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Ways You're Damaging Your Heart and Don't Know It

Experts explain 10 common ways you're hurting your heart. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease. About 659,000 people in the United States die from heart disease each year—that's 1 in every 4 deaths." While heart disease is the most common cause of death in the United States for men and women, it doesn't have to be inevitable. With a few positive lifestyle changes, you can maintain a healthy heart and help avoid cardiovascular disease. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who explain what unhealthy behaviors contribute to heart disease and why it's important to kick these habits. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Eating Meat Frequently

eating a burger

Dr. Katie Hill, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Nudj Health reveals, "People who eat more than two servings of red meat, processed red meat, or poultry a week are at higher risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and death when compared with people who eat a predominantly plant-based diet with no meat or who eat meat only rarely."


Too Much Alcohol

Drinking Pints of Beer

Dr. Hector Perez Chief Surgeon with Bariatric Journal says, "Drinking alcohol in moderation is generally considered safe for most people. But drinking too much alcohol can damage your heart. It can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation and follow the recommended guidelines." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men or 1 drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed. The Guidelines also do not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason and that if adults of legal drinking age choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drinking less is better for health than drinking more."


Drinking Coffee with Added Sweeteners and Creamers

artificial sweetener coffee

Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD is a senior dietitian at UCLA medical center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding school of public health, and author with Cambridge university Press, of the new book, RECIPE FOR SURVIVAL shares, "When you consume coffee with a ton of added sweeteners and high-calorie creamers which basically turn it into a calorie and inflammation bomb.  This is not a good thing to drink for your heart because it will have a lot of processed sugar in it – which is inflammatory, and the extra calories – which our bodies don't get satiated from (in the same way they do solid foods), just adds calories and fat, raises triglycerides, and this is bad for the heart health."

Dr. Hill Adds, "Sugar increases inflammation in the body and damages blood vessels, leading to higher risks of hardening of the arteries, plaque formation, strokes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.  The average amount of sugar in a can of soda is 8 teaspoons, and a Starbucks drink can have as many as 25 teaspoons of sugar."


Not Staying Hydrated

Woman drinking water

Hunnes says, "Hydration is key to maintaining a healthy metabolic level and keeping the heart pumping enough blood (unless directed by MD to restrict water due to heart failure).  Staying hydrated with low- to no-calorie beverages like water, tea, black coffee is a good idea."




Diane McIlhon, RDN, LD, registered dietitian and program coordinator at MercyOne Iowa Heart Center Prevention and Wellness Clinic explains, "Smoking cigarettes can permanently damage your heart and blood vessels which can lead to cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to multiple conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. Some of these conditions include:

  • Coronary heart disease, or the narrowing of blood vessels carrying blood to the heart.
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure).
  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke.
  • Aneurysms (a bulge or weakness in an artery).
  • Peripheral artery disease.

Smoking cigarettes can also cause CVD by changing your blood chemistry. These changes in blood chemistry can cause plaque (a waxy substance composed of cholesterol, scar tissue, calcium, fat, and other material) to build up in your arteries that carry blood from your heart to your body. This plaque buildup can lead to a disease called atherosclerosis. When the chemicals in cigarette smoke cause atherosclerosis and thickened blood in the arteries, it becomes more difficult for blood cells to move through arteries and other blood vessels to get to vital organs like the heart and brain. This can create blood clots and ultimately lead to a heart attack or stroke, even death."


Too Much Sitting

woman sitting at desk in front of laptop, touch neck feels pain.

According to McIlhon, "The more you sit, the less you move, and the less you move, the more your risk of developing heart disease increases. Sitting a lot can kill you even if you exercise regularly. There is a new saying floating around: Sitting is the new smoking. That's because evidence is coming out showing that sitting for long periods of time can have a profound negative effect on your health. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found evidence that sitting for long periods of time is a risk factor for early death. According to their study, the more time you sit, the greater your risk for early death becomes. Here are some statistics from the study:

  • Participants in the study who sat for more than 13 hours per day had a 200 percent greater risk of death than participants who sat for less than 11 hours.
  • Participants who moved more and sat less (sitting less than 30 minutes at a time) had a 55 percent lower risk than those who sat for 30 minutes or more at a time.
  • Participants who often sat longer than 90 minutes at a time were about twice as likely to die than those who always limited their sitting time to less than 90 minutes at a time.

Regular physical activity reduces the risk of dying prematurely from CVD. It also helps prevent the development of diabetes, helps maintain weight loss, and reduces hypertension, which are all independent risk factors for CVD. Less active, less fit persons have a 30-50 percent greater risk of developing high blood pressure. Physical inactivity is a significant risk factor for CVD itself. It ranks similarly to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol. One reason it has such a large effect on mortality is because of its prevalence. Twice as many adults in the United States are physically inactive than smoke cigarettes. Regular physical activity has been shown to help protect against first cardiac episodes, help patients' recovery from coronary surgeries, and will reduce the risk of recurrent cardiac events."


