How Lifestyle Changes Can Reduce Complications of Heart Disease

By Stephanie Green, Director of Medical Management at P3 Arizona

In February, I shared my story about heart health and what I was doing to improve my health outcomes. When I was diagnosed with heart disease and high blood pressure (hypertension), one of my biggest worries was that I am now at increased risk of stroke. I understood that taking my new heart and blood pressure medications as prescribed was the easiest way to reduce my risk but I wasn’t satisfied with relying on medication alone. I knew my high blood pressure was my biggest risk factor and medication could help lower it but I wanted to add lifestyle changes to better control it. I turned to my cardiologist, primary care doctor and the American Heart Association to see what else I could do to further reduce my risk. I found there were some very basic things I could change that would help me reach my blood pressure goals:

  • Lose weight through diet and exercise
  • Better manage stress
  • Reduce alcohol consumption
  • Quit smoking

Achieve and Maintain Healthy Weight
I also shared how losing weight changed my life for the better and I can’t stress that enough. I found a diet that worked for me that I could stick to. I didn’t do well on diets that were too restrictive, so I went with the basics. I met with a Registered Dietitian and we reduced my calorie intake to less than 1,800 calories per day, comprised of lots of lean protein, fruits and vegetables. My body felt better on a moderate carbohydrate, low-fat diet, so I stuck with that. I made it a point to eat more white meat than red, added more fish and seafood, and used fruits and vegetables to make sure I felt full.  I also got a water bottle and made sure I filled it several times a day so that I not only stayed hydrated but also help me feel full so I was less likely to snack.

I started to add exercise slowly by walking around my neighborhood and practicing beginners’ yoga. I found stretching helped with aches and pains and I felt better getting out of bed in the morning. Soon after starting my regimen, I also found my mood was improving and my blood pressure was lowering. Eventually, my cardiologist reduced me from three blood pressure medications to two because I was doing so well managing my blood pressure naturally.

Reduce and Manage Stress
It was obvious to me and my doctors that I needed to do better at managing stress. As a mom, daughter, wife and nurse, there was very little time left in my day for me. My cardiologist told me I needed to make myself a priority. Just as I blocked time to take my kids to activities and my mom to her appointments, I needed to block time to take care of myself. I started by incorporating a bedtime routine. By setting a reminder on my smartphone to go to bed at 10 pm, I was able to improve my sleep habits and reduce sleep interruptions. Within a week, I felt a little calmer and noticed a slight drop in my blood pressure.

Stress can be impacted by several things, including:

  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor diet
  • Poor sleep
  • Physical illness
  • Social pressures, such as the feeling of loneliness or overwhelming expectations
  • Personal pressures, such as expecting too much of yourself

Limit Alcohol Consumption
After 30, I didn’t drink much. I had a lot of fun in my twenties, but after 30 I only had the occasional drink or would imbibe on rare occasions. Although regular alcohol intake wasn’t normally a contributing factor to my high blood pressure, I did find the day after I had alcohol, my blood pressure was typically higher than what was my new normal.  Now, if I do drink, I only have one drink, no more than a couple of times a week. As a general rule, adults should only drink in moderation. Moderation is defined as:

  • Two drinks or less per day for men
  • One drink or less per day for women

Quit Smoking
At one point I was a smoker. Despite being a nurse, despite knowing better, I still smoked.  By the time I had my heart disease diagnosis, I had effectively stopped smoking.  It had been seven years since I quit.  My cardiologist warned me if I had experienced my cardiac events and still been a smoker, my prognosis would’ve been much, much worse. If you are struggling with quitting smoking, please reach out to your primary care provider to find a smoking cessation plan that works for you.

These are only some of the risk factors for stroke and ways that I personally reduced my risk. Some risk factors you can control, but others you cannot. Please discuss your risk factors with your primary care provider to protect yourself. Other stroke risk factors include:

Risk factors you can control:

  • High blood pressure
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Smoking or tobacco use
  • Alcohol use
  • Illicit drug use
  • Diabetes
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Heart disease
  • Sickle cell disease

Risk factors you cannot control:

  • Age: risk increases with age
  • Family history of stroke
  • Race: African Americans are at much higher risk
  • Gender: women are at greater risk
  • Prior stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA) or heart attack

Despite our best efforts, sometimes strokes still happen.  If you suspect you or a loved one are experiencing a stroke, please call 9-1-1 immediately.  The earlier the intervention, the better the prognosis.  Signs of a stroke include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially if only on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, difficulty speaking or difficulty understanding when others are speaking
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination
  • Sudden severe headache

Be Fast
Remember it’s important to seek immediate treatment if you suspect you or a loved one are experiencing a stroke. B.E. F.A.S.T. can save your life!

Be: Have you experienced a sudden loss of balance? If you can’t keep your balance, call 9-1-1.

Eyes: Have you lost vision in one or both eyes? Has your vision suddenly changed? If you answer yes to either question, call 9-1-1.

Face: Smile in the mirror. Is your face symmetrical? Does one side droop? If it isn’t symmetrical or if one side droops, call 9-1-1.

Arms: Can you lift both arms? Does one drift down when you do? If you can’t raise both arms to the same level and keep them there, call 9-1-1.

Speech: Can you speak normally? Call a loved one and see if they can understand you. If your speech is slurred or if you can’t be understood, call 9-1-1.

Time: Don’t hesitate. If you see any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Talk to Your Provider
It’s important that you talk to your primary care provider about what lifestyle changes you can make to reduce complications of heart disease. Be sure to schedule your comprehensive visit so you can have uninterrupted time with your provider to discuss your personal situation in detail. Through conversation, screenings and goal setting, your provider will help you take control of your health and plan for your future wellbeing.