Five Tips To Strengthen a Weak Heart
Published by Dr. Venn-Watson
Dr. Eric Venn-Watson’s Highlights
No one wants to think they don’t have a strong heart, but certain health conditions can cause our hearts to work harder and, over time, become weaker. Protecting our heart health is important, and if you’ve been diagnosed with a weakened heart or a condition that could lead to heart weakness, it’s important to learn how to keep it as strong and healthy as possible.
Protecting heart health requires a little maneuvering — heart-healthy foods, healthy lifestyle habits, and regular physical activity. It also means making heart-smart decisions and ensuring our stress levels stay manageable.
Together, we’ll learn what a weak heart actually is and what conditions can lead to it. We’ll also give you five tips to strengthen a weak heart and talk about an unexpected way to support your heart health on the cellular level.
What Is a Weak Heart?
Your heart is a muscle, and when that muscle is weak, it’s called cardiomyopathy (cardio for heart, myo for muscle, and pathy disease).
A person who has cardiomyopathy has a heart that doesn’t pump blood efficiently, so their body’s needs for oxygen and other key nutrients aren’t being fully met.
Cardiomyopathy doesn’t just happen on its own — it’s caused by an underlying condition, or several of them. Many times, a person won’t know they are suffering from these conditions until they begin experiencing the symptoms of cardiomyopathy.
Symptoms can include:
- Swelling in the extremities, usually the feet and legs
- Heart palpitations or a rapid, irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath when trying to walk short distances or climb a flight of stairs
- Chest pain
- Persistent cough
- Bloody mucous or phlegm with cough
- The frequent urge to urinate
Once a person finds out they have cardiomyopathy, it’s important to find the root cause of the illness. There are different cardiomyopathies someone may have. Collectively, they refer to diseases of the heart.
There are two different types: primary cardiomyopathy and secondary cardiomyopathy.
- Primary. These cardiomyopathies happen as a result of genetic defects in the heart. In other words, if you have primary cardiomyopathy, you were likely born with it.
- Secondary. If you have secondary cardiomyopathy, it is related to an underlying illness, usually systemic diseases that affect the entire body.
You’ll need to see a cardiologist if your concerned about acardiomyopathy. Your healthcare provider will order tests, which may include an EKG and other imaging tests to determine whether there are any abnormalities with your heart.
Conditions That Can Cause a Weak Heart
There are numerous reasons why you might have a weakened heart muscle. Determining the underlying cause can help you get proper treatment, and can also help you decide whether certain lifestyle changes can help you strengthen your heart.
Insulin resistance that leads to diabetes can cause your heart to work harder than it would if your blood sugar levels were within healthy range. High blood sugar can damage blood vessels and nerves around the heart.
People who have diabetes are also more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. These risk factors make it more likely for a person to develop heart disease, which can weaken the heart and make it more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
About 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes, and type 2 diabetes is the most common. In fact, about 90-95 percent of people who have diabetes have type 2. Type 2 diabetes is a condition that is developed over time, while type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder.
Type 2 diabetes is developed when the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin to remove glucose from the bloodstream and when the cells that need the glucose become resistant to the insulin that carries it to them.
This happens over time as a result of two big factors: a sedentary lifestyle and an excess of calories. Unless you have a blood test, you’ll unlikely know you have type 2 diabetes. Before you develop this condition, your body may become insulin resistant, a condition that, if not addressed, can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is not curable, but it is reversible. That means that with dietary and lifestyle adjustments, you may be able to reduce your dependency on medication if you take it and reduce your risk of heart disease, a condition that is associated with type 2 diabetes.
Coronary Artery Disease
Currently, the most common form of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease. This disease of the arteries is caused by a buildup of plaque that causes the arteries to narrow and stiffen, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and has been for nearly 80 years. Atherosclerosis is the condition in which hardened, clogged arteries cause narrowing that can partially or totally restrict blood flow.
You may develop atherosclerosis from lifestyle factors like smoking, not getting enough heart-pumping exercise, and not maintaining a balanced diet. Having high blood pressure and insulin resistance can also be underlying factors for developing coronary artery disease.
An extreme form of heart disease is known as heart failure, a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to the cells in the body that need it. A person with heart failure may have a weakened heart before they develop heart failure.
High Blood Pressure
Unhealthy blood pressure levels cause the heart to work harder to pump blood through your body. This sets the stage for a heart muscle that, over time, becomes weak and experiences cardiomyopathy.
