Cardiovascular disease continues to be responsible for more deaths in the United States than any other disease. As physicians, we use medications to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, to control the workload of the heart and to increase blood and oxygen flow.
In some cases, we also use surgical procedures to address life-threatening cardiovascular conditions. But we are often asked by our patients if vitamin and mineral supplements could help in managing their condition or in generally improving their cardiovascular health.
This is a viable question, particularly since supplement labels make some very dramatic claims. While some research shows that supplements may help lower cholesterol or blood pressure, it remains unclear if they can prevent or improve cardiovascular disease. It’s important for patients to understand the science of supplements and to have realistic expectations about how they might impact cardiovascular health.
There is a wide variety of supplements that claim cardiovascular benefits. Some of the most popular and the ones we are asked about most include:
• Fish oil, garlic — attributed to preventing plaque build-up in arteries, lowering blood pressure and increasing “good” cholesterol.
• Antioxidants — credited for repairing cell damage caused by free radicals, including the cells in our hearts and lungs.
• Vitamin D, B vitamins — said to be helpful in lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart disease.
• Fiber — found to reduce the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs from food.
• Probiotics — thought to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
It is true that all of these can positively impact cardiovascular health, but the ingredients that do the work are all found in food, and recommended daily levels can usually be maintained by simply eating properly.
Eating fish each week and cooking with garlic or garlic oil can help with plaque build-up and high cholesterol. Antioxidants can be found in berries, dark chocolate and dark green vegetables. Dairy products, egg yolks and whole grain cereals contain vitamins D and B which can lower risk of heart disease. And fiber and probiotics that help lower blood pressure are found in vegetables, fruits, beans and grains. Isolating these important nutrients in pill form rather than ingesting them through food is not advisable.
Food contains hundreds of ingredients that, together, promote good cardiovascular health. Because there is no supplement that can adequately replace all the benefits of food, it is best to use food as your primary source of nutrition, then supplement any gaps if necessary.
Assess your overall eating habits to determine if you can make small dietary changes that would allow you to avoid supplements. If there are one or two food groups you dislike, learn about the key nutrients in them and then choose a supplement to meet only those needs. If you eat a large amount of fast food and frequently drink low-nutrition drinks such as colas or tea, you should consider making significant overall changes in your diet before adding supplements.
Patients who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease should talk to their physicians prior to using any supplement, even a simple multivitamin. Certain supplements may actually be harmful to these patients since they can reduce the effectiveness of medications prescribed for heart failure, coronary artery disease or high cholesterol. In some instances, supplements such as L-carnitine and lecithin can even contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries of certain people.
If you are under the care of a physician for any cardiovascular condition, you must follow your doctor’s advice and be certain to discuss the effect of any supplement you consider. If you do not suffer from a cardiovascular condition, seek advice from your family physician or a nutritionist who can help you make an informed choice.
The key to outstanding cardiovascular health is not consuming isolated nutrients in the form of a pill but, rather, eating more foods that contain all the nutrients our bodies need.
Dr. Omar P. Haqqani is the chief of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery at Vascular Health Clinics in Midland.