We generate free radicals through the natural process of living and breathing but we also inhale, absorb and digest them as well. Free radicals come from environmental pollutants, radiation, pesticides, preservatives, cigarettes and car fumes.

Free radical damage has been linked to premature ageing and many of the illnesses that are connected to us getting older including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. And it also plays a significant role in the ageing process of your skin.

The only thing that neutralises free radicals is a group of nutrients known as antioxidants of which the most potent are the powerful natural antioxidants, namely vitamins A, C, E and flavonoids found in fruits and vegetables.

A daily good vitamin and mineral supplement will give an excellent range of nutrients including the antioxidants and also the B vitamins which help to control a substance called homocysteine which is implicated in heart disease (see www.naturalhealthpractice.com for good multivitamins and minerals from a number of different supplement companies which I use in the clinic).

What are the most vital nutrients for maintaining a healthy heart?

The most vital nutrients for heart health are the antioxidants vitamins A, C, E, zinc and selenium.  One study where patients with arteriosclerosis were either given vitamin E or a placebo.  Vitamin E reduced the risk of a heart attack by 75% as it helps to prevent abnormal blood clotting.

Vitamin D has now been shown to be important for heart health.  It can inhibit substances that cause inflammation and also help to boost those that are anti-inflammatory.  It has also been shown to lower C reactive protein one of the markers of inflammation

Why are essential fatty acids so beneficial for maintaining good heart health?

A study published in 2009 showed that Omega 3 oils help to prevent blood clotting and lower blood.

These fatty acids, of which the Omega 3 are the most important as it is now thought we are getting ten times too much Omega 6 from out diet and supplements, have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and are very important in prevention of heart disease.  

In two clinical trials reported in the Lancet, fish oil was found to be even better at reducing death or hospitalisation from heart disease than statins. (Gissi-HF Investigators, 2008, Effect of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with chronic heart failure (the GISSI-HF trial): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, Lancet, 372, 9645, 1223-30 and Gissi-HF Investigators, 2008, Effect of rosuvastatin in patients with chronic heart failure (the GISSI-HF trial): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, Lancet, 372, 9645, 1231-9).

The most staggering piece of information came out in 2009 from the Harvard School of Public Health, where they stated that Omega 3 deficient diets cause up to 96,000 preventable deaths a year in the US (The Preventable Causes of Death in the United States: Comparative Risk Assessment of Dietary, Lifestyle, and Metabolic Risk Factors” stud, April 2009, PLoS Medicine).  The researchers estimated the number of deaths resulting from 12 preventable causes and Omega 3 deficiency ranked as the sixth highest killer of Americans.  A deficiency in these fats was classed as a bigger killer than high intake of trans fats. 

What are the most significant lifestyle changes people can make in order to protect their hearts?

It is not healthy to be overweight and especially when it comes to the risk of heart disease. However, a good indicator of the relative risks to your heart is where you store fat on your body. If you carry more weight around your middle, rather than on your hips, you have a higher risk of heart disease.

The BMI (body mass index) isn’t the best test or measure for fat around the middle. Instead, to assess your susceptibility to heart problems, you need to find your waist:hip ratio. Take a tape measure and compare your waist measurement (at the narrowest point) with your hip measurement (at the widest point). Then divide your waist figure by your hip figure. For example: 86cm (34in) waist divided by 94cm (37in) hip = a hip to waist ratio of 0.9. If your calculation gives a figure greater than 0.8 you are “apple shaped” (carrying weight around the middle) and you need to take action (see below). (For men the danger zone is above 0.95.)  (for more information on this see my book Fat around the Middle).

Quite simply, the best thing you can do for your heart is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. It is especially important to increase your intake of oily fish, nuts, seeds and oils – because they are good sources of EFAs or essential fatty acids known to prevent heart disease. The Omega-3 fish oils are particularly important because they not only help prevent abnormal blood clotting, they can also help to lower bad cholesterol and increase the levels of good cholesterol, HDL. Phytoestrogens are another food group that has this effect on LDL and HDL, and has the added benefit of helping to lower triglycerides (your stored fat).

Try to boost your intake of antioxidants, found in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. These important nutrients reduce heart-disease risk by attacking the harmful free radicals that cause cell damage.