Heart disease, especially coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States, so it’s worth assessing if—and how—this group of conditions can be reversed. Medical-oriented websites often stress the impossibility of reversing heart disease and focus on halting or slowing its progression. Meanwhile, lifestyle rehabilitation programs claim amazing results. So, which is it? Can you reverse heart disease?
The Cans and Can’t of Reversing Heart Disease
The answer to “can you reverse heart disease” is both yes and no. It depends on which kind of heart disease (or related chronic illness) you have, how far the disease has progressed, and what is still biologically possible.
Physical Damage Can’t Be Reversed
Let’s face it: Whatever damage is done, is done.
- Heart muscle that died in a heart attack can’t be regrown.
- Calcified heart valves can’t be uncalcified.
- Plaque that has built up in your arteries is unlikely to disappear completely.
- The heart ejection fraction is unlikely to return completely to normal in cases of heart failure (refer to our guide to symptoms of heart failure getting worse).
Just as decayed teeth won’t regrow—no matter how hard you work to improve your dental hygiene—a damaged circulatory system won’t replace itself with a brand-new one. Sometimes surgery is needed to correct permanent damage and medications may be needed to help you stabilize in the immediate short term.
However, and we can’t stress this enough, there is a lot you can do to reduce heart disease risk factors and improve your chances of living a long and healthy life. Heart disease isn’t necessarily a death sentence, and everything you do to improve can help.
Blood Pressure, Cholesterol Levels & Excess Weight Can Be Lowered
If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol (in general, “bad” LDL cholesterol, and total non-HDL cholesterol), high triglycerides, or excess weight, you can lower these parameters with diet and lifestyle changes.
This lowering of parameters applies both to those who don’t yet have a heart disease diagnosis and those who do. If you don’t yet have a heart disease diagnosis, you can potentially prevent getting one, and if you do have a heart disease diagnosis, you can reduce your risk of dying from it.
A Metabolic Syndrome Diagnosis Can Be Reversed
Metabolic syndrome is the precursor of type-2 diabetes diagnosis, which is a contributing factor to plaque buildup and coronary heart disease. By making significant diet and lifestyle changes, children and adults have reversed a metabolic syndrome diagnosis in as little as two or three weeks [1, 2].
Preventing diabetes, in turn, could prevent the development of coronary artery disease. And it’s far easier to do it while you’re still in the pre-diabetic stage than once you’ve developed full-blown diabetes or heart disease.
Blood Flow to the Heart Can Be Improved
A buildup of plaque in the arteries—referred to as “atherosclerosis”—constricts blood flow and increases the risk of a heart attack. Plaques with structural stress are at a particularly significant risk of rupturing and causing a heart attack.
While you can’t remove plaque completely, dietary changes can cause them to shrink in size and become less likely to break off and cause a blockage. Smaller plaques, in turn, allow for improved blood flow and improved heart health.
You Can Reduce Your Risk of an Early Death
Large-scale studies indicate that leading a healthy lifestyle can slash your risk of cardiac events in half, even if you have a genetic predisposition to heart disease. This should be a great encouragement to people who have family members with heart disease or who died suddenly from a heart-related cause.
If you have an automated external defibrillator nearby, you can also be revived after suffering certain kinds of sudden cardiac arrest with a reduced likelihood of permanent brain damage. This is one of the reasons why we recommend that people with heart disease purchase an AED like the Philips HeartStart FRx or the HeartSine Samaritan Pad 350P and keep it in a clearly labeled location at home.
Evidence-Based Heart Disease Prevention Tips
If you want to reverse heart disease, stop it from progressing, slow its progression, or prevent it entirely, research indicates that several actions can help.
Follow a Heart-Healthy Diet
Heart disease rehabilitation programs typically recommend a plant-based diet that is rich in complex fiber—vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains—along with low-fat or nonfat dairy and lean chicken or fish. These diets help for several reasons:
- They cut out highly processed foods. Vegetable oils that are high in Omega-6 and processed sugar (“added sugar”) are known to increase inflammation and the incidence of coronary heart disease. [3, 4]
- They reduce calories. Complex carbohydrates are filling without being high in calories, helping people lose weight without feeling starved.
- They are high in nutrients. Heart disease has been linked to nutrient deficiencies, including a deficiency in vitamin C.
Things to Keep in Mind Before Following a Restrictive Diet
It’s important to note that foods like egg yolks and organ meats are often excluded from heart rehabilitation diets because they contain significant cholesterol. Full-fat dairy is likewise excluded because conventional full-fat dairy products have been found to raise cholesterol more than their low-fat counterparts. However, children and women of childbearing age are usually advised to include foods that contain fat-soluble vitamins (A, B, D, E, K) and heme iron in their diets to support healthy fetal development and prevent deficiencies.
If you are interested in adopting a restrictive diet, it’s important to plan out the diet with a nutritionist, taking into account your individual needs and level of risk. For example, you may not be sensitive to wholesome dietary cholesterol sources at all, or you might be sensitive but can still tolerate (non-fried) liver capsules for iron or eat traditional raw, fermented, or aged full-fat dairy products, which contain enzymes that help to break down the fats.
In any case, you can safely cut out soft drinks, fried food, candies, and pastries and replace them with more wholesome foods. “Junk” foods contain very little nutrition, and your heart (and waistline) will thank you.
Speaking of waistlines, exercise can dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease and heart-related deaths. Exercising for just 30 minutes, five days a week can improve your heart health in as little as a few weeks, and you’ll probably have more energy as well.
Ideally, an exercise program should include aerobic activity, weight-bearing exercises, and flexibility (stretches) to strengthen your body and reduce your risk of injuries. Pick something you enjoy, and find a partner to exercise with you to increase your motivation.
Smoking is known to damage the arteries and makes people 2 to 4 times more likely to develop heart disease. There are many effective methods of smoking cessation available, and your doctor can help you find a plan that’s workable for you.
Reduce Alcohol Consumption
Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to high blood pressure, heart failure, and stroke. Like smoking, alcohol abuse can be treated, and you’ll lower your risk of developing or worsening heart disease. According to the experts, a good limit is one standard drink per day for women and two standard drinks per day for men but ideally three standard drinks per week.
Stress has been linked to the onset of coronary heart disease and cardiac events. For many people, it can be surprising just how influential our thought patterns can be on our health. To reduce stress:
- Get out in nature.
- Exercise regularly.
- Limit screen time.
- Limit extra work hours (i.e. turn off your phone).
- Deal with toxic thought patterns.
- Deal with difficult relationships.
- Spend time with positive people
- Spend time with pets.
- Practice meditation or mindfulness.
Finally, while you start making changes and improving your health, it’s important to know the symptoms and how to respond to a heart attack or cardiac arrest.
Cardiac arrest—in particular—can happen even to healthy people, including athletes, and is fatal without an immediate response.
Taking a first aid and AED course and knowing where your nearest AEDs are located will give you and your loved ones the confidence to respond to a heart-related emergency.