High blood pressure is indicated by a systolic reading of over 130 and a diastolic reading of over 80.
If you have a family history of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, you are more likely to develop it. Knowing that you are at risk can help motivate you to take measures to lower blood pressure levels, like incorporating aerobic exercise into your daily routine and maintaining healthy body weight.
Sometimes a condition you are born with can cause your heart to remain in a weakened state. Valvular disorders and diseases as well as heart rhythm problems can all cause cardiomyopathy. Certain medications and disease treatments like chemotherapy can also cause your heart muscle to weaken.
Five Tips To Help Strengthen a Weak Heart
Because the heart is a muscle, it’s possible to strengthen it — that’s good news for people looking to boost their heart health.
Attacking the root cause can also help strengthen the heart and has the side effect of improving your overall health.
Ready to give your heart the treatment it deserves? Here are five tips for strengthening a weak heart.
1. Clean Up Your Diet
A heart-healthy diet isn’t hard to follow; it just requires a little know-how when it comes to making better choices.
Avoiding sodium and trans fats are key to this eating plan. Sodium causes water retention that forces the heart to work harder to pump blood. Trans fats raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, which can lead to the buildup of plaque.
Another consideration? Avoid added sugars. Although it’s a common myth that eating too much sugar causes diabetes, eating foods containing excess added sugar can lead to weight gain, potentially leading to insulin resistance. The CDC recommends that no more than 10 percent of your daily caloric intake should come from added sugars.
When craving something sweet, opt for fruit containing heart-healthy fiber, vitamins, and nutrients. Watch out for added sugar that can be hidden in foods that aren’t typically considered “sweet,” like bread, packaged meals, and frozen dinners.
A diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will help support your heart and fuel your body for regular exercise.
Eating a heart-healthy diet is easier than you might think. Instead of thinking in terms of restricting yourself from sodium, sugar, and trans fats, think about giving yourself a wider variety of fruits, vegetables, and food styles that are both delicious and nourishing for your body.
It’s also helpful to look at easy dietary replacements. For instance, if you usually salt every meal, consider using salt-free seasoning to enhance the flavor of your food without increasing your sodium levels. Simply swapping out plain, white bread with whole grain bread is another decision that can benefit your heart, increase fiber, and produce richer flavors.
If you need a little more specific guidance, look into a Mediterranean diet, which is full of omega-3 fatty acids that come from olive oil and fatty fish like salmon — the right fats can be massively beneficial for heart health, omega-3 and otherwise!
Get moving. It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to care for your heart. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of cardiovascular or aerobic exercise per week. Also, lifting weights benefits your heart, reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Even just an hour of resistance training a week is enough to benefit your heart, and can also strengthen your bones, improve muscle tone, and release endorphins that just plain make you feel good.
You need both cardiovascular exercise and strength training to support your heart. New studies reveal that even five minutes of weightlifting several times a week can help significantly reduce your chances of developing heart disease.
Getting to the gym might be a challenge, but many people don’t have access to free weights or resistance equipment at home. If you do join a gym, you’re more likely to utilize the equipment available, which makes the membership worth a try if you don’t want to pick up a few weights to keep at home, or if you're not a fan of jogging around the neighborhood.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a weak heart, your healthcare provider may prefer that you opt for moderate-intensity workouts as opposed to high-intensity.
There are numerous different types of exercise that are considered moderate-intensity, like:
- Brisk walking
In addition to moderate exercise, interval training can be beneficial for supporting a healthy heart. This type of exercise program involves doing moderate-intensity movement for brief periods (like 30 seconds) followed by a longer recovery period (like a minute). This can help train your heart and lungs to take in oxygen and may be a better option for someone with a weakened heart.
3. Stop Smoking
If you smoke, quitting is the right decision to strengthen your heart. Smoking narrows the blood vessels in your body, which naturally causes your blood pressure to rise. Smoking also causes inflammation that can lead to heart disease.
The narrowing of blood vessels can also cause a faster, more significant buildup of plaque in the arteries. The buildup of plaque in the arteries, or atherosclerosis, can quickly escalate into a heart-weakening condition that sets the stage for cardiovascular disease. Even if you don’t eat a diet high in trans fats or other artery-clogging ingredients, the narrowing of your blood vessels from smoking could lead to this condition.
Smoking makes you two to four times more likely to develop heart disease. The good news is that once you quit smoking, your health immediately improves, with positive health markers increasing literally within the hour of your last cigarette. For some people, the function of their lungs improves in just a few weeks.
