The Heart Disease Risk Factors You Don't Know About

09/28/2016 | 6 min. read

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

The Heart Disease Risk Factors You Don't Know About

Undoubtedly you know that having high blood pressure or being overweight or out of shape can increase your heart disease risk. But did you realize that having gallstones also increases your risk of heart disease?

New research, published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, utilized data from hundreds of thousands of individuals and found that those who had a history of gallstone disease were at a 23 percent increased risk for heart disease over those who didn’t develop gallstones. These findings suggest that those with gallbladder disease should be monitored more carefully for heart disease risk factors as well.

While this connection between gallstones and heart disease may seem surprising, there are actually a number of conditions that don’t seem on the surface to have much of a relationship with heart disease at all, yet they can significantly increase your risk.

The Heart Disease Risk Factors Few People Know About

1. Erectile dysfunction. An international group of researchers has shown that the combination of erectile dysfunction (ED) and cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a strong and independent predictor of death and negative cardiovascular outcomes. Their study found that those who had both CVD and ED were 1.6 times more likely to experience cardiovascular death, heart attack, stroke, and hospitalization due to heart failure.

Any man who sees a physician with complaints of ED should also get a full cardiovascular workup. Vascular disease is not limited to the coronary arteries; it can also show up in the legs, the brain, and even the penis. ED can result from the same kind of endothelial damage and dysfunction that occurs in atherosclerosis and the plaque build-up that precedes heart attack and stroke. ED is a marker of endothelial dysfunction, the cardinal kingpin of inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

2. Sleep apnea. People with sleep apnea experience multiple episodes throughout the night when breathing stops for anywhere from a few seconds to up to a minute. The result is less oxygen in the blood and arousal from sleep, which leads apnea sufferers to wake up feeling unrefreshed and to have trouble staying awake during the day. Research has also found sleep apnea is particularly risky for people with cardiovascular disease (CVD). “Obstructive sleep apnea,” the researchers said, “is a strong predictor of fatal…events in patients with CVD.”

In a related study, cardiac researchers in Montreal performed three-dimensional ultrasound scans of arteries in 19 overweight patients with sleep apnea and stable coronary artery disease. They found a significant relationship between the frequency of apnea episodes and the volume of atherosclerotic plaque. The higher the number of sleep disturbances, the larger the amount of plaque.

Many doctors recommend CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) devices as a solution. These bedside machines deliver a stream of compressed air to a nose mask or full-face mask and thus keep the airway open. For some patients, an improvement in the quality of sleep can be noticed after a single night’s use. If you think you may have sleep apnea, or your spouse tells you that you snore and have disturbed sleep, consider having a personal sleep evaluation. Many hospitals offer this kind of service. If you find out that you do have apnea, there are a variety of devices available to help you. A sleep expert will know which is best in your particular case.

3. Depression. The known connection between heart disease and depression is so strong, that a history of major depression is considered a powerful independent predictor of future cardiac events. Negative emotional states such as depression set off a cascade of hormones that have profound impacts on the body. Depression, for example, has been associated with the following:

  • Higher resting heart rate
  • Impaired vagal tone (vagal tone is a nervous system response that affects an individual’s ability to soothe him- or herself; those with better levels of vagal tone tend to function better)
  • Elevated norepinephrine levels (norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that mediates chemical communication in the SNS)
  • Lowered heart rate variability (the more easily your heart rate varies, the better off you are)

Making matters worse, people who are anxious, angry, frustrated, sad, lonely, or depressed are more likely to use poor health habits, such as smoking, overeating, avoiding exercise, using drugs and alcohol, and other poor self-care patterns, to try to balance their emotions. If you are depressed, it's important to seek out a mental health professional to get to the root of the issue.

4. Irritable bowel. The idea that heart and bowel health are connected is neither new nor particularly unusual. Autopsies often reveal colons that are up to 80 percent clogged with waste material. The inflammation and toxicity associated with bloating, abdominal pain, diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, and other colon ailments can spill into the rest of the body and affect many organs, including the heart.

Before World War I, 57 leading British physicians gathered at the Royal Society of Medicine in London to discuss this—systemic poisoning that they called “alimentary toxemia.” John Harvey Kellogg, MD, a pioneer of nutritional medicine in the United States reported in his 1915 book on colonic hygiene that these doctors made a clear connection between colon dysfunction and the cardiovascular system. They cited “degeneration and weakening of the heart muscle, fatty degeneration of the heart, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, enlargement of the heart, dilation of the aorta, and arteriosclerosis.”

If you have an irritable bowel, it's important to exercise, drink plenty of water, and eat foods that are rich in fiber. It’s also wise to avoid sweets because sugar feeds the pathogenic bacteria in your gut. Instead, you want to support the good bacteria, or probiotics, that play a large role in proper immune and bowel function—and they just happen to feast on fiber. Another way to keep your probiotic colonies thriving is to eat fermented foods—such as miso, tempeh, kefir, kimchi, plain yogurt, and sauerkraut—three to four times a week.

5. Vital exhaustion. Vital exhaustion (VE) is a condition in which you are literally stressed to the point of exhaustion. It is characterized by lack of energy, increased irritability, and feelings of being overwhelmed, dejection, or defeat, as well as increased risk of cardiac events. Much of the increased risk from VE has to do with hormones, especially those created by the pituitary and adrenal glands. You might have heard the term "adrenal exhaustion." It describes a condition where the immune system has been overwhelmed so many times that it's barely up and running. The problem is that, when your immune system is down, your heart is more likely to be struggling too. Additionally, VE also correlates with increased blood coagulability, or stickiness, which can be a harbinger of clots, heart attack, and stroke.

Now it's your turn: Did any of these little-known heart disease risk factors surprise you?

You May Also Be Interested In

Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Meet Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Dr. Stephen Sinatra is a highly respected and sought-after cardiologist and nutritionist with more than 30 years of clinical practice, research, and study. His integrative approach to heart health focuses on reducing inflammation in the body and maximizing the heart's ability to produce and use energy.

More About Dr. Stephen Sinatra