This past week, my mom suffered a heart attack. Here’s how it played out: after experiencing two days of worsening chest pain, she finally went to urgent care (at the insistence of my sister, a Medical Doctor). They told her, “Uh, you need to go the Emergency Room… now.”
An ambulance was called and sure enough, she was suffering from a heart attack. After determining the cause, a procedure was quickly scheduled. She is now at home in stable condition and in good spirits. But she is now on 4 new heart medications… one of which is a statin. (Side note – between my father-in-law’s history of strokes and heart attacks and now my mom suffering a heart attack herself, my family is rapidly becoming the poster children for lifestyle change.)
Statins for Heart Attacks
Back to statins: statins are often used to help decrease LDL cholesterol in the blood (LDL is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol—I’ll explain why in a second). One of the many functions of the liver is to produce LDL. We actually do need some of this bad cholesterol floating around our bloodstream. Statins are designed to tell the liver to stop making so much LDL; they don’t stop the production completely, just tells the liver to “chill out for a while.” The doctor prescribed a statin because they discovered the cause of my mom’s heart attack was the build-up of plaque in one of her coronary arteries (the arteries that sit right on top of the heart). This plaque is often caused by having high levels of this bad, LDL cholesterol in the blood. So by putting her on a statin, the doctor is hoping she will have less of this stuff floating around in her bloodstream, which will hopefully prevent another heart attack.
Statins also help lower inflammation in the arteries. Plaque build-up in the arteries basically means that the arteries are sick. As a response, the arteries become inflamed. So by lowering inflammation in the arteries, statins are helping to heal those vessels in a way. Statins also may help prevent that plaque from breaking free and causing another heart attack or stroke.
While statins sound like a miracle drug, the problem is they also come with some unpleasant side effects. Muscle pain can occur. Less common would be muscle and liver damage.
Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Medications for Heart Attacks
The good news is that with lifestyle changes, a person can reduce the amount of medications they take even after a serious event like a heart attack. Most health professionals agree that diet, exercise, weight management, stress management and not smoking can dramatically improve one’s chances of avoiding another heart attack and possibly getting off their medications.
In fact, a number of studies have found that these lifestyle changes can actually work better than the medications themselves – statins included.
As far as diet is concerned, one of the best things a person can do is to lower their intake of simple sugars. Simple sugars are those that are found in candy, soda, white flour, baked goods… you know, all the things we really like. This doesn’t mean these foods need to completely eliminated, but even a small reduction can help. What does sugar have to do with bad cholesterol and plaque in the arteries? It’s easier to communicate this visually and I actually created a YouTube video explaining why:
On the other hand, increasing fiber intake is important. Fiber actually helps remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream.
I would also say it’s important eat fish at least twice per week. Specifically, consume responsibly caught cold water, fatty fish. These tend to be high in omega-3 fatty acids which help keep our arteries healthy. An easy pneumonic device I like to use to help clients remember which fish are high in omega-3 is to follow a SMASHT diet (S-M-A-S-H-T).
Each of these fish are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. If you don’t like fish and want to take an omega-3 supplement instead, definitely consult your doctor or dietitian first. You do not need take so-called “mega-doses” of these supplements.
Next, alcohol. A number of well-designed studies have found that consuming alcohol in moderation can significantly reduce the likelihood of having another heart attack. Moderation means:
- For men, no more than 2 drinks per day
- For women, no more than 1 drink per day
Most studies were performed with red wine, so that’s the form I would recommend, as long as your doctor is ok with it. There are folks that should not consume alcohol – those with a history of addiction (and possibly those with a family history of addiction), pregnant women, those with diabetes, and those that are under age just to name a few. But if your doctor is ok with this, enjoy!
Also, there are different health benefits of red wine for men and women.
A 2012 study conducted by Oregon State University mentioned that “drinking moderately as part of a healthy lifestyle that includes a good diet and exercise may be beneficial for bone health, especially in postmenopausal women,” while the June 2007 issue of Harvard Men's Health Watch mentions that men who “drink an average of four to seven glasses of red wine per week are only half as likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer as those who do not drink red wine.”
Variety of Vegetables
My last diet tip is to eat plenty of dark green, red, and orange veggies. These will provide a number of heart-healthy vitamins and minerals to help the body heal.
What about exercise? Starting with a walking and stretching program is often recommended. Staying active keeps your bad cholesterol levels down (which then helps prevent more plaque build-up in the arteries). Stretching actually has been found to keep the arteries nice and flexible, which is what we want! Before beginning any exercise program, yes, you know what I’m going to say… check with your doctor first. If they give the all-clear, have them specify:
- the type of exercise
- the intensity
- and the frequency
A number of studies have found that high intensity exercise is safe and beneficial even for those with a history of heart disease. But, again, definitely get medical clearance first.
I’ll close by giving my well wishes to anyone who has experienced a heart attack or has a loved one that has. Unfortunately, I can now say I understand what you must be going through.