Want a Healthier Heart? Focus on Your Relationships
Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor
Heart disease continues to be the #1 cause of death.
Heart disease is responsible for approximately 30% of deaths worldwide, and in the United States alone, one in four deaths can be attributed to heart disease. Most of these deaths can be prevented through lifestyle interventions, especially when heart disease evolves from existing risk factors, such as high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes, or excessive alcohol use.
Addressing the risk factors that can lead to heart disease, while seemingly simple, is a complex and intricate task that our healthcare system continues to struggle with. A doctor can make diet and lifestyle recommendations for better health and well-being, but social and economic factors can contribute to someone not being able to implement those changes, such as:
- Lack of access to healthcare that would provide early detection services
- Lack of access to affordable healthy food; heart disease disproportionately impacts low-income populations who may live in food deserts
- Inadequate government infrastructure that would provide opportunities for free and accessible physical activity, such as biking and walking paths
- Lack of social support to improve quality of life as those you spend the most time with are likely participating in the same lifestyle behaviors
Heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and your social network are related.
Research is finally catching up to what the Institute for Integrative Nutrition has been teaching for nearly 30 years: Social support and relationships, an important area of our unique concept of primary food, dramatically impacts our mental and emotional health as well as our overall health and well-being.
Over 300 million people worldwide live with depression, and one in three people around the globe suffers from anxiety. The physiological effects of anxiety can increase one’s risk of heart disease due in part to a change in the body’s stress and hormone responses; however, it’s more likely that the less-healthful choices one may make due to feelings of anxiety or depression contribute more to the disease risk.
Those who experience feelings of anxiety and depression may be prone to avoiding social situations in order to control or manage these emotions. Social isolation is on the rise, despite the growth of our online social network. As we try to build a social following and spend our days glued to our phones, we’re interacting with people less IRL (“in real life”), and our bodies are experiencing the consequences. The irony is that not only has the rise of social media contributed to these statistics, but our reliance on social media has not wavered despite knowing how isolated we have become.
It turns out that you can be doing all the things right to reduce your risk of heart disease – eating well, not smoking, exercising regularly – but if you feel a sense of social isolation or lack of social support or you experience feelings of consistent loneliness, your heart health is at risk.
Research has shown various health outcomes of social isolation and loneliness on cardiovascular and heart health, but many echo the same themes:
- The European Society of Cardiology concluded that “feeling lonely was associated with poor outcomes in all patients, regardless of their type of heart disease and even after adjusting for age, level of education, other diseases, body mass index, smoking, and alcohol intake. Loneliness was associated with a doubled mortality risk in women and nearly doubled risk in men. Both men and women who felt lonely were three times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression and had a significantly lower quality of life than those who did not feel lonely.”
- In a study published in the journal Heart, researchers determined that “loneliness, social isolation, or both were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart attack and 32% greater risk of stroke. The risk was similar to that of light smoking or obesity...” According to lead researcher Dr. Nicole Valtorta, the findings suggest that “having a stronger social network is beneficial for your well-being and health, and maintaining existing relationships and forging new friendships could be an effective form of disease prevention.”
- Research on the impact of loneliness on patients who lived alone and experienced a cardiac event found that “loneliness was associated with significantly poorer physical health after a year. Among men only, living alone was also associated with a 39% higher risk of cardiac events, like heart attack, during the follow-up period. Previous studies indicate that women have larger social networks than men, so separation, divorce, or the death of a partner may disadvantage men more.”
Improve your relationships and lower your risk of heart disease.
We know this isn’t the happiest of topics to write or read about, but we’re especially passionate about it because we love talking about primary food! Nourishing your relationships so that you feel fulfilled and supported is an important aspect of your physical health.
Here are three ways to improve your social connections for better emotional and physical health:
- Plan face-to-face interactions with family, friends, and loved ones. Instead of a text, an Instagram direct message, or even a phone call, see the important people in your life in person more often. In a report published in The American Journal of Health Promotion, researchers looked at the impact of social media on loneliness and determined that while social media can be used to facilitate in-person interactions, it should not be used to replace those interactions. Dr. Stuart Lustig, one of the authors, said that “even small social changes can have a large impact. Striking up post-meeting conversations with coworkers, or even engaging in micro-interactions with strangers [like elevator chitchat], can make your social life feel more rewarding.”
- Practice gratitude and compassion. Research has shown that just thinking positively about your social connections can have positive health outcomes. In a study published by Psychological Science, researchers found that loving-kindness meditation, a four-step practice in which you “spend time each day sitting quietly and sending compassion and loving-kindness to four categories of people in a sequence” increased positive emotions, which then directly impacted social connectivity.
- Surround yourself with people who participate in healthy lifestyle behaviors. If the people you spend the most time with are engaging in risky lifestyle behavior, such as smoking, excessive alcohol use, and physical inactivity, you’re more likely to engage in those behaviors as well. And on the flip side: If you spend time with people who engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as eating well, moving often, and providing a safe, supportive environment for you to be yourself, you’ll also be more likely to exhibit those behaviors. Research has shown that our social ties strongly influence our health habits, and our health behaviors are responsible for “up to 40% of premature mortality in the United States.”
Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches can contribute to a lowered risk of heart disease.
The role of an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach is to provide a safe space for clients to explore their health concerns and help them discover their bio-individual path to optimal health and well-being.
When it comes to preventing heart disease, Health Coaches are in a unique position as they have a thorough understanding of not only nutritional aspects for prevention but also the mental and emotional components of reducing disease risk. The prevention of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems requires a holistic approach, considering the food on the client’s plate as well as the health of their primary food, such as relationships, environment, and physical activity.
If a client has a list of diet and lifestyle recommendations from their healthcare practitioner, their Health Coach will be able to break down each recommendation with actionable steps to create sustainable behavior change.
Whether it’s heart disease prevention, or another chronic lifestyle disease, Health Coaches are poised to contribute to reversing the global healthcare crisis we’re experiencing, and Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches receive the best health coaching education to make the world a healthier, happier place.
We’ve created the Self-Love Guide to give you tools to improve your relationship with yourself so you in turn can be a better friend, partner, and loved one and improve your health and the health of those around you. Get this free guide now!