Please do not construe anything I say here to mean that you should not seek timely medical care from an appropriate medical professional. And especially do not attempt cardiac surgery on yourself.
Heart disease is the main killer of women and more women than men die of it
Some sobering facts about women and heart disease:
- Women are more likely than men to die of a heart attack or stroke.
- Women are six times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than from breast cancer. Cardiovascular disease kills more women 65 years of age and older than all cancers combined.
- One in eight women between the ages of 45 and 64 lives with cardiovascular disease.
- One in four women over 65 lives with some form of cardiovascular disease.
The good news is that even though this is the disease that is most likely to kill us and will certainly cause us to experience a poorer quality of life, it is absolutely not inevitable. As Dr. Esselstyn says, “The truth be known coronary artery disease is a toothless paper tiger that need never exist and if it does exist it need never progress.”
Coronary artery disease starts young
Let’s get over this notion that heart disease starts in late middle age for men and after menopause for women. By the time symptoms develop and a diagnosis is made, those arteries have been damaged for a long time. Damage to our arteries begins in childhood and potentially even before we are born depending on our mother’s diet and smoking.
It’s never too early to adopt a heart healthy lifestyle. Luckily it’s also never too late.
Women are far less likely to be accurately diagnosed and treated for heart disease
If you are a woman with heart disease it’s likely that you will present with different symptoms than a man. This is called “atypical” presentation even though women are at least half of the population. It’s just one example of the gender bias in cardiology. It’s not even the only reason you are less likely to receive an accurate diagnosis, and heaven help you if you are a woman of colour.
To make matters worse, even if you have a diagnosis you are less likely to receive the same treatment as a (white) man. You have a lower chance of being prescribed cardiac drugs, angiograms and interventions and a much higher risk of dying in the period after a heart attack.
No, you’ve got to take matters into your own hands. If you are female and especially if you are pre-menopausal, you are going to be very sick by the time you get a diagnosis or treatment. It is far better to avoid getting sick in the first place. Trust me, you do not want to be in the medical mill.
Women are much more likely to have microvascular disease, which is poorly understood and which has very little in the way of treatment anyway
To complicate matters further, there is a chance, especially as a woman, that you can have all the symptoms of heart disease – angina, fatigue, shortness of breath, but not have any obstructed coronary arteries. You might be told you are out of shape, you have anxiety, you have muscle pain or costochondritis. You may be told your positive stress test results are false positives. Apparently women are five times more likely to have a false positive result – hmm.
Endothelial dysfunction, that damage that occurs to the cells lining our blood vessels when we consume a standard fatty diet, can cause a condition known as microvascular disease. The tiniest blood vessels in our body have a huge impact on how blood and oxygen are distributed throughout the body. If they are damaged and unable to dilate properly when required, the heart and other major body systems may not get enough oxygen. And yet, diagnostic test results may be normal.
Even if you have a diagnosis of microvascular disease, there won’t be much in the way of effective medical treatment. You may be offered nitroglycerin patches, which I found helpful, but I rather sneakily increased my dose until I found a dose that actually worked. I could easily have given up at the dose my doctor prescribed because I honestly could not find any relief at that level. Even though I ended up at four times the original dose of nitro, it was only effective at reducing the angina pain, but not the fatigue. The nitro itself carries some unpleasant side effects, and you are only allowed to wear the patches for 12 hours a day to prevent developing a tolerance. It was an improvement, but it wasn’t health.
Finally some good news
The first part of this post has been downright depressing, but here’s the good news. Your heart disease, whether officially diagnosed or not, can be halted and reversed. If you are lucky enough to not have any symptoms yet, you can prevent them altogether.
Follow a Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet
The only treatment that has been shown to prevent, treat and reverse heart disease is a whole foods plant-based diet. This has been documented by Dr. Ornish and Dr. Esselstyn and is being prescribed by an increasing number of physicians.
Watch Dr. Esselstyn explain how to prevent and reverse heart disease: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sl97IvbfUNQ
Eating a diet of whole fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, with no animal products, added oils or processed foods has been shown to improve angina by 90% in just 24 days. It will also reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and reduce weight.
There is really no cost to this treatment as you were buying food anyway – now you are just buying healthy foods instead of junk foods. Many people find that they can reduce or eliminate many or all of their medications which further improves health and lowers costs.
A Very Brief Whole Foods, Plant-Based Primer
While you’re at it, fix up the rest of your lifestyle
We don’t have to talk about smoking, do we? Just stop if you still smoke – that’s all. I recommend cold turkey otherwise you’re just torturing yourself every day until you finally quit for good. Keep in mind that nicotine is a powerful vasoconstrictor and that is the last thing your blood vessels need.
Try to get enough sleep. Do what you have to do to get 7 – 8 hours every night.
Get some exercise but don’t stress about it if it’s too difficult. After a few weeks on a plant-based diet you will find exercise comes much easier. Exercise is very good for you and your heart health, but it is secondary to diet.
Why diet, NOT exercise should be your keystone habit
The hardest thing on this list is to manage stress. I can’t help with your miserable spouse, terrible job or rotten kids, but every aspect of your life will be easier to manage if you are feeling your best.
The potential side effects of a wfpb diet are only good ones
Every treatment has potential side effects. A whole foods plant-based diet is no exception but the long list of side effects are all positive.
- Weight loss, if necessary
- Improved diabetes
- Reduced risk of cancer
- Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- Improved mood
- Fewer autoimmune symptoms
- Fewer allergies
- Improved digestion
- Easier periods and fewer menopausal symptoms
- Better bone health
- Longer life expectancy
Don’t wait until you are sick!
If you are unwell now then start a whole food plant-based diet immediately! If you are well, then start a wfpb diet right now! It’s a tricky thing to make changes to address a problem that may or may not happen in the future. The thing is, if you’ve been eating a standard western diet your whole life, you very likely have heart disease already. Some people’s first symptom is a fatal heart attack. If it’s all a bit theoretical for you then just know that you will look and feel better and younger and hopefully you will never need a cardiologist. If you still have kids at home then there’s no better time to instil in them the knowledge and health habits that will benefit them for years to come.
Your heart health is literally in your own hands
If you are a woman living in the developed world, you have a very high chance of dying from heart disease. You also have a high chance of not being taken seriously or properly diagnosed by physicians. You’ve probably been living with heart disease for many years already, and there’s a good chance that some of the fatigue that you feel on a daily basis is related to it even if your coronary arteries are not severely blocked.
If you adopt a whole food plant-based diet you can halt the progress and reverse symptoms of this disease with no unwanted side effects. You can reclaim your health and energy and you don’t need a cardiologist to help you.
In addition to the physical benefits you will find there is tremendous power in assuming control over your own wellbeing. It’s so much better than being in the medical mill. So be an amateur cardiologist.
featured image photo credit: unsplash