Heart health matters! Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in Western countries and, sadly, the rate of heart disease will continue to grow due to the relentless rise in the incidence of obesity and diabesity. What accounts for the high rate of cardiovascular disease in developed nations?
What we eat and how much we move our bodies plays a key role in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Researchers now say that 20% of the risk of developing heart disease is genetic and 80% is related to lifestyle factors. So, a person isn’t destined to develop heart problems, even if they have a strong family history. Lifestyle, particularly dietary habits, can alter the expression of genes that influence the development of atherosclerotic plaque, inflammation, and how blood vessels function, all factors that impact heart disease risk.
Unfortunately, research shows that up to half of all Americans aren’t getting enough of two essential minerals that are key to a healthy heart. Let’s look at each of these and see why they’re so important and how we can correct these deficiencies.
Magnesium and Heart Health
Magnesium is a cofactor in more than 300 chemical reactions in the body. In fact, you need magnesium to make ATP, the energy currency that every cell needs to power itself and every muscle in the human body. Without magnesium, muscles couldn’t contract, and life would come to a standstill. Don’t forget, the heart is also a muscle and an important one as well!
Multiple studies link low levels of magnesium with a higher risk of high blood pressure and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The exact mechanism by which low magnesium harms the heart is unclear, but some research links low magnesium with inflammation. We now know that inflammation plays a key role in cardiovascular disease, just as it does a variety of health conditions.
Research also shows that low levels of magnesium may change how cells process glucose, leading to insulin resistance. Getting enough dietary magnesium may lower the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Unfortunately, we’re not getting enough magnesium in our collective diets. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for magnesium is between 310 and 320 milligrams daily for women and 400 to 420 milligrams for men. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about half of all Americans aren’t getting this amount. The number of people falling short is even higher in the elderly where up to 2/3 may have a magnesium shortfall. In addition, certain groups of people, like athletes, lose magnesium through sweat and through urine and have magnesium needs that are 10 to 20% greater than sedentary folks.
Why the shortfall? Some experts blame the problem on the pervasiveness of processed foods. Processing of food removes magnesium. With so many people munching on packaged and processed fare these days as opposed to whole foods, it’s not surprising that magnesium deficiency is so common.
How can you avoid being among the 50% who are low in magnesium? Punt the processed foods and build your diet around whole, nutrient-dense foods. Many foods that are high in fiber contain high levels of magnesium. Some of the best sources are green, leafy vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seeds, and legumes.
If you eat a whole food diet that contains these foods, you can get enough magnesium through diet alone. Yet, certain people are at higher risk of magnesium deficiency even if they eat a whole food diet. That’s because some medical conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease, reduce the absorption of magnesium from the digestive tract.
Other health conditions that can throw off magnesium balance include kidney disease, parathyroid problems, and taking certain medications, particularly diuretics. A group of medications called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), used to treat stomach ulcers and acid reflux, reduce magnesium absorption. Drinking copious amounts of alcohol deplete magnesium in the body as well. If you don’t eat a diet that includes lots of magnesium-rich foods, talk to your physician about, possibly, taking a supplement. That’s how important magnesium is for a healthy heart!
Potassium and Heart Health
Potassium is another mineral that’s vital for heart health on a minute-by-minute basis. It helps ensure your heart beats normally and plays a key role in blood pressure control and blood vessel function. In fact, research shows a potassium-rich diet can reduce systolic blood pressure by up to 10 points. That degree of blood pressure lowering can have a substantial impact on health!
The problem is not just that we don’t consume enough potassium, but we don’t consume enough potassium to compensate for the amount of sodium we take in on a daily basis. A high ratio of sodium to potassium is associated with hypertension and cardiovascular disease. During ancient times, the average person consumed around 7,000 milligrams of potassium each day. Today, we take in less than half this amount. In contrast, sodium intake has skyrocketed, thanks to the popularity of processed foods.
How much potassium do you need each day? The USDA recommends that men and women get 4,700 milligrams of potassium daily. Among the best sources are fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, a vegetable that’s sometimes maligned, the potato, is one of the best sources of potassium. A medium baked potato has around 940 milligrams of potassium. But, you can get potassium by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Unlike magnesium, you shouldn’t take a potassium supplement without consulting your physician. If you have undiagnosed kidney failure, potassium can build up in your body, as your kidneys struggle to eliminate it. Some blood pressure medications, including ACE inhibitors, and even some antibiotics can cause your body to hold on to potassium. Other medications, particularly diuretics, can cause loss of potassium and increase your body’s potassium needs.
The Bottom Line
Diet plays a major role in heart disease prevention and getting enough of these two minerals is part of the formula. So, make sure you’re not falling short in taking care of your heart health!
WebMD.com. “Nutrition Advice You Can Take to Heart”
Nutritional Outlook. “Magnesium Strong” September 2018.
National Institutes of Health. “Magnesium”
J Inflamm Res. 2018; 11: 25–34.
Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc. 2015; 126: 46–55.
WebMD. “How Potassium Helps Your Heart”
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