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Can You Reverse Heart Disease?

By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD

Making some simple changes in what you eat, how often you exercise, how much you weigh, and how you manage stress can help to put the brakes on heart disease.

But can you actually reverse heart disease, not just slow it down?

You can undo some, but probably not all, of the damage, if you're willing to make big, lasting changes to your lifestyle.

Yes, You Can!

Dean Ornish, MD, founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, has written six best-selling books, including Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease.

In his book The Spectrum, Ornish describes patients waiting to undergo a heart transplant -- those with the worst possible damage -- who enrolled in his program while on the transplant list. Some of them, he says, improved so much that they no longer needed a transplant.

“Our studies show that, with significant lifestyle changes, blood flow to the heart and its ability to pump normally improve in less than a month, and the frequency of chest pains fell by 90% in that time,” Ornish says.

“Within a year on our program, even severely blocked arteries in the heart became less blocked, and there was even more reversal after five years. That’s compared with … other patients in our study, in which the heart just got worse and worse.”

What It Takes

Ornish's plan includes walking at least half an hour a day, or for an hour three times a week. Yoga, meditation, and stress reduction are also parts of his program.

Diet may be the biggest thing you'd change to try to reverse heart disease as much as possible. The shift will be drastic if you're used to a typical American diet.

“Just making moderate changes in your diet may be enough to prevent heart disease, but it won’t be enough to reverse it,” Ornish says.

Ornish's book, The Spectrum, puts foods in five groups, ranging from healthiest to least healthy. To reverse heart disease means becoming a vegetarian. You'll fill your plate with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nonfat dairy, and egg whites, and avoid fats, refined sugar, and processed carbs. “You want to eat foods in their natural form as much as possible," Ornish says.

Of course, eating a healthy diet and being active are part of any heart-health plan. So are sticking to a healthy weight, taking all your medications, keeping up with your doctor visits, and not smoking or being around secondhand smoke.

Is It Too Strict?

You need to be really motivated to make those changes, and to make them last.

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