How to keep your heart happy during menopause
February was Heart Month. Perimenopause is a great time to look closer at what you can do to keep your heart healthy so you can live your life to the fullest. But what does a heart-healthy lifestyle look like? Here’s what you can do to keep your heart happy during menopause.
Why is heart health so important?
A healthy heart allows you to do what you love with who you love and continue living your life to the fullest during menopause. Funnily enough, many of your already existing activities and habits that bring you joy may be benefitting your heart without yoıu knowing it. Happy heart, happy you and vice versa - it’s a win-win situation. At the end of the day, it all comes down to taking care of your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing in ways that feel best and most fun for you.
The heart is essential to your survival and overall wellbeing. It is your body’s very own power generator, beating around 115,000 times a day - that’s around 2,5 billion times in an average lifetime. Your heart pumps oxygen and nutrient-rich blood around the circulatory system to the rest of your body and all your organs. This keeps them functioning. Your heart is a powerful muscle - it doesn’t get tired of beating. But some lifestyle habits can lead to the build-up of fatty plaque in your arteries, called atherosclerosis. Your arteries carry oxygen and nutrients away from the heart. The heart has its own arteries to give itself oxygen. These are called coronary arteries. If arteries get blocked it can lead to heart problems which affect your health but you can prevent this. Read on to find out what happens with the heart during menopause before finding out how to prevent heart problems.
What happens to the heart during menopause? A woman’s risk for heart disease goes up when she enters menopause. This is because oestrogen usually provides natural protection to the cardiovascular system. When levels decline, it leaves your heart more susceptible to heart disease. With age, other risk factors come into play as well. It’s not all about the oestrogen. The good news is, you can buffer up your heart in many other ways to protect and keep it healthy.
The physical characteristics of the female heart is a bit different from the man’s - a woman’s heart chambers are smaller, the walls that divide the chambers and veins are thinner. A woman’s heart pumps faster than a man’s, but with less blood with each pump. Women's and men’s hearts react differently to stress. For women, generally, the pulse rises and more blood is pumped, whilst for men, arteries constrict and blood pressure rises.
These differences mean that men's and women’s hearts also change differently over time and with age, and they need to be treated with these differences in mind. Women are more likely to experience heart palpitations, a common symptom of menopause. This is when your heart suddenly starts beating rapidly and is often accompanied by hot flashes. In most cases, heart palpitations like these are harmless.
So, how can you keep your heart happy and healthy during menopause?
There are many ways to benefit and improve your heart health during menopause. You can start by reflecting on how you are doing and where you are in these three areas: how are you maintaining a relaxed mind, keeping your body active and well-nourished?
Part I: A relaxed mind and spirit = a happy heart.
A calm mind and the ability to manage stress well is linked with a lower risk for heart disease. This means lower blood pressure and cholesterol and less inflammation. A balanced mind stabilises your heart rate. Stress isn’t bad in itself, and there is no need to fear it. The right levels of stress motivate you to take action and improve. It’s more about how long you’re exposed to stress, its intensity, and how you interpret and then respond to stress that matters. Knowing this can help you prevent the harmful chronic stress that can affect your heart in the long term. Adding uplifting habits into your every day that you know boost your mood and wellbeing, helps you cope with the inevitable stressors that pop up in everyday life better. This is good for the heart. These happy habits can help keep your blood pressure at bay and have the power to create a positive spiral that motivates you to make even more healthy choices. More research is needed to determine exactly how stress affects heart health. Here are some tips and tools to boost your mood and add calm to maximise your heart health and make those everyday moments count.
Tap into the sense of belonging that comes with strong social connections. Staying connected to others and cultivating your relationships benefits your heart. Good social connections can improve your mood and immune system. A recent study investigating the effects of social isolation on the immune systems of mice showed that mice that lived and huddled together with others had stronger immune systems in the long run, partly because they were able to keep warm together. Although the immune systems of the socially isolated mice immune systems were activated quickly in lower temperatures preparing them to fight off infections better, this state of alertness that is triggered in the immune system has long-term consequences on health and can lead to chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. These tests were done on animals, but the research suggests that our immune systems respond to how we socialise and interact with our environments. Spending more time with people we care about and enjoying the company of others can therefore positively benefit our heart health in the long run, since the lack of it can be harmful. You don’t have to be a massive social butterfly to experience the positive effects. Simply thinking of someone you care about and tuning into the positive feelings that arise can spur you to pick up the phone and call or text them which can lead to a positive interaction. But finding groups centred around activities you like or are keen to start is also a good way to tap into the power community.
Invite more laughter into your life. Make more time for fun. Spend time with people who make you laugh at your own jokes, watch your favourite comedies or go to cultural events that uplift you and lighten your mood. Studies have shown laughter reduces stress by decreasing the stress-making hormones found in your blood whilst boosting your immune system. Laughing together with others also strengthens your connection and helps you bond. Good relationships make you less stressed and add calm to your life.
Make room for everyday adventure. Need a brain-break from constant scheduling, planning and optimising? Then you could try making space for more spontaneity in your life. Spontaneity can be a helpful tool to bring fresh new thoughts and open you to meeting new people, places and experiences and bring out a sense of aliveness that can benefit your wellbeing. As the late Romanian-American psychiatrist Jacob Moreno said: "Spontaneity operates in the present, here and now; it induces the individual to respond adequately to a novel situation or to respond in a novel way to an old situation". The awe and wonder that can come from small acts of spontaneity can help you view stressful situations in a new light or approach challenges that previously bothered you with a fresh perspective. This can make you feel more relaxed and add to your heart health in the long run when added with other healthy mental habits.
