Your heart is the most important muscle in your body, so here’s how to strengthen it for a long, healthy life.

It’s February and that means Valentine’s Day love is in the air — you’re undoubtedly seeing red hearts everywhere you look. But have you stopped to think about your own heart lately? No, not the love you feel in your heart, but how the organ is actually functioning. The heart is by far the most important muscle in your body, yet so many people take for granted its 24/7 job.

“Without your heart, of course, all other functions fail,” says cardiologist Steven R. Gundry, M.D., New York Times best-selling author of The Plant Paradox (Harper Wave, 2017) and founder of Gundry MD. “All other muscles cannot receive oxygen and nutrients from blood — even the muscles of the intestines and diaphragm get all their power from the action of the heart muscle.”

As a heart surgeon, Gundry has spent his career repairing or replacing failed hearts while also supporting them through diet and supplement recommendations. As such, he knows firsthand how vital the proper care and feeding of the heart is to living a healthy lifestyle.

A Heart-y Dose of Reality

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. But if you think your heart still has many more years before it begins to show the wear and tear your diet and exercise routine (or lack thereof) has caused, think again — it’s a process that begins when we are young.

“Those of us who do children’s heart surgery see small plaques in the aorta (the main artery that leads from the heart) in children as young as 4 or 5,” Gundry says. “In fact, many soldiers killed in the Korean War in the early 1950s had evidence of plaques in their coronary arteries, even though they were only in their late teens and 20s.” What’s more, this is not a new phenomenon that can be blamed on Western culture or the Industrial Revolution — even mummies from ancient cultures 4,000 years ago show evidence of atherosclerosis.

Heart-Felt Advice

So what are the important factors to keeping our ticker in tiptop shape?

1. More fat, less sugar. “The heart muscle loves to burn fat as a fuel,” Gundry says. “Our body generates ketones [the energy source we make from fatty acids] when supplies of glucose are low, which is called ketosis.” Ketones also can be eaten, mainly in the form of medium-chain triglycerides oil, coconut oil or red palm oil.

2. Intermittent fasting. “Fat adaptation (burning ketones) preferentially as fuel takes time and explains the usual ‘bonking’ that occurs in athletes who transition from a glucose- to ketone-based fuel source,” Gundry says. “Nevertheless, ketone-adjusted athletes usually perform better than when burning glucose.” To accomplish this on a regular basis, he suggests intermittent fasting while gradually stretching out the time period between meals. For instance, during the winter months for the last 10 years, Gundry has routinely eaten all his calories during the weekdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., fasting 22 out of every 24 hours. While that may seem extreme, beginners can start by skipping breakfast and instead ingesting MCT oil to support metabolism during fasting.

3. All fats are not created equally. “Olive, avocado and macadamia oils are primarily monounsaturated fats that carry a generous dose of good for your blood vessels in terms of polyphenols,” says Gundry, who tells patients that the purpose of all foods is to get olive oil in your mouth. “Omega-3 fats that are found in fish oils, particularly DHA, also have been shown to support blood vessel function and heart health.” He says the polyphenols found in dark chocolate, green and black tea, grapeseed extract, tree-bark extract and resveratrol all have been shown to dilate heart blood vessels and prevent “stickiness” of the blood vessel walls. So whether you’re having eggs or broccoli, pour on the olive oil.

4. Cholesterol is not the culprit. We hear that cholesterol is bad, but that’s not the case. It’s actually the inflammation on the surface of blood vessels that is the real problem, and all the aforementioned foods and supplements help protect blood vessels. “Moreover, it’s not only your cholesterol count that matters at all but the size of the particles that counts,” Gundry says. “And the best way to make good, big particles is to lessen the amount of sugars and starches that you eat.” Of course, that starts with limiting processed carbs and sugars — but Gundry's research also suggests that limiting fruits and grains can also lower cholesterol.

5. Excessive exercise does more harm than good. Our heart is a real trooper — exercising all day long, never taking a break. “Interestingly, the metabolic rate of a tribal bushman who walks 20 miles a day is exactly like that of a typical overweight coach potato American,” Gundry says. “That American’s heart is doing a lot of work just carrying that extra weight around.” As a former 30-mile/week runner who now jogs with his dogs 2.5 miles a day, he has many examples of the damage that distance running does to your heart muscle. 

“I routinely measure heart muscle damage in runs over 5 miles, and it’s quite extensive after half or full marathons,” he says. “My wife, who ran the 100th running of the Boston Marathon, hung up her shoes shortly after I showed her the data. Chronic marathoners have measureable stiffness and fibrosis of their right ventricles.” He prefers Pilates, yoga or interval training using weights or machines and not resting between sets. Whatever you do, don’t do it repetitively day after day, he warns; even your heart needs to throttle back every now and then. Gundry recommends limiting stressful, intense exercise — like HIIT or CrossFit— to twice a week. 

Experts Whole-Heart-edly Agree on These 5 Supplements

Nordic-Naturals-Ultimate-Omega-1280-MG-Soft-Gels

High DHA Fish Oil: Take at least 1,000 milligrams a day.

The-Vitamin-Shoppe-Vitamin-D3-5000-IU

Vitamin D: Take about 2,000 IUs a day.

Garden-of-Life-Raw-CoQ10

CoQ10 or Ubiquinol: Take 100 milligrams a day.

Reserveage-Organics-Grape-Seed-Extract-with-Resveratrol-325-mg

Grapeseed Extract or Resveratrol: Take 100 to 250 milligrams a day.

Kaged-Muscle-Citrulline-

L-Citrulline: Take 1,000 milligrams a day to aid vasodilation of blood vessels via the production of nitric oxide.