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It is sobering news for women that they now not only suffer equal rates of heart disease as men, but are more likely to die from their heart attacks.

It is sobering news for women that they now not only suffer equal rates of heart disease as men, but are more likely to die from their heart attacks.

However, by changing their approach to cardiac health, women and men can rejuvenate their cardiovascular systems and dramatically reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke.

Certain flavonoids antioxidants found in specific fruits, tea, and wine can naturally prevent blood clots, strengthen and tone the vascular system, reduce high blood pressure, lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and prevent its oxidation.

The Healing Power of Flavonoids

To many people, preventing heart disease means popping an aspirin every day. However, latest research suggests that along with other dietary and lifestyle factors, flavonoids in the diet may help to prevent heart disease.

Heart attacks occur when blood clots stick to fatty deposits on the walls of the heart's arteries, blocking the supply of blood. Therefore it is important to take steps to prevent excessive blood platelet stickiness.

Like aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid or ASA), certain flavonoids thin the blood by reducing blood platelet stickiness, and also have noted anti-inflammatory properties. Particularly beneficial flavonoids include colour pigments called anthocyanins and related compounds called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPC), both powerful antioxidants. Both are found in berries, grapes, and flowers, but OPC are most concentrated in seeds and barks. Our ancestors consumed far more of these flavonoids than we do today.

ASA is known to cause ulcers, however anthocyanins and OPC have been shown to prevent ulcers and gastrointestinal hemorrhage by stimulating the production of mucous that protects the stomach lining from digestive acids.

Leading American heart specialist, Dr. Jonathon Folts of the Madison Medical School in Wisconsin the doctor who first recommended people take an aspirin a day to prevent heart attacks now believes flavonoids from grapes and berries may be better than taking ASA tablets for thinning the blood, and preventing coronary artery disease.

Dr. Folts presented his findings in 1997 at a conference of the American College of Cardiology. Experimenting on 17 volunteers, including himself, Dr. Folts found that both aspirin and red wine slowed the activity of blood platelets by about 45 percent, while drinking one glass (270 mL to 360 mL) of ordinary purple grape juice slowed them by about 75 percent.

In 2000, Dr. Folts conducted research published in the Journal of Nutrition comparing the heart health benefits of purple grape juice with orange juice and grapefruit juice, and came to the conclusion that grape juice is far better, at least for the heart. While grapefruits and oranges also contain plenty of flavonoids, they have different properties and the juices have no effect on platelet stickiness.

Dr. Folts found that when people drink purple grape juice once a day, the benefits linger, and even after they stop drinking it for two days, their platelets remain sluggish. "It appears to be around-the-clock protection," he said. "This is important because many people suffer heart attacks in the morning before they have time to take medication."

While Dr. Folts recommends drinking grape juice as part of a healthy diet, he maintains that people should not necessarily stop taking aspirin or other heart medication just because they are drinking grape juice. He also argues that taking standardized flavonoid extracts may be a better option than drinking grape juice or wine in order to avoid sugar and alcohol.

Cranberries also contain anthocyanins and OPC that are good for the heart. In 1998, Ted Wilson from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse published research results in Life Science showing that cranberry juice has as much antioxidant potential as red wine. Wilson decided to conduct his experiments after realizing that cranberries share the dark colouring of grapes, a sign that they have a similar chemical makeup.

The anti-ulcer benefits of cranberries have also been touted. Many stomach ulcers are caused by infection by Helicobacter pylori bacteria, and research presented during the Houston Food Chemistry Conference in 2000 showed that cranberry had a potent anti-adhesive effect on H. pylori.

Treating Varicose Veins

Of course, good circulation is fundamental to overall cardiovascular health. Poor circulation can lead to blood clots and embolisms. In France, OPC and anthocyanins are considered top nutrients for treating varicose veins. Studies have shown that these flavonoids can actually strengthen veins and restore their elasticity, making varicose veins retract into position.

Jean Carper, author of Miracle Cures, espouses the benefits of grape seed OPC for treating circulatory problems. Her chapter on grape seed outlines a scientific review published in 1995 by Italian researchers on nine clinical trials confirming the efficacy of OPC for treating varicose veins. For instance, one double-blind study of 50 patients with varicose veins showed that 150mg of grape seed OPC daily was more effective than the commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drug Diosmine in reducing pain, sensations of burning, tingling, and the degree of distention of veins. All symptoms improved within 30 days.

The best way to avoid dangerous blood clots may be to assure good circulation right down to the smallest blood vessels and capillaries. French researcher Dr. Jacques Masquelier, who discovered and named the OPC concentrated in peanut skins and grape seeds more than 50 years ago, has a US patent for OPC-85TM grape seed extract. He tested his extract double-blind on a group of elderly people with fragile capillaries and found 79 percent had significant improvements after two weeks with only 100 to150mg per day.

Women and Heart Health

According to Health Canada, cardiovascular disease accounts for 40 percent of Canadian women's deaths, making it the major cause of death and disability among women.

Two out of three women have one or more of the major risk factors for heart disease smoking, high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol, high stress levels, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes.

Thirteen percent of Canadian women have high blood pressure, and 45 percent have elevated blood cholesterol.

In 1996, 26 percent of women aged 15 and over smoked. Forty-eight percent of women smokers aged 18 to 24, and 23 percent aged 25 to 34 also take oral contraceptives, thus significantly increasing their risk of cardiovascular disease.

Some women may experience different heart disease symptoms than men, including indigestion-like discomfort, vague chest pain, nausea or back pain. However, 70 percent of women experience similar heart attack symptoms as men, such as sudden strong crushing chest pain, and shortness of breath.

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