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Soy for Heart Health

Soy has been shown to decrease total and LDL cholesterol, with smaller benefits to triglycerides. However, soy supplements have not been proven to reduce long-term risk of heart attack or stroke.

Two big cautions: Women with hormone-sensitive cancers (breast, ovarian, uterine cancer) or endometriosis may be advised not to take soy. People taking blood-thinning drugs should also talk to their doctors before taking soy.

Other Herbs, Spices, Extracts

Artichoke leaf extract, yarrow, and holy basil may help lower cholesterol, according to early studies. These and other commonly used herbs and spices -- like ginger, turmeric, and rosemary -- are being studied for their potential in preventing heart disease.

Globe artichoke leaf has become increasingly available in the United States. Preliminary studies suggest that these extracts may reduce total cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Multiple studies of garlic extract have reported small reductions in total and LDL cholesterol over short periods of time (4 to 12 weeks), but it's not clear whether this benefit is lasting or short-term. Also, effects on HDL are not clear.

Lifestyle Solutions for Healthy Hearts

Supplements are no panacea. If you use them, use them in connection with proven lifestyle habits that benefit the heart -- and with medications prescribed by your doctor.

After all, a bad diet and an inactive lifestyle are the biggest risk factors for heart disease. Making changes to improve your lifestyle can make a big difference.

Food is medicine: "Food comes first," says Guarneri. "There are reams of research showing that the Mediterranean diet -- high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, wine, and fatty fish -- help decrease blood pressure and stroke." It's possible to reduce heart-related events (like heart attack) by 50% to 60% by following this type of diet, she adds.

One long-term study of 15,700 adults found these four factors were the most important:

  • Eating at least five fruits and vegetables daily
  • Walking or getting other exercise for at least 2.5 hours weekly
  • Keeping BMI (body mass index) out of the obese range
  • Don't smoke 

Salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, and other omega-3 fatty fish should be staples, she says.

Daily exercise is a must: The Clinical Council on Cardiology advises 40 minutes to one hour of aerobic activity every day and strength training three days a week.

A 2002 study showed that more intense exercise works better than moderate exercise in reducing cholesterol. The study involved sedentary, overweight men and women -- all with mild-to-moderately high cholesterol -- who did not change their diet. Researchers found that those who got moderate exercise (12 miles of walking or jogging a week) lowered their LDL levels, but those who did more vigorous exercise -- jogging 20 miles a week -- got even better LDL results.

Stress reduction is key: Stress increases cortisol (a hormone), which puts fat on the midline -- which increases heart risks. Stress also produces inflammation that leads to increased plaque in blood vessels, Guarneri explains. Two stress hormones -- adrenaline and norepinephrine -- raise cholesterol, blood pressure, and cause heart rhythm problems. They also constrict coronary arteries, cause blood pressure to go up. When we're under stress, our ability to fight infection is reduced.

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