Fact: The number one thing you can do to take care of your health is protect your heart. Dr. William Li, one of Rach's go-to MDs, shares what you should and shouldn't do to keep your ticker—and the rest of your body—in top shape.

woman with beating heart illustration
Illustration by Asia Pietryzk
| Credit: Illustration by Asia Pietryzk

"Your heart is the center of your body's universe: Literally every part of your health depends on it," says Dr. William Li, a Harvard-trained physician and author of the New York Times bestselling Eat to Beat Disease. "It jets over a gallon of blood per minute to all other organs, so if it's not pumping normally, your ability to think, remember, exercise, and even breathe can suffer." 

It sounds scary, but good cardiac health boils down to one simple thing, he says: keeping your blood vessels operating optimally. "Anything that blocks or slows blood flow, like plaque, clots, or narrowed vessels, puts a strain on the heart." So how do you (quite literally) maintain your flow? Your diet is a huge factor, the doc says: "Some researchers have shown through clinical studies that a plant-based diet can reverse heart disease." The fiber found in fruits, vegetables, and nuts improves gut health; researchers believe that helps lower levels of the "bad" LDL cholesterol, which can clog vessels, and increases levels of "good" HDL cholesterol. "A healthy gut also produces anti-inflammatory substances that protect blood vessels," says Li. He recommends limiting foods high in plaque-producing saturated fat, like red meat and dairy products, and lowering salt intake, which increases blood pressure and damages vessels. And never smoke; it stiffens blood vessels and increases blood pressure. "Smoking is a surefire way to damage your heart," says Li. 

fish and veggies in bowl illustration
Credit: Illustration by Asia Pietryzk

Just as important as what you put in your body is what you do with it. "Regular exercise has many benefits on heart health," Li says. "It improves blood flow and increases your levels of stem cells, which repair damaged blood vessels." You don't have to be a triathlete to keep your heart fit. Exercising at a moderate level for 30 minutes a day, three to five times a week, is enough. 

And even though it's tough, Li says, minimizing stress is crucial. "Everyone deals with some stress in their life, and a little tension isn't harmful," Li says. "But high levels of sustained stress increase blood pressure and inflammation throughout your body." To manage stress, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, meditate, and take breaks from technology, says Li. "Take the time to calm your mind, and your heart will thank you for it."

Dr. Li’s Heart Health Checklist

1. Stay attuned to your heart's rhythm. Tell your doctor about any irregular palpitations or racing.

2. Pay attention to your endurance. If activities that used to feel easy, like your morning jog or climbing the stairs, suddenly leave you tired, it could be a sign of a weakening heart.

3. Check for ankle swelling. A weak heart can lead to fluid accumulation in the lower extremities. If you poke your ankles and it leaves a dimple in the skin, it could indicate heart trouble.

4. Monitor your breathing. It should be easy and comfortable to move air in and out. Trouble breathing could mean fluid is backing up in your lungs due to an unhealthy heart.

 This article originally appeared in our Harvest 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.