 and 64.

While the disease can be managed with various medications, prescription drugs often have debilitating side effects that bring on a whole new set of health issues, as Tomlinson found out.

"After my heart attack I was put on several different heart, cholesterol, and blood pressure medications, but now I have developed severe stomach upsets and digestive issues," she said.

Eating Right

There are some alternatives, such as following a healthy diet, that may help heart attack survivors like Tomlinson make the most of their second chances. Always consult a medical doctor before trying an alternative method.

According to holistic nurse Luanne Pennesi, sound nutrition is the key to maintaining a healthy heart.

"Heart disease happens when inflammation occurs inside the arteries,” she said. “The right nutrition will fuel the body and protect it. The wrong foods create inflammation inside the circulation, which predisposes us for heart disease, stroke and heart attacks."

Magnesium-rich and alkaline foods like dark leafy greens, seaweed, and fish, as well as foods full of flavonoids like green tea, brown rice, pitted fruits, whole grains, garlic and onions are naturally anti-inflammatory and less toxic than medications due to their inherent abilities to cleanse, and rebuild immunity, Pennesi said.

"There are no side effects to eating organic foods because they are natural to the body,” she said. “Instead of suppressing symptoms created by an unhealthy lifestyle you are fueling and protecting the body so it can work better on your behalf."

Pennesi recommends the following measures for achieving optimal long-term cardiovascular health:

Work towards eliminating:

— Fast foods

— Refined sugars

— Hydrogenated oils

— Butter

— Table salt and excessive salt intake of all kinds

— Soda both regular and diet

— All high sugar fruit juices

— All bread, except sprouted

— All baked goods and pastries

— Ice cream

— Chips and packaged snack foods

— Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs

Start incorporating:

— Organic fruits and vegetables, including potatoes and squashes

— Whole grains like barley, millet and brown rice

— Sprouted breads and pastas

— Avocados

— Olives

— Earth Balance "butter" spread

— Beans and lentils

— Nuts: walnuts, almonds, cashews

— Seeds: sunflower, pumpkin, sesame

— Green leafy vegetables and raw salads

— Sautéed or steamed vegetables

— Low mercury wild caught fish— Limited amounts of good quality sea salt— Rice milk based ice-cream

Cook with:

— Organic coconut oil

— Organic nut and seed oils, but not olive oil. Add "cold pressed" olive oil to hot dishes after cooking and to green salads.

— Onions and garlic

Drink:

— Organic green and herbal teas

— Filtered water with lemon

— Non- dairy milks: almond, soy or rice milk

Pennesi said a good diet must be coupled with movement and exercise, as well as stress management techniques such as mediation, yoga or tai chi, plenty of rest and rejuvenation, good hydration and lots of laughter, all of which facilitate long-term heart health.

"One of the best ways to really help your blood pressure is to 'lighten up' and allow yourself to have a good belly laugh,” she said. “Laughter changes your physiology for the better all around.”

Pennesi also recommends taking high-quality supplements like CoQ 10 (found in fish), vitamin C, omega-3 fish oil, B-complex vitamins, gingko biloba, garlic and cayenne supplements all of which strengthen the heart and give extra support to someone with an already healthy and active lifestyle.

But always consult a doctor or licensed nutritionist before starting a vitamin program, she added.