If you want to keep your heart healthy, you'll typically do three things: choose nutritious foods, stay active, and toss bad habits like smoking.
But is there a faster way to give your heart an extra boost? Swipe your digital device or turn on the TV and you'll see ad after ad for natural remedies that can heal your heart and help you live longer. But do they work? A panel of heart doctors and pharmacists take a look at some common herbal supplements and tell you which ones work -- and which ones are just hype.
Garlic's been used for centuries to boost heart health as well as other things. When you crush it, you release a compound called allicin. It's what gives garlic its stinky odor. Scientists think it helps keep your arteries flexible and lets blood flow better. "There are numerous, well-documented studies on garlic and its benefit to cardiovascular health," says David Foreman, RPh, author of 4 Pillars of Health: Heart Disease. "It helps lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation. This combined effect can help decrease the risk of both heart attacks and strokes."
But some heart doctors, like Thomas Boyden, Jr., MD, medical director of preventive cardiology at Spectrum Health Medical Group Cardiovascular Services in Grand Rapids, MI., disagree. He says "there's really no strong evidence" to support claims that garlic improves your overall heart health. A 2012 Cochrane Database review agrees. It found that there wasn't enough evidence to show it helped curb your risk of heart-related death if you have high blood pressure.
If you want to reap garlic's benefits, use fresh garlic -- not the supplements. But ask your doctor first if you take blood thinners or have a blood clotting disorder. Garlic can increase bleeding risks.
Coenzyme Q-10 (CoQ10)
If you take drugs to lower your cholesterol (and have muscle pain as a side effect), doctors agree an antioxidant called CoQ10 may be worth a try. It's found naturally in nearly every body tissue, including the heart. It helps your cells make energy they need to grow.
Studies differ on whether CoQ10 really works, but Daniel Soffer, MD, a clinical lipidologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says he doesn't think it causes any harm. "It's probably not much better than placebo, but it can be in certain individuals."
Research shows CoQ10 keeps the blood vessels flexible. It also fights off a condition that affects the lining of the blood vessels that can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. A 2015 study in the journal PLos One found that elderly people who took this supplement with selenium, another antioxidant, for four years cut their risk of heart-related deaths in half.
Red Yeast Rice
Need to lower your cholesterol but don't want to take a prescription drug? Boyden recommends this ancient remedy made by mixing fermented rice with yeast.
"It's a naturopathic statin," he says. "It actually was the genesis for one of the very first statins, and there is good evidence to support it works."
It may also help ease statin-related muscle pain.
Here's another natural option for helping keep your cholesterol in check. But if you're high risk, you probably shouldn't take it in place of your medication.
Flaxseed is rich in omega 3 fatty acid, which is often a heart smart diet choice. Omega 3s help lower blood pressure and inflammation. They also contain fiber-rich plant compounds called lignans that have been shown to reduce cholesterol and plaque buildup in the arteries.
To get the most benefit for your heart, choose the seeds, not the oil. "The seeds should be ground, milled, and preferably fresh in order to impact health," Foreman says. "If not, the whole seed will pass through the body without being digested, like corn, and yield zero health benefits."
Vitamin K2 is frequently linked to better heart health. A 2014 study showed that diets rich in vitamin K (think of leafy, green veggies) helped reduce the risk of death due to heart problems in people who were at high risk for the disease.
"It helps prevent calcium in the bloodstream from depositing in the arteries and blood vessels," says Dennis Goodman, author of Vitamin K2: The Missing Nutrient for Heart and Bone Health.
Scientists think people who don't get enough vitamin K2 have more calcium deposits in their arteries and a higher risk for heart disease. "Keeping calcium in bone and out of the arteries results in improved blood vessel function and reduces age-related stiffness of the arteries," Goodman adds.
Clinical studies are underway to see if vitamin K2 can help reduce blockages leading to heart attacks and strokes.
Resveratrol got a lot of attention in the past, likely because it's found in two things we tend to love -- chocolate and red wine. But Soffer says he stopped reading about resveratrol supplements for heart health "because the clinical trial results were underwhelming." He says, "For people with serious risk, it didn't add much, if any, benefit."
Foreman agrees that "the claims can be questioned and the research is limited and at times sketchy." But, he says, people should eat foods high in a type of antioxidant called polyphenol. And resveratrol is a polyphenol that occurs naturally with other polyphenols in certain foods. So, go ahead and have that dash of dark chocolate with a glass of red wine (in moderation), and then add in some blueberries, grapes, and pistachios as well.
Use of Supplements in High-Risk Patients
Some doctors believe people who take several drugs for blood pressure, diabetes, and other heart diseases shouldn't take herbal supplements.
"I do not think there is any clinical trial evidence supporting the use of any supplement improving the cardiovascular health in high-risk patients," Soffer says. "If there's a benefit, the incremental additional benefit is so small, I can't believe it would be worth spending money on it."
So, before you are tempted to try the latest natural remedy, check with your doctor. Some might make you feel better; others might interfere with the meds you're already taking. It's best to ask.