Dear Doctor: How to keep your heart healthy
Keeping your ticker in top-notch condition will help prevent illnesses that could exacerbate your M.E. symptoms. Our medical advisors, Dr Gregor Purdie and Prof Julia Newton, look at some simple measures that will help you keep your heart healthy.
Dr Purdie says: When you have a longstanding debilitating illness such as M.E., it is very important to ward off any other illnesses that could contribute to you feeling worse. Keeping your heart healthy is one way that you can help minimise the risk of developing other illnesses.
While exercise is advocated to keep a heart healthy, any activity can be very difficult for people with M.E. Take heart, though, as we have a look at the many other ways in which you can keep your heart healthy.
If you are a smoker, then quitting should be your number one priority. Stopping smoking can create a marked reduction in the risk of heart disease. Quitting would not only benefit your heart, but your lungs as well. In general, it makes your whole body healthier.
Cut down alcohol
If you have M.E., it is highly likely that you have already taken this step as many people with M.E. find themselves very sensitive to alcohol. A counsel of perfection is to drink no more than one unit of alcohol per day (roughly equivalent to a single measure of spirits, half a lager or half a glass of wine).
Watch out for salt
Reducing the amount of salt in the diet helps to keep blood pressure in the normal range, in turn helping to keep your heart healthier. It is best not to add table salt to your meals, and to look at minimising the amount of salt used in cooking.
That being said, we are aware that people with M.E. may also suffer from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition in which a change from lying to standing causes an abnormally large increase in heart rate. A high salt diet is sometimes recommended as a treatment for this – if this applies to you, then it is very important that your health professional keeps an eye on your blood pressure.
Maintain a healthy diet
This is key to a healthy heart. Make sure that you look at the food labels on prepared shop bought meals. Many pre-prepared meals are high in salt, sugars or fats.
A diet high in saturated fat can lead to blood vessels becoming clogged up with the fat cholesterol, which in turn can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Therefore we need to cut down on saturated fats in the diet. Simple things include cutting the fat off meat, moving to semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, and cutting down the amount of other dairy products such as cheese.
It is important to eat enough of the ‘good fats’ (i.e., not saturated fats), however. Eating oily fish is a good source of omega 3 fats, which help protect the heart and circulation. Two portions of fish per week is recommended.
Try also to make sure you eat the government recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. It is important, though, for people with M.E. to try out fruit and vegetables to be sure that there is no bowel upset. This is particularly important in people who are prone to symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome.
Eating more fibre is also recommended. Good sources include wholemeal bread and oats, for example. Again, make sure that you work in small increments so as to minimise any bowel upset.
Cutting down on your sugar intake will help to keep your heart healthier, too. Too much sugar can put stress on your heart, and also lead to weight gain. Artificial sweeteners, such as those containing aspartame, are best avoided, as they have been linked to other diseases, but if you must use sweeteners there are several natural alternatives that are now widely available, such as stevia.
Manage your weight
The more overweight a person is, the more load it puts on the heart. However, following the above advice will help with keeping your weight in check.
Prof Newton says: Research from Newcastle University and other centres (www.meresearch.org.uk/our-research/completed-studies/) has suggested that heart function in people with M.E. might be impaired. These research studies are preliminary and require further study and replication in other centres.
However, what it does highlight is the need to keep your heart as healthy as possible by following the lifestyle measures recommended by Dr Purdie above.
In addition, one of the things that we sometimes find in those with M.E. is low blood pressure. Blood pressure is the ‘head of steam’ that pushes the blood around the body, and we have speculated that if this is not high enough, it can lead to problems with perfusion of organs such as muscle, brain and heart.
Making sure you have a filled vascular system (drinking at least 2-2.5 litres of non-caffeinated fluid a day) can help increase the ‘head of steam’.