Health

“Mini” Relaxation Exercise

BetwMeditation pictureeen the snow and problems with public transit, this has been an incredibly stressful two weeks.  The relaxation response is the body’s natural counter to the stress response.  If start feeling stress creeping in, take a few minutes to try this mini relaxation breathing exercise from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine

INHALE, pause- 1,2,3         EXHALE, pause, 1,2,3

  • After each inhalation, pause and count: 1,2,3 (breath is held in)
  • After each exhalation, pause and count: 1,2,3 (breath is let out)
  • Do this for several breaths.
Nutrition

Fiber

Fiber is a special type of carbohydrate the body can’t digest. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating 25-35 grams of fiber a day, but most of us probably only get about half that amount. If it isn’t broken down for energy, why is there a concern about not getting enough? While it may not be used for fuel, fiber plays a role in helping other systems in the body run smoothly.

There are actually two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber has been shown to help lower cholesterol (especially the LDL or “bad” cholesterol). When mixed with water, it dissolves into a gel-like substance that binds bile acid and interferes with the absorption of dietary cholesterol.  Good sources of soluble fiber include beans, oats, and fruit such as apples. Insoluble fiber (which does not dissolve in water) helps with moving food through the digestive system and removing waste. Whole grains and vegetables are good sources of insoluble fiber.

In addition to supporting heart and digestive health, fiber can also aid in losing and/or maintaining a healthy weight. Most high-fiber foods are naturally low in calories, but more importantly fiber promotes satiety: that feeling of being “full” after eating. Increasing the amount of fiber in your meals can help you feel full faster and keep that full feeling longer. And, since fiber causes food to move through the stomach more slowly, it can help keep blood sugars steady after meals.

A Registered Dietitian can work with you to find ways to increase your fiber intake, but a good place to start is eating plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains, and beans. Replacing refined and processed grains with whole grains, or eating a piece of fruit instead drinking fruit juice (unless treating a low) are other things to consider. One final note: it’s best to increase your fiber intake gradually and drink plenty of water. Each week, add 5 grams of fiber to your daily intake until your intake is between 25-35 grams per day. Too much too soon can cause uncomfortable gas and bloating.

(Post content reviewed by MGH Department of Nutrition)
Announcements

Heart Month Chat Recap

Dr. Maria Vivaldi, a cardiologist at the Mass General Institute for Heart, Vascular and Stroke Care and director of education at the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program joined us for a bilingual chat about heart disease prevention.

Click below for the chat highlights. Keep an eye on our calendar for more upcoming chats and special events.

Guest Post, Heart Health, Nutrition

Spotlight on the Mediterranean Diet

By Emma Louise Toolson
Dietetic Intern

Med Diet Pyramid 2

Earlier this year, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a study linking the Mediterranean diet with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.  Quite simply, the Mediterranean diet is a way of eating that is based on the traditional foods and cooking styles of countries along the Mediterranean Sea. The general eating pattern while following a Mediterranean diet includes:

  • Several servings of fruits and vegetables daily
  • Focus on healthy fats like olive oil and canola oil
  • Consuming fish and poultry at least two times per week
  • Limiting dairy products, red meat, processed meats and sweets
  • Use of herbs and spices to flavor foods in place of salt
  • Red wine, in moderation (if appropriate)

While the Mediterranean diet is abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, a typical Western diet, in contrast, contains more processed foods, refined carbohydrates and saturated fat. Another key feature of the Mediterranean diet is the inclusion of regular physical activity — the Western diet, meanwhile, tends to be more sedentary.

The NEJM study followed 7447 participants over 6 years. Two groups of participants were randomly assigned to a Mediterranean diet pattern, while a third followed a low-fat diet which acted as a control. The two groups following the Mediterranean eating plan were given either olive oil or mixed nuts to provide the monounsaturated (healthy) fats. Restricting calories was not advised for either group.  The study observed a Mediterranean diet, in which extra-virgin olive oil or nuts were the main source of fat, resulted in a significant reduction in the risk of major cardiovascular events in high-risk individuals. This led researchers to conclude that following a Mediterranean diet may prevent cardiovascular disease, particularly in those that are already at risk.

Health, Heart Health

Heart Month: The Health of Your Heart

By Aparna Mani, MD, PhD
MGH Medical Walk-In Unit

Aparna Mani, MD, PhD

The heart is an amazing organ. From the time we’re embryos until the day we die our hearts are constantly beating, ticking away at sixty to one hundred beats per minute.  The heart is the organ in the human body  we most commonly associate with emotions and passions. We can actually feel it beating fast with excitement and slowing down as we rest, sleep and dream. How do we take care of such an important organ? We can best answer this question by taking a close look at what can go wrong with the heart.

