Even if you've sworn off butter and cheese and your group cycling instructor knows you by name, your heart may still be in jeopardy. “While eating a diet low in saturated fat, exercising regularly, and not smoking play a large role in preventing cardiovascular disease, they’re not the entire story,” says Jennifer H. Mieres, M.D., a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. In fact, half of heart attack and stroke sufferers have healthy cholesterol levels, according to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
A growing body of research suggests that there are two other potent risk factors women and their doctors aren’t addressing: borderlinehigh blood pressure and inflammation. “Unfortunately, many physicians overlook these conditions in young women they assume are fit and healthy,” says Mieres.
The longer they go unnoticed, the more damage they can wreak on your cardiovascular system. Thankfully, studies reveal there are a number of ways you can reduce these risk factors. So don’t put off your wellbeing— incorporate these five heart-health boosters into your routine today.
1. Know Your Numbers
At your last checkup, the doctor probably scribbled something in your file after checking your blood pressure. But even if she didn’t tell you it was high (a reading of 140/90 or higher), don’t assume you’re in the clear. Nearly 20 percent of people under the age of 35 have prehypertension (blood pressure between the normal and high ranges, or between 120/80 and 139/89), reveals research from the University of California, San Francisco.
What’s worse, the study found that these young adults were more likely to develop high blood pressure, or hypertension, over the next two decades than those who had healthy readings. Hypertension forces your heart to work harder to pump blood through the body, which can cause arteries to narrow and raise your risk of heart attack or stroke.
Ask your doctor during your next visit for your exact numbers. If they’re above 119/79, start making changes. One way to prevent hypertension, of course, is to lower your sodium intake. The average American consumes 41 percent more sodium a day than the recommended 2,400 milligrams. Much of this sodium comes from processed foods, such as canned soups, salad dressings, and frozen entrées.
Also consider the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which has been shown to make a difference in two weeks. This plan calls for eating more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, poultry, lowfat dairy, and nuts, as well as less sodium, saturated fat, red meats, and sugar. “Following the diet guarantees you’ll consume sufficient amounts of the nutrients proven to lower blood pressure, such as fiber, calcium, potassium, and magnesium,” says Lawrence Fine, M.D., a researcher with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. Stick with the plan and you’ll reduce your heart disease risk by 24 percent, reports a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine study. (For more details, search “DASH” on nhlbi.nih.gov.)
2. Go Bananas
While you’re stocking up on DASHfriendly produce, be sure to put a bunch of these potassium-rich fruits in your grocery cart. Researchers at Osaka University in Japan found that people who took in the lowest levels of the mineral had a 35 percent greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those who got the most. “Potassium works with sodium to regulate the water balance in the body, which promotes normal blood pressure,” says Karen Kutoloski, D.O., director of the Women’s Heart Center at Case Western Reserve University. Most women get only half the 4,700 milligrams of potassium they need daily; in addition to bananas (422 milligrams each), eat your way to this quota with foods such as halibut (490 milligrams for 3 ounces) and tomato sauce (453 milligrams per half cup).
3. Get Eight Hours of Shut-Eye
Those dark circles under your eyes aren’t the only consequence of skimping on sleep. Harvard researchers revealed that people who slept five or fewer hours a night had a 39 percent greater risk of having heart disease than those who logged at least eight. “Deep sleep is restorative for your body,” says Edward Suarez, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center. “Not spending enough time in bed means your body can’t repair the daily damage to cells and tissues. This can lead to inflammation, the immune system’s response to injury.” While it fights off infections and heals wounds, inflammation may cause fatty deposits to build up in arteries.
Are late work hours keeping you up at night? Try squeezing in naps over the weekend: A Harvard study found that snoozing for 30 minutes at least three times a week slashed the odds of dying from heart disease by more than one-third. Besides adding to your sleep bank, napping can also lower your stress levels, researchers say. (Chronic anxiety can also take a toll on your ticker, upping inflammation levels and weakening the immune system.)
4. Make a Peanut Butter Sandwich
This childhood favorite serves up some serious protection against inflammation. Peanut butter is packed with magnesium, and researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina found that people who consumed at least 320 milligrams of the mineral daily halved their risk of having elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, which signal inflammation. “Magnesium may battle harmful free radical molecules that attack the tissues, blood vessels, and heart,” says Dana King, M.D., the study’s lead author. A 2-tablespoon serving of peanut butter provides 49 milligrams of the mineral; beans are also an excellent magnesium source, as are spinach and artichokes.
Be sure to spread that peanut butter on bread that contains at least three grams of fiber per slice: A study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that people who consumed at least 20 grams of fiber a day were 40 percent less likely to have elevated CRP than those who consumed fewer than 8 grams.
5. Rethink Your Birth Control
The same hormones that prevent pregnancy—estrogen and progestin— may also make your blood vessels less flexible and, over time, raise your blood pressure. “Each contraceptive affects a woman’s body differently, so it’s important to weigh your options with your gynecologist,” says Kutoloski. Women who use the birth control patch, for instance, have double the risk for blood clots as those who take oral contraceptives, according to research in Obstetrics & Gynecology. This may be because they’re exposed to 60 percent more estrogen.
For most women, the benefits of birth control pills outweigh the drawbacks. But if you smoke or have pre-hypertension or hypertension and you’re on the pill, check your blood pressure with a home monitor at least once a week. “Then inform your family physician and gynecologist of any changes,” says Kutoloski, “so they can keep an eye on your individual risk.”