If you have trouble quitting smoking, there are numerous resources that can help you quit for good and lead a heart-healthier lifestyle.
4. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Excess weight, especially around the midsection, places a burden on the heart and makes it difficult for it to pump blood. Maintaining a healthy weight keeps your heart healthy and can also reduce your risk of developing other health conditions frequently associated with obesity.
If you aren’t sure whether or not you need to lose weight, consider your BMI. Your body mass index is a good predictor of whether or not you are carrying excess weight and if you are at risk for weight-related health issues.
The best way to maintain a healthy weight is through regular diet and exercise. Instead of solely viewing diet and exercise as a means of losing weight, think of it as a lifestyle transition. If you adopt a healthier diet and regular exercise routine, you’re less likely to end up with excess weight that requires harder work and a more restrictive diet to lose.
The bonus of maintaining a healthy weight is that because it is usually done through diet and exercise, you’ll automatically be hitting two other heart-strengthening goals. Maintaining a healthy weight is not only beneficial to your heart but usually helps you feel more energetic.
If you need to lose a few pounds, try shifting your viewpoint from weight loss to living a healthy life. Every part of your health and wellness can benefit from losing excess weight. If you have trouble starting, consider speaking with your healthcare provider or a registered dietician to get assistance.
It’s also a good idea to consider asking a trusted friend or family member to help hold you accountable. Remember to set realistic expectations. Healthy weight loss targets losing a small amount of weight weekly, rather than crash dieting.
An easy cheat sheet? Many choose to eliminate 3,500 calories per week or roughly 500 calories per day. You can do this by combining dietary changes and exercise.
For example, if you cut out 250 calories each day (the amount in a tall, flavored latte) and exercise at a moderate to high intensity for 30 minutes, you can easily eliminate 500 calories each day.
5. Manage Stress
Life is stressful, but not all stress is bad. Short-term stress can help us meet a deadline, finish a race, or respond appropriately in an emergency situation. We need these stress cues when they are appropriate. Long-term stress, however, can have negative health impacts, especially from a cardiology standpoint.
Stress produces high blood pressure and an elevated heart rate. Long-term, this combination can lead to a weakened heart. Long-term stress can also interfere with sleep, which can affect mental health, lead to unhealthy diet choices, and make it impossible to exercise due to fatigue.
You can deal with stress by meditating, taking up a new exercise routine, or even trying yoga or tai chi. Much like maintaining a healthy weight, using these methods also help keep you physically active, an integral part of supporting and strengthening your heart. Keeping your heart healthy and strong involves a total body overhaul, but many of the ways you’ll keep your heart strong overlap one another, making it less of a mountain to climb, and more of a scalable hill.
6. Get Enough Sleep
Your body repairs and rejuvenates at rest, and your heart thrives on consistent sleep. If you are regularly missing sleep or not getting enough, you’ll place yourself at higher risk for developing heart disease. Most adults need between seven to nine hours of good, quality sleep every night. You may need more or less depending on your activity level.
Sleep is cumulative, and missing sleep can create a sleep debt. For instance, if you need eight hours of sleep every night but only get six hours for two nights in a row, you have a sleep debt of four hours. The only way to pay off a sleep debt is with more sleep.
Missing sleep can affect your entire well-being. If you are having trouble sleeping, consider speaking to your healthcare provider about your options.
7. Brush and Floss Your Teeth
You read that correctly. New research has linked better dental care with a decreased risk of developing heart disease. This may be due to a connection with gum disease and hypertension or because dental decay and bacteria could possibly lead to infections that could damage the heart.
Be Heart Strong
There are many underlying health conditions that can cause your heart to become weak. Because the heart is a muscle, you need to take care of it and strengthen it. Eating a healthy diet, getting some exercise, and avoiding bad lifestyle habits like smoking can help you strengthen your heart and improve your overall health.
For more resources to help guide you on your journey in heart health, muscular health, and even cellular health, explore fatty15’s blog here.
Eric Venn-Watson M.D.
Senior Scientist, Co-Founder
Eric is a physician, U.S. Navy veteran, and Co-founder and COO of Seraphina Therapeutics. Eric served over 25 years as a Navy and Marine Corps physician, working with the special forces community to improve their health and fitness. Seraphina Therapeutics is a health and wellness company dedicated to advancing global health through the discovery of essential fatty acids and micronutrient therapeutics.
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