Of the $20 billion Americans spend on dietary supplements, those touted to boost heart health top the list. While some vitamins and minerals are extremely beneficial for the heart, others can be downright hazardous In fact, one supplement millions of Americans routinely pop can actually double the risk of dying from a heart attack, a new study reported.
But it’s not all bad news: Among the most beneficial supplements is an inexpensive vitamin that can dramatically improve cholesterol levels, quell chronic inflammation, and reduce risk for cardiovascular events by 90 percent, a new study published in Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing reported.
To find out which supplements are worth the money—and which ones do more harm than good—I talked to the study’s co-author, Amy Doneen, ARNP, medical director of the Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center in Spokane, Washington.
Here’s a closer look at three supplements that can enhance cardiovascular health—and three to avoid. However, it’s always best to consult your medical provider before taking supplements to make sure they’re appropriate for you.
Although antioxidant vitamins may sound helpful for preventing cardiovascular disease, in reality, not only are vitamins A and E ineffective, but they significantly increase risk for early death, a review of 68 randomized trials involving 232,606 participants reported in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Another scary finding: A placebo-controlled study of nearly 15,000 male physicians not only reported no cardiovascular benefit to taking 400 i.u. of vitamin E every other day, but supplement users had a significantly higher risk for hemorrhagic stroke during eight years of follow-up.
And it gets worse: A 2005 study published in JAMA linked vitamin E supplements to an increase in heart failure after seven years.
Calcium supplements magnify the threat of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular events. As I’ve reported previously, popping calcium pills, with or without vitamin D, can actually double risk for heart attack, according to research tracking the health of close to 24,000 people over an 11-year period. People who only took calcium pills were 86 percent more likely to have a heart attack.
“While we don’t recommend calcium supplements, this mineral is essential for bone health, so we advise patients—particularly post-menopausal women—to get 1,300 mg of calcium daily through their diet,” says Doneen. Among the best sources of calcium are dairy products, canned fish with the bones (such as sardines), and spinach and other leafy green vegetables.
Although the sunshine vitamin offers numerous heart-health benefits—including reducing arterial inflammation and risk for heart disease, stroke, and heart failure--it’s also possible to get too much of a good thing, a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins found.
A simple blood test is the best way to tell if a vitamin D supplement is likely to be helpful or harmful. “We know that people with blood levels below 30 nanograms per milliliter (vitamin D deficiency) have increased cardiovascular risk, as do those with levels above 100, but what we don’t know is the sweet spot in between those levels,” says Doneen.
Statin users with low levels of vitamin D can benefit tremendously from supplementation. If their levels remain low, they are up to four times more likely to develop such side effects as muscle pain, but boosting vitamin D significantly reduces this symptom.
Vitamin D is found in relatively few foods, such as cod liver oil, fatty fish, vitamin D-fortified milk, orange juice, or cereal, egg yolk and cheese. Our bodies also produce D when we’re out in the sun.
Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil lowered the risk of heart disease and death from cardiovascular causes, especially in high-risk patients, a review of 11 studies with close to 40,000 patients showed.
The FDA has approved fish oil as a treatment for very high triglycerides, reports Doneen, who also recommends supplement containing EPA and DHA (including as fish oil) for overall vascular wellness. “Large studies show that fish oil is beneficial for both primary prevention of heart disease and for reducing risk for cardiovascular events in people who already have arterial disease.”
You can also get the same heart-health protection by eating oily fish, such as salmon or herring, three or more times a week, Doneen adds.
Unlike statins, which mainly reduce levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol, niacin (vitamin B3) dramatically improves all lipid levels, including raising “good” cholesterol. Both therapies also combat arterial inflammation.
Combining the two treatments can be a highly effective strategy for preventing heart attacks, strokes, and death from cardiovascular causes in people with abnormal lipid levels, Doneen’s research shows.
Cholesterol-lowering treatment regimens that included niacin reduced risk of cardiovascular events by up to 90 percent in clinical trials (compared to the rate in people who took a placebo) and can also help slow progression of cardiovascular disease.
However, niacin can have an uncomfortable (and usually temporary) side effect—facial flushing—and should be taken under the supervision of a healthcare provider, Doneen advises.
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