9 Natural Ways to Strengthen Your Heart Valves
Your heart valves are the small but mighty heroes of your circulatory system—these four paper-thin membranes attached to the heart wall do a ton of work to keep your heart beating (and you, alive). In fact, they open and close a whopping 80 million times a year! So, keeping them strong and free of problems, like stenosis (when the valves thicken or stiffen) and regurgitation (when blood sneaks back through it the wrong direction) is crucial. How do you do that? With these smart lifestyle, diet, and health moves that will keep those little babies flapping with more ease.
Look at Your Plate
“Several problems can affect the heart valves, including infection, tissue weakening, and atherosclerosis [the build-up of plaque on artery walls],” says Wesley Milks, M.D., a cardiologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. To help with atherosclerosis (plaque build-up accelerates valve deterioration), he suggests assessing your nutrition and giving your system less cholesterol and solid fat to handle. Take the American Heart Association’s advice and follow a “heart-healthy diet” with limited saturated fats like butter and an emphasis on lean protein and cholesterol-reducing fiber like that found in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains.
Pop Some Fish Oil
Popping a fish oil supplement could be a boost to your heart valves, as it helps prevent plaque buildup, according to Jennifer Wong, M.D., a cardiologist and medical director of Non-Invasive Cardiology at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. Plaque can cause the valves to strain to pump blood through the body. A study published in the journal Circulation showed that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in fish oil) can lower the risk of aortic valve stenosis, the plaque-induced narrowing of the valves that reduces blood flow.
Keep Your Weight in Check
Keeping an eye on the scale and staying within the advised BMI range for your height could benefit your valves in a major way. “Obesity has been linked to heart failure and [that can] lead to more regurgitation or leaky valve issues like mitral valve regurgitation,” says Dr. Wong. One study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Heart Failure found that obesity is correlated with heart muscle injury, even when other factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are controlled for.
Decrease Salt Intake
“Too much sodium intake can lead to too much body fluid retention in places you don't want [like the] lungs, which affects our breathing,” says Dr. Wong. This taxes the body and leads to increased blood pressure, which, she says, takes a toll on heart valves. “The elevated pressure may lead to higher left ventricular pressure, causing changes to the mitral valve structure and promoting more mitral regurgitation,” says Dr. Wong. Research published in the journal Circulation found that a reduction in salt improved blood pressure. The current recommendation from the American Heart Association is to limit sodium intake to 2300 milligrams per day, which is about one teaspoon of salt.
Get Better Sleep
We know getting quality shut eye has all kinds of benefits–and that goes for your heart valves as well. Poor sleep can lead to higher blood pressure, says Dr. Wong. Then, higher blood pressure “promotes atherosclerosis and accelerates valvular heart disease like stenosis.” Translation: lack of sleep can mess with your circulatory system, including your heart valves. That means getting your ZZZs is a must for an overall healthy heart. Need help? Check out our guide to getting at least seven hours of shut eye every night.
You probably know that exercise can improve your heart’s overall function. What you might not realize is that light activity like walking is just as great as—and maybe even a bit better than—running a marathon. When it comes to more intense exercise, recent guidelines in the journal Heart advise that patients with moderate valvular abnormalities get the all-clear from a doctor after a stress test before trying competitive sports. “Ask your health care provider when contemplating a new exercise regimen, particularly if you have experienced unexpected shortness of breath, dizziness, or chest discomfort with exertion,” adds Dr. Milks.
Stress raises blood pressure, which can tax your heart valves and prevent them from closing tightly, says Dr. Wong. One free and easy way to lower your overall anxiety is meditation. While the research on heart valves and meditation is scarce, we know that those quiet sessions come with many health-boosting benefits. And the American Heart Association concluded in a scientific statement that “given the low costs and low risks of this intervention, meditation may be considered as an adjunct to guideline-directed cardiovascular risk reduction.” Bottom line: It’s worth a try--and it’s easier to keep it up with a guide or an app.
Up Your Dental Hygiene
This may be surprising, but one of the factors for endocarditis, defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a life-threatening inflammation of the inner lining of your heart's chambers and valves (endocardium),” is dental health. That’s because endocarditis is caused by infections from bacteria like those that can occur in your mouth, which travel in the bloodstream, says Dr. Wong. That could explain why regular brushing and flossing is associated with lower risks of irregular heartbeat and heart failure, according to research in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.
Put Down the Cigarettes
One more reason to end your smoking habit: “As a powerful risk factor for atherosclerosis—the artery-hardening disease process leading to most forms of heart attack and stroke—smoking can also contribute to risk of aortic stenosis,” says Dr. Milks. As a 2019 research review explains, many of the factors that cause the mechanical damage of heart valves, including lipid deposition and calcification have been linked to tobacco use. Bottom line? While some heart trouble is genetic, the things we should be doing anyways for general good health—eat, sleep, and exercise well—naturally help keep your heart valves in good shape, too.
Fish Oil and Stenosis: Circulation. (2020.) “Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Decrease Aortic Valve Disease Through the Resolvin E1 and ChemR23 Axis.” https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.119.041868
Fish Oil and Irregular Heartbeat: European Heart Journal - Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapy. (2021.) “Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation and risk of atrial fibrillation: an updated meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” https://academic.oup.com/ehjcvp/advance-article/doi/10.1093/ehjcvp/pvab008/6255232
Salt Intake and Blood Pressure: Circulation. (2021.) “Blood Pressure Effects of Sodium Reduction.” https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.050371
Weight and Heart Health: Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Heart Failure. (2014.) “Obesity, Subclinical Myocardial Injury, and Incident Heart Failure.” https://www.jacc.org/doi/10.1016/j.jchf.2014.05.017?articleid=1918765
Exercise and Valve Abnormalities: Heart. (2019.) “Exercise recommendations in patients with valvular heart disease.” https://heart.bmj.com/content/105/2/106
American Heart Association on Meditation: Journal of the American Heart Association. (2017.) “Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.” https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/JAHA.117.002218
Heart Health and Tooth Brushing: European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. (2019.) “Improved oral hygiene care is associated with decreased risk of occurrence for atrial fibrillation and heart failure: A nationwide population-based cohort study.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31786965/
Smoking and Heart: Journal of the American Heart Association. (2019.) “Smoking and TAVR.” https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.119.013738