You can feel your heart thudding away every time you put your hand to your chest, but do you have any idea what’s really going on in there or what keeps your heart ticking as it should? WebMD the Magazine asked Richard Krasuski, MD, director of Adult Congenital Heart Disease Services and a staff cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, to help explain some amazing and little-known facts about the human heart.
1. How the human heart functions
Every day, your heart beats about 100,000 times, sending 2,000 gallons of blood surging through your body. Although it’s no bigger than your fist, your heart has the mighty job of keeping blood flowing through the 60,000 miles of blood vessels that feed your organs and tissues. Any damage to the heart or its valves can reduce that pumping power, forcing the heart to work harder just to keep up with the body’s demand for blood.
So how do you make sure your heart is in tip-top shape? "Keeping your body in good health helps keep the heart a more efficient organ," Krasuski advises. In other words, eat healthy, well-balanced meals and don’t skimp on the exercise.
2. Male heart attack symptoms, female heart attack symptoms
When it comes to matters of the heart, men and women definitely aren’t created equal. For instance, a man’s heart weighs about 10 ounces, while a woman’s heart weighs approximately 8 ounces.
Not only is a woman’s heart smaller than a man’s, but the signs that it’s in trouble are a lot less obvious. When women have a heart attack -- and more than a half million do each year -- they’re more likely to have nausea, indigestion, and shoulder aches rather than the hallmark chest pain.
Heart disease is the biggest killer of both men and women. And both genders should heed this healthy advice: Don’t smoke, keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check, and watch for the obvious and the more subtle warning signs your heart could be in trouble.
3. Laughter: The good heart medicine
Health experts now have proof that laughter is good medicine.
A good belly laugh can send 20% more blood flowing through your entire body. One study found that when people watched a funny movie, their blood flow increased. That’s why laughter might just be the perfect antidote to stress.
When you laugh, the lining of your blood vessel walls relaxes and expands, Krasuski says. So have a good giggle. Your heart will thank you.
4. Stress and the Monday morning heart attack
You’re more likely to have a heart attack on Monday morning than at any other time of the week.
Doctors have long known that morning is prime time for heart attacks. "We call it 'the witching hour,'" Krasuski says. That's because levels of a stress hormone called cortisol peak early in the day. When this happens, cholesterol plaque that has built up in the arteries can rupture and block the flow of blood to the heart. Add in the rise in blood pressure and increased heart rate from the stress of returning to work after the weekend, and you have the perfect recipe for a Monday morning heart attack.
That’s why it’s important to reduce your stress levels as much as you can. Practice yoga, meditate, exercise, laugh (see tip No. 3), or spend more quality time with your family -- whatever works best for you.
5. How sex helps the heart
Having an active sex life could cut a man’s risk of dying from heart disease in half. For men, having an orgasm three or four times a week might offer potent protection against a heart attack or stroke, according to one British study.
Whether sex works as well for women’s hearts is unclear, but a healthy love life seems to equate to good overall health. For one thing, sexual activity is an excellent stress buster. It’s also great exercise -- burning about 85 calories per half-hour session.
If you find it difficult to have sex, that could be a big red flag that something is wrong with your heart. For example, some researchers think erectile dysfunction might warn of a heart attack up to five years in advance.