Too Much Sugar

soda glasses

"People who eat a lot of added sugars are at greater risk of dying from heart disease," says McIlhon. "Sugar affects the heart in several ways.  The most obvious is weight gain which increases the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, all which can increase the risk of developing heart disease. Diets high in sugar can also increase your triglyceride levels in your blood and having high levels of triglycerides raises the risk of heart disease.  Sugar can also cause inflammation throughout your body.  A diet rich in sugar can lead to chronic inflammation which can stress your heart and blood vessels and increase the risk of heart disease.  Added sugars come from many sources.  We often forget about our liquid calories in pop, energy drinks, sports drinks, specialty coffee drinks, and smoothies.  Not to mention the sugars we add to foods in the form of honey, molasses, syrup, jams and jellies. Or the cakes, cookies, candies and frozen treats!!!  Moderation is key.  The American Heart Association recommends that women try to reduce their intake of added sugars to 25 mg (6 tsp) per day; for men the goal is 36 gm (9 tsp) per day."


Too Many Processed Foods


McIlhon states, "Ultra-processed foods account for over half of our average calorie intake. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with an increased risk of CVD incidence and mortality, with each additional daily serving found to further increase risk. Ultra-processed foods are ubiquitous and include many foods that are marketed as healthy, such as protein bars, breakfast cereals and most industrially produced breads. Also, processed foods also contain a lot of sodium. More than 70% of the sodium we consume comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods. When there's extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total amount (volume) of blood inside them. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. Over time, high blood pressure may overstretch or injure the blood vessel walls and speed the build-up of gunky plaque that can block blood flow. The added pressure tires out the heart by forcing it to work harder to pump blood through the body. And the extra water in your body can lead to bloating and weight gain."


Too Much Stress

man experiencing high stress doing work, panic attack

McIlhon says, "The link of stress to cardiovascular disease risk is not well understood. Epidemiological data show that chronic stress predicts the occurrence of coronary heart disease (CHD). Those who experience work-related stress and those who are socially isolated or lonely have an increased risk of having  a first CHD event. In addition, short-term emotional stress can act as a trigger of cardiac events among individuals with heart disease. Among patients with CHD, acute psychological stress has been shown to induce transient myocardial ischemia and long-term stress can increase the risk of recurrent CHD events and mortality.  People often underappreciated the negative effects that psychosocial stress can have on their heart health. Psychosocial stressors are life situations that cause unusual or intense stress, such as divorce, family conflicts, death of a loved one, prolonged illness or natural catastrophe. Depression and psychosocial stress are associated with heart attacks. In addition, high stress levels have been shown to negatively affect health recovery after a heart attack.  Psychosocial stress can be short-term or long-term, and both types have been associated with heart disease. Exactly how stress leads to a heart attack is still being studied. Emotional stress can lead to an increase in blood pressure, or hypertension, which subsequently leads to heart disease and plaque buildup in the coronary arteries. Emotional stress also can lead to increased levels of stress hormones, or cortisol. These hormones affect platelets and autonomic tone, which is how your body controls involuntary functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. All these factors play a role in heart disease. Stress also can lead to unhealthy mechanisms to cope with stress, such as stress eating or substance abuse, and not exercising, which in turn can lead to heart disease."


Poor Sleep Habits

man stressed in bed that he can't sleep

According to McIlhon, "Adults who sleep less than 7 hours each night are more likely to say they have health problems, including heart attack, asthma, and depression. Some of these health problems raise the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. These health problems include:

  • High blood pressure – During normal sleep, your blood pressure goes down. Having sleep problems means your blood pressure stays higher for a longer period of time.
  • Type 2 diabetes – Diabetes is a disease that causes sugar to build up in your blood, a condition that can damage your blood vessels. Some studies show that getting enough good sleep may help people improve blood sugar control.
  • Obesity – Lack of sleep can lead to unhealthy weight gain. Not getting enough sleep may affect a part of the brain that controls hunger.

Over time, sleep problems can hurt your heart health.

Sleep apnea happens when your airway gets blocked repeatedly during sleep, causing you to stop breathing for short amounts of time. Sleep apnea affects how much oxygen your body gets while you sleep and increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

Insomnia refers to trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. As many as 1 in 2 adults experience short-term insomnia at some point, and 1 in 10 may have long-lasting insomnia. Insomnia is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Over time, poor sleep can also lead to unhealthy habits that can hurt your heart, including higher stress levels, less motivation to be physically active, and unhealthy food choices."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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