Keeping cool when the heat is on
The hottest days of summer are upon us. Depending on where you live, you may be seeing temperatures in excess of 100°F! While most of us can withstand the heat for short periods of time with our natural bodily cooling mechanisms like sweating and evaporation, for some with cardiac conditions this time of year can be particularly challenging to heart health. Medications for heart conditions or a heart which is functioning at an impaired level can lead to heat induced complications. Here are five ways to be cool this summer:
Water is your best bet for quenching your thirst, regardless of what those commercials for sodas, sports drinks, juices, and beer tell you! Drinking water keeps you hydrated without the extra calories from sugars, harmful chemicals from artificial sweeteners, or the dehydrating effects of caffeine added to other beverages. Think about it – the adult human body, on average, is about 60% water. It is the one almost universal necessity for most life forms on the planet.
Why is this especially crucial for those with heart conditions? When your heart is not functioning at full capacity, or is being slowed by medications such as beta blockers, its ability to pump enough blood to the skin to produce sweat diminishes. Without sweat on your skin, there is no evaporation to facilitate cooling. When adequately hydrated, your body is better able to regulate its temperature, taking strain off your heart. Ask your doctor how much water he recommends you take in every day, as too much water can also be an issue depending on your medications and particular heart condition.
In fact, the recent emphasis on drinking more water has caused an increase in a condition known as hyponatremia. In a nutshell, if you drink more water than your kidneys can handle, the electrolyte concentration in your blood becomes diluted and your sodium levels drop dangerously. Extreme sports enthusiasts who drink water constantly (especially marathon runners) have succumbed to this condition which has a range of unpleasant symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, headache, confusion, fatigue, irritability, muscle weakness, cramps and, in the worst cases, seizures, coma, and death.
Water is beneficial in ways other than simple hydration as well. It can help cool you if you have difficulty sweating due to medications by placing a cool, moist towel under the arms, on your wrists, on the back of your neck or in the groin area. A cool bath or shower can also help bring body temperature down.
- Cool Air
The reason we feel most uncomfortable in hot humid weather is because once the humidity in the air reaches levels over 75%, it becomes more difficult for the sweat on our skin to evaporate and it gets harder to effectively cool ourselves. Air conditioning works in two ways – one, it (obviously) cools the air; and two, it dries the air. If you do not have air conditioning at your home, find someplace that does – especially in extreme heat with high humidity during peak heat hours of the day (typically from noon until 3 p.m.) Movie theaters, malls, grocery stores, the library, or a friend’s house with air conditioning are just a few options. Some communities offer “cooling stations” – businesses or community centers which are air conditioned and open to the public to come in and escape the extreme heat. Some are even staffed with medical personnel.
Fans are a good last-ditch effort, but they only work to a certain extent, especially once the air temperature is higher than body temperature. You may be moving the air and helping with evaporation to a degree, but fans generally do little but blow hot air around once the thermometer tops 100°. Fans are effective at helping to circulate air conditioned air, however, and can help move cool air around a home, especially if you are using a window unit.
- Change of Routine
Many of us look forward to the summer months when we can get outdoors and exercise, work in our garden or enjoy other outdoor activities. If you typically do these activities in the afternoon during spring and fall, switching to early morning or late evening routines in the summer, when the sun is not at its strongest, is your best choice. Avoid being out between noon and 3 pm if you can. The sun comes up sooner and hangs around longer so you have plenty of hours in the day. Oh, and use sunscreen! Always! Wear a hat and sunglasses for further protection.
Don’t push yourself. Take frequent breaks if you find yourself becoming fatigued or short of breath and get another drink of water while you rest!
- Buddy Up and Check Up!
If you go out in the heat, take a friend and make sure your cell phone is charged and you are carrying enough water for both of you, especially if you plan to do something you are not normally used to doing. Too many times we overdo it, especially when trying something new. Days over 100° are generally not the best times to take up a new sport, so stick to activities you are confident you can do comfortably and take your time! If you can’t take someone with you, make sure someone knows what you are doing, where you are going and when to expect you back.
Maybe it’s not you who has difficulty in the heat, but a friend or family member. Elderly folks tend to have a harder time coping with the heat and, with many on fixed incomes, they are afraid to spend the extra money to run their air conditioning. Check in on them regularly! Make sure they are eating and drinking properly, taking the medications they need to take, and staying cool.
- Keep It Light!
Heavy, protein-laden meals require more blood to digest. Have you ever noticed your heart pounding a little harder after a big steak dinner? By eating smaller, lighter meals more frequently, and including foods heavy on water content like juicy fruits (oranges, pineapple, melon, and berries are good choices) and crisp vegetables (cucumbers, celery, lettuces, bell peppers and tomatoes all contain more than 90% water), you will give your heart a break and stay hydrated. If you are exercising or working in the heat, try foods rich in potassium to prevent cramping – bananas, tomatoes, lima beans, and sweet potatoes fit the bill nicely.
Light also applies to clothing. Lightweight loose fabrics such as cotton and linen allow sweat to evaporate more easily and lightly colored clothing reflects heat rather than absorbing it. Avoid dark, heavy synthetic materials and tight clothing for maximum comfort and cooling efficiency.
The bottom line is to know your limits, talk with your doctor about recommendations based on your particular medications and condition, listen to what your body is telling you, and use common sense when temperatures reach extreme levels. Be cool!