Women, fortify your hearts with happiness

May 28, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

Women are just waking up to the fact that heart disease -- not breast cancer -- is the biggest threat to their health.

Though we may check for lumps every morning in the shower, we don't pay enough attention to the organ beneath that breast.

Add to that the recent and conflicting information about how to protect your heart's health -- confusing news about low-fat diets and exercise and red wine and chocolate and aspirin -- and the fact that women are notorious for ignoring their own health while caring for their elderly parents, their husbands and their children, and it is small wonder that more women are dying from heart disease than men.

In addition, women are thought to be more likely to suffer heart disease as the result of emotional stress than men are. Heaven knows, we sit down to a heaping helping of that every day.

Health writer Debora Yost tackles the myth of heart disease as a man's disease in her new book, Heal Your Heart with Wine and Chocolate: And 99 Other Ways Women Can Protect Their Hearts (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $19.95).

Most of her tips revolve around diet and exercise, but her final chapters are about the role of stress and emotion in heart health. "How fitting that the icon for love is the heart," she writes. "It symbolizes our emotions at every level, from the flutter of a promising new relationship (at any age!) to the heartbreak of broken dreams."

Although it is difficult to say just how feelings affect our heart health, there is no doubt about the role of the chemicals the body releases during stress. And emotions, even happiness, are stressful for women because we feel them so fully.

Anger is one of those emotions and, according to research quoted by Yost, for a woman with heart disease, a fit of anger more than doubles her risk of having a heart attack over the next two hours. Likewise, holding a grudge "creates personal stress equal to that of a major event, such as a death in the family."

While it may be difficult to find an hour a day to exercise, and eating five servings of fruits and vegetables every day means more trips to the grocery store, Yost's advice for heart happiness is delightfully easy to take.

Watch funny movies. Dump toxic friends and surround yourself with a caring and cheerful network. Get a pet. Pamper yourself with little pleasures. Be spontaneous. Make one of your little dreams come true. Take a body temperature (98 degrees) bath in complete darkness. Take a walk (but not when pollution is high). Take up yoga. Breathe in slowly through your nose and out slowly through your mouth.

Coffee won't hurt your heart, as long as you don't drink more than a cup or two a day, Yost writes. But tea -- any kind of tea -- is good for your heart. Even the act of brewing a cup of tea and waiting for it to steep will calm the heart.

There is a lot more advice in Yost's book. One of the most important might be to arm yourself with information about heart health and demand that your doctors take you seriously when you have concerns. There are plenty of anecdotes from women whose doctors did not believe them because they were young or had no family history or because tests did not reveal the blockages that are red flags for men.

But her best advice might be this: be happy, and if you aren't happy, do things that will make you happy, if only for a moment.

"Thing about it and picture yourself: sipping a glass of wine, nibbling a little chocolate, eating berries, avocados and other wonderfully fresh and tasty fruits ... leaving stress behind and enjoying the company of people who make you happy ... and last, but certainly not least, making sure to make a little time for yourself every day."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.

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