Maybe you already stick to a heart-healthy diet and get your exercise, too. But should you add some supplements to the mix to keep your ticker in good shape? There are pros and cons to the "natural" approach, so learn as much as you can about how they work, and check with your doctor before you decide.
Supplements That May Help
Fish oil: It's got omega-3 fatty acids, which researchers say is good for heart health. Studies show they may lower your chances of heart disease and reduce levels of a blood fat called triglycerides. They may also cut your risk of irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia, and lower your blood pressure slightly.
Ideally, rather than take supplements, you should eat fish to get omega-3s, says Mark K. Urman, MD, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.
To prevent heart disease, the American Heart Association suggests you eat fish twice a week, especially salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and tuna. But if you're allergic or just don't like seafood enough to eat it that often, talk to your doctor about supplements.
Fiber: Studies show that getting 5 to 10 grams a day of "soluble" fiber, the type that absorbs water, can lower LDL "bad" cholesterol by about 5%. Psyllium, a type of fiber supplement, may be helpful when you also keep up a healthy diet, Urman says, but it can also cause stomach pain or discomfort, especially if you don't get enough to drink.
It's better to get your soluble fiber from foods like oatmeal, beans, citrus fruits, and barley, says Frances M. Burke, RD, a dietitian for the Penn Heart and Vascular Center at the University of Pennsylvania. They'll help you feel full more than supplements do, so you won't be tempted to sample unhealthy foods. And there's strong evidence that you can reduce your heart risk if you get fiber from whole grains, legumes, fruit, and non-starchy vegetables.
Garlic: Some studies suggest that garlic -- fresh or in supplements -- may lower cholesterol or blood pressure, but others found no benefits.
"There is nothing wrong with spicing things up with garlic here and there," Urman says, but he doesn't recommend taking it in a pill.
Green tea: Drinking it, or taking a supplement, might have a small effect on cholesterol levels, Urman says, but not enough to be a standalone treatment for someone with heart disease or very high cholesterol.
Sterols and stanols: These prevent your body from absorbing cholesterol from food. Studies show they help lower LDL levels.
They're found naturally in some plant foods, and they've been added to others like margarines, mayonnaise, milk, and cereal. You can also take it as a pill. Aim to get 2 grams of plant sterols or stanols every day.
Red yeast: This supplement, made from fermented rice, is similar to a group of meds that lower cholesterol called statins. But because it's not regulated by the FDA the same way drugs are, it's hard to know how well it works. That's why, Urman says, most cardiologists only recommend red yeast for people who aren't able to take statins.
Other nutrients: Too little calcium, magnesium, or vitamin C is linked to high blood pressure, Urman says. But he says it's better to get them through a balanced diet rather than pills. If you have a health condition that doesn't let you eat the foods that have these nutrients, talk to your doctor about whether a supplement might help.
How to Make the Decision
"Patients are always looking for a more natural approach," Burke says. But she cautions that just because supplements are made of natural ingredients doesn't mean they're harmless or the best choice to protect your heart.
One issue is how to know what's in a supplement. "There may be variations between what the label states and what the supplement actually contains," Burke says.
On top of that, most vitamins and minerals can also be found in foods like fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. It may seem easier to get those nutrients in a tiny pill, but research shows that real food is almost always healthiest.
Your body processes vitamins and minerals in a more efficient way when you get them from food, Urman says.
If you can't get enough of a certain nutrient from food sources, a supplement might be a good alternative. For example, people who are vegetarians or have other dietary restrictions often need supplements to make up for nutrients in the food groups they're not eating.
Supplements may also play a role in treating heart conditions if you can't handle some medications, but always make this decision with your doctor.
"What we do know is that supplements will never keep your heart healthy as much as regular exercise and a well-balanced diet full of natural antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals," Urman says. Instead of relying on supplements, he says, focus on living a heart-healthy lifestyle and taking the medicine your doctor prescribes.