The holidays are not just the most wonderful time of the year, but also are unfortunately the unhealthiest time of the year for heart health, says a cardiologist who has advice for getting through the season intact, and even healthier than ever. Heart attacks spike 5 percent during the holiday season, in what doctors believe are stress-related events. Between holiday cookies, fatty foods and the stress of traveling to see loved ones and getting your shopping done on time, staying heart-healthy can take a back seat. Don't let it, says this cardiologist. Staying healthy now is easier than you think with three simple strategies.

Dr. Satjit Bhusri, MD, Founder of Upper East Side Cardiology, wants you to be less stressed, and focus on how to be heart-healthier (now and for years to come), by doing three simple things, every day for de-stressing and building a strong heart. He should know, since at one point he wasn't just a doctor but also a patient, his heart failing to the point of being on a list for a heart transplant. Luckily he never needed that, and over time he built back his own health with these three lifestyle approaches, and he wants you to understand the importance of taking care of yourself by doing the little things that add up and have a big impact on your health and longevity.

To contextualize this advice, first, let's go back to a moment when it all came crashing down for Dr. Bhusri, and he suffered a near-fatal heart infection, which caused his heart to stop beating blood to the body and brain and landed him in a coma with near-complete heart failure. He learned, day by day, how to rebuild a strong heart, and now wants to spread the word that these same techniques can work for you, even if you are heart-healthy, you may be over-stressing your heart and your health on a daily basis. Here's how to fix it.

Dr. Bhusri's advice to help you get through the holidays healthier starts with his own story. Adopt his three simple strategies to counteract the health consequences of stress, for a more enjoyable and heart-healthy stress-free holiday starting today.

How did this newfound heart health journey start?

Dr. Bhusri: "It all started with my own health. In July 2015 I had what is called full heart failure. My heart was so weak it was not pumping any blood to my body and my brain. it was likely due to an infection that I picked up somewhere along the way. Sometimes you get an infection and it goes to your throat or stomach, and sometimes it goes to your heart. It went to my heart muscle. Which could have been fatal. This usually is due to a virus and not due to the genetic underlying cause, but you can have a predisposition to be susceptible to virus.

"That July I started having fevers and I thought I had pneumonia. I actually stopped breathing and went into a coma -- they put me into a medically induced coma for a month. It was quite touch-and-go and I was on a list waiting for a transplant. and fortunately, my heart got slightly better and slightly stronger, and I was able to go home and start on oral meds instead of a drip and I was able to start cardiac rehab therapy.

"Once the infection was under control, I then blood clots led to a secondary infection in my right hand and I almost lost my hand. I had to have surgery and they saved it. But essentially now, several years later, I am healthy and my heart pump is basically back to normal. So how did I do it? There are three keys to building a healthy heart, and right now, during the holidays, is a perfect time to start:

1. Daily Rigorous Exercise: HIIT workouts make your heart get stronger

Dr. Bhusri: When I had a failing heart, fortunately, it got stronger and I was able to start cardio-rehab-therapy, which is basically aggressive exercise. I tell my patients you can't just do something gentle, although walking is great for you. To build a bigger engine, you have to do something to make your heart really work, like High-Intensity Interval Training, known as HIIT.

All exercise is worth doing, but to improve your heart, high-intensity interval training is the more evidence-based way to go. It's been studied that for improving your cardiovascular performance do something really hard, like sprint for ten seconds and then stop and walk for two minutes and you do it again. Keep doing it again and again till you can't.

That means exertion to the point of not being able to sustain it, in short bursts of activity. Think of calisthenics like a boot camp class where you do jumps or burpees, something hard for 20 seconds to a minute, and then relax and recover for the same interval and do it again. Of course, it goes without saying that you need to check with your doctor first and make sure you are healthy enough to put this type of stress on your heart, but if you are, this is how to make that muscle stronger.

2. Go on a plant-based diet. Eat foods high in Omega 3s. Eat to 80% full, then stop

Dr. Bhusri: I switched to a completely plant-based diet. When you have heart issues or want to get healthier, eat foods that are high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which are the healthy fats that help your body burn fuel efficiently, without storing calories as fat. Also, look for foods that are high in antioxidants, and often these are the same types of foods: Nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables, and other plant-based sources. Vegan sources of Omega 3s that are high in nutrients include chia seeds, seaweed and algae, walnuts, hemp seeds, kidney beans, edamame, and soybean oil.

