Learning About How the Heart Works

Blood flow in the heart

What does your heart do?

Your heart pumps blood to the rest of your body through blood vessels. Blood carries oxygen and other important nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy and to work properly.

Your heart is a muscle with four chambers, and valves between each chamber.

  • The chambers on the right side of your heart receive blood without oxygen in it from your veins and pump it to your lungs. In your lungs, the blood picks up oxygen and gets rid of carbon dioxide.
  • The chambers on the left side of your heart receive oxygen-rich blood from your lungs and pump it to the rest of your body.

Your heart has its own electrical system that controls how fast and regular your heart beats. The electrical system sends signals to the heart chambers to contract (pump blood out) and relax in a set rhythm.

What problems can happen with your heart?

Problems with the heart may include:

  • Heart failure. This means that your heart is not pumping as well as it should.
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD happens when fats build up in the arteries that bring oxygen-rich blood to your heart. The buildup reduces the amount of blood that gets to your heart. It can cause angina symptoms such as chest pain or pressure. It can lead to a heart attack.
  • Heart rhythm and heart rate problems. Your heart may beat in an irregular pattern or too fast or too slow.
  • Heart valve problems. Blood may leak through a valve or have trouble getting through a valve.

How can you keep your heart healthy?

  • Stay at a healthy weight, and eat heart-healthy foods.
    • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other high-fibre foods.
    • Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
    • Limit salt (sodium).
    • Eat lean proteins. Heart-healthy proteins include seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
    • Limit drinks and foods with added sugar.
  • Get at least 2½ hours of exercise a week. Walking is a good choice. You also may want to do other activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis or team sports.
  • If you smoke, quit. It may be the best thing you can do to prevent heart disease. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Stay at a healthy weight by balancing the calories you eat with your physical activity.
  • Limit alcohol to 3 drinks a day for men and 2 drinks a day for women.
  • Manage stress. Stress can hurt your heart. Keep stress low by talking about your problems and feelings, rather than keeping your feelings hidden. Try different ways to reduce stress, such as exercise, deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
  • Manage cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes, if you need to. Follow your doctor's instructions.

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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