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7 habits that could be sabotaging your heart health

Could you be putting your heart health at risk without knowing it? We asked HCA Florida Healthcare cardiologist Dr. Allan Stewart to weigh in on seven bad habits for heart health and tips on how to break them.

February 10, 2024

You’ve probably heard that smoking, eating an unhealthy diet and not getting enough exercise can be harmful to your heart, but some cardiovascular dangers aren’t as obvious. We asked Dr. Allan Stewart, the cardiovascular surgery medical director of HCA Florida Healthcare’s Miami-Dade County hospitals, to weigh in on seven bad habits that could be sabotaging your heart health.

Eating too much processed sugar

Experts advise that there’s a clear link between sugar and heart disease.

“The number one thing sabotaging anyone’s heart in today’s times is processed sugar,” Dr. Stewart warns. “Addiction to sugar in the United States is what’s giving us diabetes, chronic inflammatory syndrome and heart failure. Eliminating processed sugar from your diet is going to reduce your risk for visceral fat, the development of diabetes and premature coronary disease.”

Tips for reducing the harmful effects of sugar

Be sure to fill your diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. The less processed sugar you consume, the more delicious fruit, or nature’s candy, will taste.

Not getting enough exercise

Not making time for exercise is one of the worst things you can do for your heart. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and 2 days of muscle-strengthening activity per week, but any movement can help.

“Your heart is a muscle. If you don’t use it and train it, it’s going to fail,” Dr. Stewart said. “With lack of exercise, the heart is going to beat less effectively and less efficiently.”

Spending long periods of time parked on the couch isn’t good for your heart — or your health in general. Sitting has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and much more. And the longer you’re parked, the worse it is for you, and that includes long commutes. 

Long commutes have been linked to increases in blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety and the likelihood of obesity. All that time in the car may take away from your fitness routine or tempt you to choose unhealthy fast food — and that can seriously raise your heart disease risk.

Tips for breaking out of a sedentary lifestyle

  • Move around during downtime: Standing, stretching and folding laundry are good options when you’re doing something passive, like watching television.
  • Take breaks from your computer or screen: Try short walks or stretching throughout your day. Many healthcare providers recommend standing up and doing something every 30 minutes.
  • Add steps to your day: Try “walking meetings” with colleagues, using stairs instead of escalators or doing a lap around your office to get to the break room.
  • Make your commute healthier: Sometimes, you can’t avoid sitting, like when you’re driving. So, pack your own healthy snacks such as nuts, fruit or lightly salted popcorn. That way, you’ll steer clear of junk on your way home.

Neglecting your mental health

The health of your heart is linked to the health of your mind. According to a study by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the connection between heart disease and depression may be a two-way street. Around 25 percent of those with heart disease also have depression; meanwhile, people with depression are more likely to develop coronary artery disease and have heart attacks and other cardiovascular events.

Why? Depression, anxiety and daily stressors — such as a fight with a spouse — are possible explanations. They all contribute to spikes in cortisol levels, and increased cortisol raises your chances of high blood pressure and heart disease. Research has also found that depression is connected to a higher risk of arterial clogging and makes you less likely to exercise, eat healthy foods and seek medical care, all of which contribute to poor heart health.

Tips for boosting your mental health and heart health: 

  • Avoid self-isolation
  • Don’t forget to exercise
  • Enjoy the outdoors

If you think you may be experiencing depression, know that help is available. Find out more about the mental health resources provided at HCA Florida Healthcare hospitals. You can also call or text 988 to reach the 24/7 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Not practicing good oral hygiene

Flossing may seem futile at the end of a long day, but research shows a link between dental health and heart disease. So, protecting your pearly whites could help keep your heart strong.

When your mouth is unclean or you have an abscess, a cavity or gum disease that goes untreated, their bacteria end up in your bloodstream, eventually making their way into the valves of the heart. The bacteria from your mouth can grow on those valves, put pressure on them and even cause them to rupture or break. This condition, called endocarditis, can be life-threatening.

Tips for good oral health and heart health

  • Don’t skip dental check-ups and cleanings
  • Floss at least once a day
  • Don’t forget to brush at least twice daily
  • If you have a toothache or something doesn’t seem right in your mouth, visit your dentist or physician.

Eating too many Southern-style foods

Turning down fried chicken and gooey mac and cheese can be difficult. Unfortunately, these and other Southern staples are often laden with saturated fat and loads of sugar, both of which are bad for your heart. 

Studies have shown that people whose diet consists heavily of Southern-style foods have an increased risk of heart attack, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Tips for enjoying the Southern dishes you love without the negative side effects

You don’t have to avoid all of your favorite Southern dishes. You can, instead, opt for healthier versions of grandma’s home cooking. Try these: healthy holiday recipesValentine’s Day recipes and summer recipes

Inhaling nicotine

No form of inhaling nicotine is considered safe when it comes to your overall health. 

“You are basically sabotaging your heart by all forms of inhaled consumption of nicotine,” Dr. Stewart warns.

In recent years, vaping/e-cigarettes were marketed as a safe alternative to cigarettes. However, experts say that, beyond the evident potential for lung damage, certain substances in e-cigarettes, such as nicotine, can harm the heart.

“Aside from being the number one cause of lung cancer, inhaling nicotine in any form, including vaping, cigar smoking or cigarette smoking, is one of the leading causes of peripheral vascular coronary artery disease,” Dr. Stewart said.

Tip for quitting smoking

It isn’t easy, but the health benefits of quitting smoking are enormous. Look for free smoking cessation groups near you.

Taking too many pain relievers

When a headache threatens to derail your day, we often reach for over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and naproxen. However, in 2015, the FDA warned that using NSAIDS could raise your risk of heart attack and stroke, and the longer you take them, the higher your risk. But that doesn’t mean you have to toss your go-to pain reliever. 

Tip for using NSAIDS

The FDA recommends taking the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible duration, and many doctors agree that if you take NSAIDs within the recommended dose, they are safe to use when needed.

More heart-healthy tips

The best cure is prevention.

If you think you might be at risk of developing a heart condition, take a free heart health risk assessment today to better understand your heart disease risk and the best next steps you can take for your health. As the state’s largest cardiovascular network, we make it easy for our patients to connect to heart, lung and vascular specialists and access a full spectrum of treatments and services close to home. 

If you are concerned about your heart health, make an appointment with your physician to evaluate your symptoms and determine the best treatment option for you. Find a doctor near you.

February 10, 2024

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