The American Heart Association estimates that approximately 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States each year.  What we most often mean when we talk about heart disease is actually coronary heart disease. The heart is a muscular organ and just like any muscle its shape and form directly affect its ability to do its job: pumping blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to every inch of the body. And just like every other organ, the heart muscle needs the right nutrition and care to work properly. It gets its vital nutrients and oxygen not from the blood it holds and pumps out,  but from blood that travels in vessels lying along its outer walls (these vessels are called the coronary arteries). If you were to look straight on at the heart, you would see these vessels wrapping like ivy on the heart’s surface.

The coronary arteries need to remain clean so that blood can flow freely through them to nourish the heart muscle.  Atherosclerotic plaque, a mixture of cholesterol and other debris which can stick to the walls of the coronary arteries, can interfere with the delivery of nutrients to the heart.  In certain spots the lump of sticky plaque can build up to such a degree that it limits or even blocks blood flow through a particular artery. When this happens, the portion of heart muscle that depends on the blood supply from this artery becomes unhealthy, weak, and can even die. But the heart depends on every single muscle fiber to be healthy and strong in order to pump well, so bad blood flow through even a single coronary artery can potentially affect the heart’s important squeezing ability and cause heart disease.

A lot of research has gone into figuring out how to prevent and even get rid of plaque build up in the coronary arteries. Since a major component of plaque is cholesterol, it’s thought that a low cholesterol diet is a key factor for  preventing coronary plaque formation. In addition to diet, smoking and high blood pressure can increase the chances of plaque formation. For unclear reasons, people with diabetes seem to be more prone to developing coronary plaque as well.

Health care providers may recommend aspirin, blood pressure, or cholesterol lowering medications for good heart health.  Maintaining a healthy diet low in sodium and cholesterol, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping your blood sugar in good control and quitting smoking can also help prevent plaque buildup and resulting heart disease. So take this moment to listen to your heart and talk with your health care provider about taking steps toward beating heart disease.

Guest Post, Health, Heart Health

A Cholesterol Q & A

By Aparna Mani, MD, PhD
MGH Medical Walk-In Unit

Aparna Mani, MD, PhD

We hear about cholesterol almost as often as we hear about the weather on the news these days – but what is it really and why is it such a hot topic?  Cholesterol is actually a type of fat particle that travels around in the bloodstream. It’s true that we get cholesterol from food, but our body also makes its own cholesterol in the liver. In fact, the liver can produce all the cholesterol our body needs even if we do not take in any cholesterol from our diet.  Foods that are high in cholesterol include mostly animal sources like meats, eggs, fish, poultry, and dairy products like whole milk and butter. Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, tofu and grains contain little to no cholesterol.

So what do we need cholesterol for?  Well, cholesterol is used for a couple of different things.  It’s a component of the outer layer of all of the cells in our body, it helps to make vitamin D and hormones like estrogen and testosterone, and it helps in the digestion of fats in the intestine. 

What’s the story about the good versus bad cholesterol?  To understand this a bit better, we need to take a closer look at how cholesterol gets around the body.  Because cholesterol does not mix easily with blood, it’s carried around in the bloodstream by a particle that acts as a kind of vehicle called a lipoprotein. There are several types of lipoproteins, but the ones you have probably heard of are HDL and LDL.  The LDL particles carry cholesterol around and deliver it wherever it’s needed in our body.  However, if we have too much LDL, the excess cholesterol can be deposited on the walls of our blood vessels.

Why is this a bad thing?  The deposits of cholesterol in the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply our heart, can form plaque. It’s exactly this plaque that can eventually rupture and cause a blockage in a coronary artery, leading to a heart attack. This is why LDL is often referred to as ’bad’ cholesterol.  But let’s look at another particle:  HDL cholesterol. What makes HDL different is that instead of depositing cholesterol in various parts of our body (including blood vessels), it picks up any extra cholesterol that is lying around and brings it back to the liver. The liver can take this extra cholesterol and either make it into something useful or recycle it.  This is why HDL is referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol.

The balance between LDL and HDL in our body is important.  We want to keep the levels of LDL low and the levels of HDL high so  our body can function well without creating too much cholesterol or plaque build-up in our blood vessels. Some of us might have a genetic predisposition that determines our LDL and HDL levels, but we also have a role in striking this balance through diet and lifestyle.  By eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and grains we can keep our LDL low.  Healthy activities such as exercise and refraining from smoking also help to strike the right balance between HDL and LDL cholesterol. Some of us may need medications to modify our cholesterol levels in addition to following healthy habits.  According to the American Heart Association, adults should get their cholesterol levels checked periodically so  their health care provider can make recommendations for keeping their cholesterol levels in good balance.