Every time you make a conscious effort to fill up on foods like fish, veggies, fruit, nuts, and whole grains, you're taking a step toward protecting your heart. But it isn't just the starring ingredients on your plate that can help; supportive herbs can play a role, too. In her new book Radical Longevity: The Powerful Plan To Sharpen Your Brain, Strengthen Your Body, and Reverse the Symptoms of Aging ($25), certified nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, (who herself is 70 and in good health) highlights three herbs in particular that are her favorite to use on a regular basis for heart health. (Technically, two herbs and a spice, but all come from plants and are easy to integrate into your diet.)
3 herbs for heart health, according to a certified nutritionist
Garlic isn't just full of flavor; Dr. Gittleman says it's packed with heart-healthy benefits, too. "Garlic contains a wide range of trace minerals, including copper, iron, zinc, magnesium, germanium, and especially selenium," Dr. Gittleman says. "In addition, it contains sulfur compounds, vitamins A and C, fiber, and various amino acids. In all, garlic provides more than 100 biologically useful chemicals." Yep, all that in a spice you already have in your pantry.
"My favorite way to cook with garlic is to use granulated garlic. I use it in almost everything I cook," Dr. Gittleman says. She uses garlic in homemade salad dressings, sauces, and marinades, to season chicken, red meat, and tofu, and to sprinkle on her veggies. "With fresh garlic, the finer the chop, the stronger the taste," she says. "To lightly 'perfume' your food with a mild garlic flavor, use whole, unbroken garlic cloves. Thin slices will provide more than a hint of garlic." Want your garlic to be even stronger? Dr. Gittleman says to mince it or crush the cloves to a pulp.
Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of garlic:
2. Cayenne pepper
Another herb Dr. Gittleman cooks with regularly for both flavor and heart-healthy benefits is cayenne pepper, which she says is high in antioxidants. "Cayenne pepper is loaded with vitamins C, B, A, and E and contains calcium, phosphorus, and iron," she says. "One of the richest sources of vitamin E, cayenne helps keep the heart healthy and strong." Vitamin E is directly linked to lowering the risk of heart disease and since cayenne pepper is high in the nutrient, it's one major reason why it's so good for your heart.
Cayenne pepper is one of the more fiery-tasting pantry herbs and Dr. Gittleman says this, too, makes it a great herb for heart health. "As most of us can attest, cayenne is a diaphoretic, aka a sweat-inducing spice. Its hotness comes from a high concentration of capsicum, a substance that has been firing up circulation for centuries," she says. "It is capsicum that gives cayenne the power to get the blood pumping efficiently, stimulate the body’s metabolic rate, and help clean fat out of the arteries. And used as a topical, capsicum stops pain in its tracks."
While cayenne pepper tastes great with veggies, one of Dr. Gittleman's favorite ways to use it is to actually put it in her coffee. Talk about a morning kick!
Hawthorn is less well-known than garlic and cayenne pepper, but it's an herb Dr. Gittleman highly recommends adding to your heart-healthy list. In fact, she says it's the number-one herb for heart health there is. "It contains powerful antioxidants in both its flowers and leaves, and it supports your heart in many different ways, primarily by reducing inflammation," she says.
Dr. Gittleman says hawthorn was first used in the first century for treating cardiac diseases and for strengthening the heart muscle. "Due to its antioxidant profile, hawthorn helps to decrease cholesterol, and it inhibits plaque buildup, lowers blood pressure, and dilates coronary vessels, which improves blood flow and increases blood supply to the heart," she says.
A good way to consume hawthorn, according to Dr. Gittleman, is having it as a tea. If you can't find hawthorn tea at a store near you, you can buy it online from brands including MagJo Naturals ($10), Traditional Medicinals ($29 for a pack of six), and Alvita ($9).
Of course, these herbs for heart health are just one part of the equation; it's still important to eat nutrient-rich foods and work movement regularly into your days. But when all these pieces come together, protecting your heart becomes a lot less, er, puzzling. And besides, they'll add more flavor to your life, too—it's a win-win!
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