When it comes to heart health, many supplements on the market today claim to help reduce heart disease risk, lower blood pressure, and improve high cholesterol. The problem is that there is limited evidence that dietary supplements can help manage heart health. Read below to learn if vitamins and supplements can prevent or treat heart disease, and if so, which ones work. We’ll also go over which supplements likely won’t work and which ones could cause harm to your health.
Can vitamins and supplements protect you from heart disease?
With so many supplements claiming to help heart health, you may wonder if any of them provide any benefit. There has been researching on the impact of many dietary supplements on cardiovascular health. However, the results are often not clear since people who are more likely to use dietary supplements are also more likely to have healthier diets and lifestyle behaviors.
More research is needed to confirm or deny the role that dietary supplements may play in heart health, if any. Until we know more, vitamins and supplements should only be taken under the supervision of a healthcare provider along with a heart-healthy lifestyle, and not as a primary treatment for heart health.
What does the science say?
Research shows that some supplements may lower the risk of heart disease, while others may cause harm to those with heart disease risk factors. And some supplements may not do harm but won’t provide much benefit for heart health either.
Supplements that likely won’t work
Read below to learn more about what supplements may benefit your heart health and which ones you should stay clear of.
What it is: Vitamin B6
The claim: Some suggest that a mild deficiency in vitamin B6 may lead to increased cardiovascular disease risk. The thought is that since vitamin B6 is needed to lower high levels homocysteine, an amino acid in the body that is associated with heart disease, that by replenishing your body with vitamin B6, you can reduce heart disease risk.
The evidence: The truth is that, overall, there is no evidence to support the role of vitamin B6 in reducing heart attack risk. And when it comes to vitamin B6 and stroke risk, the evidence is very limited to show that B6 helps.
The need-to-knows: Most adults and children consume enough vitamin B6 daily through food sources like fortified cereals, animal meats, seafood, and dairy products. And although vitamin B6 supplements are absorbed well in the body, most vitamin B6 leaves the body through the urine since it’s a water-soluble vitamin.
What it is: Coenzyme Q10
The claim: This is a substance that the body produces naturally and is found in the heart, liver, kidneys, and pancreas. Levels of coenzyme Q10 are sometimes lower in people with heart disease.
The evidence: Some studies using small numbers of patients link coenzyme Q10) with improvements in cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes blood sugar control. More evidence is needed to make a definite connection.
The need-to-knows: Coenzyme Q10 may help reduce the risk of some complications of heart surgery, but there is inconclusive proof that it helps improve heart disease in other ways. More research needs to be done to confirm any heart health benefits.
What it is: Antioxidants, such as Vitamin A, C, E, and selenium
The claim: Antioxidants are known to reduce oxidative stress, a process where molecules cause cell damage and can lead to different diseases. It is thought that antioxidant supplements may also reduce the risk of chronic diseases like atherosclerosis (hardening and thickening of arteries from plaque buildup), coronary heart disease, and diabetes.
The evidence: Although there is evidence that oxidative stress can impact heart health, antioxidant supplementation is not recommended for preventing heart disease.
The need-to-knows: Antioxidants are found in diets high in fruits and vegetables. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help decrease the risk of several diseases, including heart disease.
What it is: Daily multivitamin
The claim: A combination of essential vitamins and minerals can prevent the risk of heart attack, strokes, or cardiovascular death.
The evidence: There is no significant association between multivitamins and mineral supplements and a lower risk of heart disease.
The need-to-knows: If you consume a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, protein, healthy fats, and fiber-rich whole grains, then it’s not necessary to take a daily multivitamin. In fact, consuming too much of fat-soluble vitamins, which can be stored in the body, can cause more harm than good.
Supplements that might work
What it is: Omega-3 fatty acids
The claim: Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated fatty acids that may reduce inflammation in the body, in turn, preventing chronic disease risk from conditions like heart disease and stroke.
The evidence: Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower blood pressure. They are also thought to possibly reduce the risk of a heart attack, through omega-3 fatty acids’ ability to lower triglyceride levels and inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil have also been shown to reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death and repeat heart attack in patients who have had a heart attack.
The need-to-knows: Besides supplements, which the FDA does not regulate for quality and contents, you can consume adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids through foods such as fatty fish like salmon or trout, as well as walnuts and flaxseed. FDA-approved prescription medications that contain omega-3 fatty acids and are used to treat high triglyceride levels include Lovaza and Vascepa.
