Keeping your heart healthy is one of the best things you can do for your body, because heart health affects the health of other organs.

Tomisha Byard, a family nurse practitioner at Harbor of Health, says your primary care provider is the best place to start for preventing cardiovascular disease.

She helps patients by checking their cholesterol, blood pressure and weight and then recommending lifestyle changes that can help address any risk factors. She can also assist patients with medication and referrals to specialists as needed.

A healthy heart is essential for a healthy life, and the place to start for both is your primary care provider’s office.

Tomisha Byard, MSN, FNP-BC is a family nurse practitioner at Regional One Health’s Harbor of Health. She explained why cardiovascular health is so important for overall wellbeing.
“The heart pumps blood to all the other organs, so a healthy heart is important for our kidneys, our brains, etc.,” Byard said. “You need to protect your heart. In primary care, we’re all about prevention. Primary prevention – before you have any illness – is when we like people to start.”

Unfortunately, too many patients don’t see a doctor until the “tertiary prevention” stage. That means they have heart disease and want to keep it from worsening.

Knowing that – and that heart disease is a leading cause of death among Americans – Byard said February’s American Heart Month is a great reminder to work on your heart health. She offered insight into how a primary care provider can help.

“First, you should have a wellness visit to know where you stand,” she said. “We’ll check your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure, which all play a role in heart disease. We’ll also ask about your lifestyle and your family history of heart disease.”

That information helps Byard act as patients’ coach in achieving a healthier heart. She starts by suggesting lifestyle changes that address their risk factors.
She counsels any patient who smokes to quit.

Tomisha Byard sees patients at Harbor of Health. “You need to protect your heart,” she said. “In primary care, we’re all about prevention. Primary prevention – before you have any illness – is when we like people to start.”

“Smoking doesn’t just put you at risk for cancer, but heart disease as well,” she said. “There are so many chemicals that can lead to blockages that can cause heart attack or stroke.”

Eating healthier is also crucial. “Diet is huge,” Byard said. “You want to avoid fried, fattening foods and foods that are high in cholesterol and carbohydrates, like red meat, French fries, pasta and butter or margarine.”

She acknowledged that can be a challenge in a city known for its BBQ, fried chicken and fried catfish. However, there are plenty of tasty alternatives:

  • Grilled or baked salmon, chicken breast or turkey are great lean meats.
  • Healthy sides include sweet potatoes, asparagus, tomatoes and broccoli.
  • For breakfast, try oatmeal, yogurt, bananas, oranges and blueberries.
  • Nuts like almonds and walnuts make great heart-healthy snacks.

Byard said a reasonable amount of coffee is OK as long as your blood pressure is healthy. She implores patients to avoid energy drinks.

It’s also important to drink plenty of water. Byard said the old adage of “drink eight cups a day” isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

For healthy individuals who do not have pre-existing heart or kidney disease, she recommends dividing your body weight in half and aiming for that many ounces of water a day. For example, a 150-pound person should drink 75 ounces.

“If you’re larger, you need more water to truly hydrate your body,” she explained.

Byard also promotes exercise. That means a realistic routine that gets your heart rate up for 45-60 minutes three to five times a week. “People think, ‘I walk to my car, or I take the stairs,’ she said. “You want to exercise in addition to what you do in your daily life.”

Patients should always get their primary care provider’s approval before starting a new exercise routine. For patients who are healthy enough to exercise, she recommends cardio like the treadmill or elliptical machine – or walking or jogging outside.

Lifestyle changes, like exercising, eating healthy and quitting smoking, are the first line of defense against cardiovascular disease.

Finally, Byard said patients need to get plenty of sleep. Most adults need around 7-and-a-half hours per night. “Anything less than that can cause fatigue, which isn’t good for the heart,” she said. “It can also cause you to consume too much caffeine.”

Primary care providers can help patients who need more than lifestyle changes.

Your doctor might suggest medication. This can range from counseling patients over age 50 to take a baby aspirin daily to prescriptions for high cholesterol and blood pressure.

If a patient’s needs go beyond primary care, Byard connects them with a cardiologist or another specialist. These doctors can do further testing like an echocardiogram or stress test to determine the proper course of treatment.

Bottom line, Byard said patients should start with a visit to their primary care provider.

“We want to help. In primary care, it’s all about partnering with the patient,” she said. “We can’t come to your house to make sure you’re exercising and eating right. We’re the coach and the patient is the player – we can lead them in the right direction, but they have to do the hard work.”

For an appointment with Byard at Harbor of Health, 718 Harbor Bend Road, call 901-515-4200.