Special to the Recorder
While we think of summer as a time of rest and relaxation, your heart has to work harder than usual as we expose ourselves to the summer sun. Heat and humidity create extra strain on your heart, so it’s important to protect your circulatory system during this time of year, especially if you have heart disease. With a few simple precautions, though, you can stay heart-healthy while enjoying the outdoors.
The effects of heat on your heart
The main effects hot temperatures can have on the body are overheating and dehydration. When you’re exercising outside during the summer months, the heat and humidity make it harder for your heart to pump blood throughout the body and keep it cool. The body stays cool by relaxing a large network of tiny blood vessels in your skin to release heat from the body surface. As these blood vessels dilate, the blood pressure may drop to produce a fainting spell.
Moreover, as your heart strains to maintain your temperature, the body also begins producing sweat to help in the cooling process. The danger occurs when the body produces too much sweat, leading to dehydration and depleted salt levels.
When extreme stress is put on the heart, it can lead to serious heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Symptoms of these issues include dizziness, nausea, cramps and rapid heartbeat – and in some cases, they can be deadly. According to the CDC, about 300 Americans die every year from heat-related illnesses, and people with heart disease are an especially high-risk population.
Heart-healthy tips for the summer
The good news is heat-related illnesses are usually preventable by making a few lifestyle choices. The most important one is to help your body stay cool by hydrating. Drink plenty of water before, during and after being active outside. Try to avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine intake within a few hours of exercise, as they can accelerate dehydration.
Another important step is to stay inside during peak heat time, which is generally from noon to 3 p.m. While outdoor activities are generally safer during the morning or evening, you should always check the heat index first to make sure it’s safe to exercise outside. If a heat wave occurs, change any plans that involve being outdoors and head inside for activity, whether at the local recreation center or even in your own home. It’s particularly important for people with heart disease to monitor the weather so that they avoid putting extra strain on their bodies.
When you’re planning a trip to the beach, make sure to protect your family from the sun. Wear wide-brimmed hats, apply sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and reapply it every two hours. Children are not often aware of the signs of dehydration, so it’s important to make sure they are well protected and hydrated.
If you feel or notice someone experiencing the symptoms of a heat-related illness or a heart issue, act immediately. For heat exhaustion, move to a cool place, drink water and monitor the condition. For heat stroke and heart issues, call 911, as they could be life-threatening conditions.
With the right preparations, you can keep your heart healthy while enjoying a great summer filled with outdoor activities and plenty of sun.
Dr. Anthony Magnano is a Ponte Vedra resident and cardiac electrophysiologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside. For more information on Dr. Magnano and his specialty treating atrial fibrillation, visit AfibJax.com.