What it is: Folate (Vitamin B9)
The claim: Folate supplementation decreases stroke and heart attack risk.
The evidence: Overall, many high-quality studies have shown that folate supplementation can reduce stroke and cardiovascular disease risk. Some people with lower levels of folate and high levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that may damage the inner walls of arteries, may be at a higher risk of stroke. It is thought that folate may help reduce stroke risk by breaking down homocysteine.
The need-to-knows: Studies so far have shown heart health benefits of folate in people with low folate levels and no pre-existing heart disease. Therefore, more research is needed to study the effects of folate on heart disease risk in other study groups, such as people with heart disease.
What it is: Vitamin D
The claim: Individuals with low levels of vitamin D have an increased risk of heart attacks, stroke, and hypertension.
The evidence: Vitamin D supplementation has been found to decrease blood pressure, but only in people who had both high blood pressure and a vitamin D deficiency.
The need-to-knows: Vitamin D supplementation has not been shown to decrease blood pressure in people with normal vitamin D levels who also have high blood pressure. Vitamin D can increase calcium in the body and this may interfere with other heart medications that can also raise calcium, such as digoxin, diltiazem, verapamil, and hydrochlorothiazide.
What it is: Magnesium
The claim: Taking a magnesium supplement can help lower blood pressure.
The evidence: Oral magnesium supplements have been found to lower blood pressure in people with uncontrolled blood pressure while taking a blood pressure medication at the same time.
The need-to-knows: Magnesium has not been shown to effectively lower blood pressure in people who have their high blood pressure under control.
Supplements that could be dangerous
What it is: Red yeast rice
The claim: This supplement made of fermented rice lowers cholesterol levels due to a compound called monacolin K.
The evidence: Monacolin K is the same active ingredient found in cholesterol-lowering medications known as statins and can be effective in lowering cholesterol depending on the dosage.
The need-to-knows: Red yeast rice should not be taken along with cholesterol-lowering medications like statins since it could cause similar side effects as statins, like liver damage and muscle disorders. The FDA does not approve the sale of red yeast rice with more than trace amounts of monacolin K to be sold as a dietary supplement since it is considered to be an unapproved drug. Any drug sold in the U.S. has to go through rigorous testing, including testing long-term safety, and red yeast rice has not undergone this process. Not to mention that even though companies continue to sell red yeast rice supplements, the amounts of monacolin K in such products are not typically known, so it’s hard to determine if such products are effective, safe, or legal.
What it is: L-arginine
The claim: L-arginine converts into nitric oxide, which helps blood vessels relax and expand, resulting in lower blood pressure.
The evidence: There is some evidence that oral L-arginine may help lower blood pressure. However, these improvements could also be accomplished with diet, exercise, and stress management.
The need-to-knows: One study that tested the effects of L-arginine supplementation on heart function in people who had recently had their first heart attack was stopped early due to six deaths of participants taking l-arginine; no deaths occurred in the placebo group.
Since L-arginine can lower blood pressure, there is a chance of dangerously low blood pressure when taken with prescribed blood pressure medication. L-arginine has also been found to increase bleeding risk and potassium levels and can interfere with medications that do the same, such as blood thinners or potassium supplements, respectively.
What it is: Garlic supplements
The claim: Garlic extract supplements can lower blood pressure and regulate slightly elevated cholesterol levels.
The evidence: Garlic supplements have been found to reduce slightly elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol levels when taken for more than 2 months. Garlic may also lower high blood pressure.
The need-to-knows: Garlic, whether fresh or in pill form, can increase your risk of bleeding. This can be an even greater issue if someone is already taking blood thinners, such as Warfarin, Aspirin, or Plavix.
So, what will help my heart health?
If you want to improve your heart health, you can adopt several lifestyle behaviors to help. One has to do with changing your diet. Lowering sodium in the daily diet has shown to be an effective way to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. You can lower sodium in your diet by:
- Limiting your intake of high-sodium pre-packaged or processed foods like chips, salted pretzels, canned soups, and deli meats, or convenience foods like some frozen meal options and fast foods
- Using herbs and spices when cooking and preparing meals instead of adding salt
- Reducing intake of pre-prepared sauces, dressings, and marinades
Other lifestyle changes you can make to improve heart health include:
- Exercising regularly
- Not smoking
- Maintaining a healthy weight
Besides these lifestyle changes, be sure to visit your healthcare provider routinely to have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked. This is especially important if you have a personal or family history of heart disease.