Be especially kind to yourself during challenging moments of menopause. Challenges are a part of life - and menopause. During these moments it is natural for unwanted feelings to arise such as fear, frustration, panic or worry. But they don’t need to overwhelm you. These are good opportunities to pause, breathe deeply and acknowledge it is okay to feel this way. In many situations, others would probably feel in a similar way to you. If you’ve said or done something you regret, your inner critic may fire up and make you feel blamed. In these moments, remind yourself it’s okay to make mistakes and that it’s easier to move on and learn from them if you acknowledge what happened with kindness. In tough moments, treat yourself like a best friend.
Part II: An active body = a happy heart.
Movement is a natural medicine for the heart, especially when done throughout your week in many forms and outdoors in natural environments. Being physically active strengthens your heart muscle, keeps your weight under control, lowers cholesterol (which naturally increases with age), and stabilises blood sugar levels and blood pressure. You’re the best friend to your heart when you combine different kinds of movement into your everyday routine so it becomes a strong habit you feel excited to keep doing.
Make time for everyday movement. As The Guardian reports in their long-read about how exercise alone won’t save us, it is most beneficial for your heart health if you add more movement into your daily life and if you don’t limit exercise to just your weekly workouts. Counteract a sedentary lifestyle in between the workouts too. Tips? If you’re working from the office all day, take breaks from sitting. Go for short walks. Give yourself reminders to move around and stretch throughout the day. Take the stairs more often. Add any small habit for more movement throughout your day.
Find your favourite physical activities and get exercising. Praise yourself if you already do. Combining different forms of exercise in your every day is good for your heart, such as aerobic exercise and strength training. You can combine moderate-intensity activities with high-intensity aerobic activities. Read more about the benefits of strength training here.
Get moving outdoors. Outdoor activities like running and hiking are great ways to combine physical activity with nature, fresh air, beautiful scenery. Find some good hiking locations in your area or plan a trip somewhere. Invite your friends along, go with your partner or spend some quality time alone. This will improve your heart health in a two-fold way through the physical activity and the calm that nature brings.
Embrace nature’s restorative effects on body and mind. Spending time in nature is restorative because pleasing environments boost our moods and reduce stress. Nature’s calming effect reduces your blood pressure and slows down your heart rate. While running in parks is good, the best is to find places where you can completely immerse yourself in nature’s greenery - perhaps your closest urban forest. A study showed that urban spaces with more greenery sparked more social interaction, showing nature’s power to bring people together.
Part III: Eating well and embracing the food joy = a happy heart.
Knowing which foods are good for your heart will help you carve out the meals you can both enjoy and feel good about eating. Finding a balanced diet where you also have room to treat yourself guilt-free will make your heart happy on many levels. When both your body and mind are in balance your heart health will benefit. Here are some food tips for a healthy and happy heart.
Consider the Mediterranean diet. A Mediterranean diet is inspired by the healthy eating habits of people living along the Mediterranean Sea, in countries like France, Greece, Italy and Spain. Sardinia in Italy and Icaria in Greece are so-called “blue zones”, particular locations on the world map where people live longer than average. This is in part attributed to their healthy eating habits that support cardiovascular health. The Mediterranean diet brings together common characteristics of the cuisine from these countries and is characterised by an abundance of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, potatoes, lean fish, poultry and extra virgin olive oil. The diet consists of only a small amount of red meat, with no processed meats and hardly any sugary foods. Alcohol and dairy products are eaten in moderate amounts. Studies suggest this diet may lower the risk of heart disease from returning and may lower the risk of coronary heart disease. There is evidence that this diet is anti-inflammatory and can fight off diseases caused by chronic inflammation, which may lead to heart disease in the long run.
Choose your fats wisely. Go unsaturated. In the Mediterranean diet, the principal source of fat is extra virgin olive oil, which is part of why it’s so healthy. The diet is low in unhealthy fats like saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol (found in eggs, full-fat dairy products and meats). Unsaturated fats are good for your heart. They help to increase good cholesterol in your blood (HDL) and lower bad cholesterol (LDL). This lowers your risk for heart disease. Here is a list of some heart-healthy fats to choose from: Monounsaturated fats: - Olive, canola and peanut oils. - Avocados - Most nuts such as walnuts, almonds, macadamia and pecans Polyunsaturated fats: Omega-3 fats - several studies have shown omega-3 lowers risk for heart attack and death from coronary heart disease. - Fatty fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines) - Flaxseed and flaxseed oil - Soybeans Omega-6 fats - consuming higher levels of omega-6 have been linked with a lower risk of heart disease and ischaemic stroke. - Plant-based oils such as safflower, sunflower, sesame, soybean, corn. Get more of Olivia's healthy nutrition tips here.
Be mindful of your salt intake. Salt is an essential nutrient and gives food an irresistible touch. But too much salt puts a strain on your heart. Your kidneys have to work harder when there is too much salt in your blood. When this happens your body gathers water to dilute the salt, which leads to an increased blood volume. Your heart then has to work extra hard and this adds pressure on your blood vessels. With time, this leads to high blood pressure and increases your risk for heart attack, stroke, or heart failure. The World Health Organization recommends less than 5g of salt per day or around one teaspoon. But much of the salt consumed is usually hidden in processed foods, so make sure to check the salt levels in food products or go for whole foods as much as you can.
Rejoice over good food. Healthy eating is essential for your heart. So is the ability to rejoice over a fantastic meal. Being able to feel the food joy is a great way to cultivate a happy and relaxed mind and spirit, which, remember? Keeps your heart happy. Studies have shown that the mindset you go into when eating food affects how satisfied and satiated you will feel. And if you have the mindset that what you are eating is just ‘healthy’ and not tasty, you won’t feel as full afterwards. So indulge in the tastes and flavours, take a moment to appreciate the origin of your food, and slow down when you eat. Your heart will thank you for it!
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