It’s Just a Heart… – How it Functions and How to Protect Your Heart Health!
Our hearts do a TON for us! Although we may not think about how much our heart beats each minute to keep us alive (usually when we focus on it we begin to panic!), these blood pumpers are the reason we are alive! It is common sense to do everything we can to maintain a healthy lifestyle and ensure our heart health is in top shape, but do we actually understand how our hearts work in order for us to help them? Don’t let yourself believe that ‘it’s just a heart’ and will do its job no matter what, because there is so much to know about how this organ functions! Every tiny part of the heart plays a big role, and if we aren’t caring for it, our heart health will suffer. Take a look at how our hearts work, how they can be hurt, and how to protect them!
Our society is obsessed with drawing hearts – they are even one of the most commonly used emojis! What we don’t often think about, though, is the actual shape of our hearts. Instead of two perfect bumps with a pointed bottom, our hearts actually look like a deformed nut! And the pieces creating and holding this shape for every beat are our heart muscles (also called the myocardium). These thick muscular walls contract and relax to pump blood in and out of the heart and send the blood throughout our bodies. It is this contraction and relaxation of the heart that gives it that ‘pulsating’ movement (the lub-dub).
Problems with the Heart Muscles
Heart disease. As the leading cause of death in Canada (and in many parts of the world), heart disease directly affects our heart muscles. Specifically, cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscles, causes the heart to become enlarged. When this occurs, the heart muscles stiffen and have a harder time pumping blood. Over time the muscles weaken further and this progressive disease can result in the need for medical action (medication, heart rate monitors, diet change, etc.). Your heart health is reliant on your heart muscles to keep pumping blood through your body and keeping you alive – take care of them and the healthier you will be!
When discussing our hearts, we often use the term ‘pumping blood,’ but do we know what this means? While our heart muscles ‘pump’ the blood, our valves make sure the blood makes its way to the areas in our body that need it and control the flow. Our heart valves are made up of thin pieces of tissue called leaflets or cusps. There are four different heart valves that work to manage how blood is passed through the heart, they are called the:
- Mitral valve
- Tricuspid valve
- Aortic valve
- Pulmonary valve
Each of the valves within the heart ensures that blood flows into the correct heart chamber and then continuing to push blood in the proper direction to eventually be delivered to the rest of the body. Without the valves controlling the entrance and exit of blood our hearts would quickly become overwhelmed.
Problems with the Heart Valves
Just as any part of our heart (or body) can deteriorate, our valves are also susceptible to disease. Valvular heart disease is a condition that occurs when the heart valves are damaged (or do not work due to a defect), leading to the valves struggling to open and close. This disease can apply to one valve or multiple, but in all cases, this can be a catastrophic problem for our heart health.
If the valves are not able to open and close to ensure regular blood flow (resulting in the body not receiving the oxygen needed to function properly), heart failure is likely. Those suffering from heart failure can experience fluid-build up in the lungs, fatigue, shortness of breath, and an irregular heartbeat. In instances of heart failure, medication prescribed by a doctor may assist individuals, otherwise there is also the option of surgery to fix or replace the affected parts of the heart.
You have probably heard discussions about the negative effects of high blood pressure, and how it is important to keep our blood pressure under control. Just as we need our heart muscles and valves to function properly, our blood pressure also needs to be in good standing order (for what the numbers on a blood pressure reading mean, check out our blog!). Blood pressure is the rate at which our blood flows through our body and the intensity of how it is passing through the bloodstream and to the heart. When your blood pressure is at a rate of +140, problems can occur.
Problems with Blood Pressure
A spike in blood pressure is never a good thing in the long term. The higher your blood pressure is, the more likely that it will cause permanent damage to your heart. Individuals who suffer from high blood pressure (also called hypertension) will often have complications such as the arteries becoming hardened, a creation of blood clots (which can lead to stroke), kidney disease, or heart disease. It is critical that you get regular check-ups to ensure that your blood pressure reading is normal. If it is high, discuss with your doctor on the best steps to reduce your blood pressure and protect your heart health.
In order for blood to flow in and out of the heart, we need our arteries – the passageways to and from the heart. There are 3 different arteries in our heart: the aorta, the left coronary artery, and the right coronary artery. The right artery supplies blood to the right side of the heart, and the left artery supplies blood to the left side of the heart (simple right?). The aorta, which is found at the top of the heart, functions to send blood from the heart to every other part in the body. Without the arteries, blood circulation is impossible!
Problems with Arteries
When caring for our heart health, we need to keep our arteries in mind. One of the primary problems that can occur with this part of the heart is something called coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is one of the most common types of heart disease, and occurs when the coronary arteries become blocked, restricting the amount of blood that can be delivered to the heart. When a heart is not receiving enough blood from the arteries, this can lead to more severe problems, such as:
- Angina (severe pain in the chest)
- Heart Attacks
- Cardiac Arrest
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, coronary artery disease can result when someone suffers from high blood pressure, has high cholesterol, diabetes, unhealthy weight, or other contributing factors. It is crucial that we take care of our heart health to ensure that our arteries are flowing properly and blood is entering in and out of the heart without resistance!
How to Protect Your Heart Health
To avoid any problems with the heart, in all instances, it is necessary to move forward and take positive steps to improve your heart health. The primary courses of action are to strive to reduce your blood pressure and strengthen each and every part of your heart! Here are some ways that you can work to improve your own heart health:
- Healthy Diet (speak to nutritionist for the best heart healthy foods)
- Staying physical activity without overdoing it (speak to your doctor for guidance on how much exercise to partake in)
- Reduce sodium intake
- Reduce saturated fat intake
- Avoid excessive sugars
- Quit smoking
- Drink less alcohol
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Reducing stress and remove stressors from your life
- Getting enough sleep
Follow these steps to improve your heart health and live a long and healthy life!
Want to know more about how your heart functions? Take a look at this informative video and learn how and where blood pumps through your heart and how it delivers blood to the rest of your body.
It may “just be a heart,” something that beats on its own accord, but it is the only heart you’ve got! Take care of your heart health and improve your diet and lifestyle to reduce the risk of developing heart disease or other heart-related problems!