I wasn't obese and I didn't have diabetes. I was 35 when it happened and otherwise physically fit. and I knew that I was only going to get older. The last thing I needed, as I recovered from my heart failure, was inflammatory agents in my body.

Plant-based diets are healthier but most people don't want to change their lifestyle unless they have to. It's easier to take a pill. It's hard to change your lifestyle. But you have to understand what type of nutrients you are eating and how they affect your body and your heart.

We have to get back to basics. We are the same humans we were 10,000 years ago. We have not changed. The society around us has changed. The Japanese don't have heart disease. Their society does not promote butter and salt and sugar.

In America, food is addictive. They call the Ritz Cracker the perfect mixture. It is the perfect mix of salty and sweet so that although you're full you still want more. That is what the industry wants ... is to have food become addictive. Food is fuel, it's not your blanket or your therapist.

The Japanese also have a saying: Eat up 80 percent full. If you eat to 80 of fullness and then stop you will never overeat. Keeping your calories and weight under control is heart-healthy. Try that this holiday season. Don't stuff yourself.

3. Practice Mindfulness, learn to "let go" of the stress in your body

Dr. Bhusri:  Being heart-healthy means taking care of your stress, and learning to let go of it, mentally and physically. The way to do this is to practice mindfulness every morning so that your thought process gets trained to focus on the positive aspects of your day and your life and not the things that are causing you stress, whether it's your to-do list or the world at large.

There is an incredibly strong mind-heart relationship. The vagus nerve connects your brain to your breathing and is directly wired to your heart. This nerve attaches to the brain and then travels down your body and wires your brain to every organ at every level, including your heart and the gut. That is also your relaxation nerve, which tells your heart to beat slower and redirect blood to other areas when you are relaxed. So you can control exactly where your heart sends blood, just through your thoughts. This is a powerful idea since instead of feeling like a victim of stress, you can control it. But you have to choose to do so.

Being mindful of your stress is the first step. When there are stressors in life, what we are going through in society right now, with a global pandemic, or your list of everything you want to accomplish today, just thinking about it means that our body starts revving up, and when it revs up it starts causing more cortisol to get released into the brain and that signals the body that you are under stress. Your heart and organs go into "stress" mode and that causes more calcium to be released, which creates plaque in the arteries, which is heart disease.

Emotional stress is what we call broken heart syndrome and it's real. I have people come into my office with broken heart syndrome after their mother passed away but anything can cause it. A loss of any kind. I have seen patients collapse out of nowhere from broken heart syndrome. The heart just fails. So instead I tell patients to practice mindfulness of what they are grateful for, the antidote to broken heart syndrome is mindfulness.

There is a scientific approach to using mindfulness in medicine. The way we do this at home we get into a place that is peaceful and you can use a YouTube video that will guide you, or you can choose to focus on breathing or something else. But while this sounds like meditation it is not the same, since it's about focusing on the breath, clearing the mind, and meditating. In mindfulness, you actively focus on something else. You can practice taking your stress and letting it go. Some people do this so well, Buddhist monks, for instance, that they slow their hearts down to the point where you can't even feel it beating.

Mindfulness is about being self-aware. Everything that does not require a pill takes time. The more you practice it, the more you get deeper and deeper into it, until you are in a state where you are not awake or asleep. it's a different state of consciousness. And you start looking forward to it. Everyone has an image that comes out to them. In that state for me, I am alone on a beach with blue skies and clear waters. Sometimes people have a different impression of themselves in that state. For some reason, my body is that of a lion. My spirit animal! But if you ask my wife,  she will say this is not what she gets out of it. Mindfulness is not about getting. It's how you experience it.

For my patients, who do all three–exercise, plant-based diet, and mindfulness–I have actively taken them off medication. It's the whole package. And it shows that the best medicine is a healthy lifestyle.


ImageAbout Satjit Bhusri, MD, FACC, Founder of Upper East Side Cardiology.Dr. Bhusri completed all of his advanced medical training at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side of NYC. During his tenure he served as the Ira Hoffman, MD Chief Medical Resident, was President of the House Officer Association and served as Chief Cardiac Fellow.Dr. Bhusri graduated from Cornell University