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?

  • Eat heart-healthy foods.
    • Eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and other high-fibre foods.
    • Eat lean proteins, such as seafood, lean meats, beans, nuts, and soy products.
    • Eat healthy fats, such as canola and olive oil.
    • Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, and avoid trans fat.
    • Limit sodium and alcohol.
    • Limit drinks and foods with added sugar.
  • Try to do moderate to vigorous activity at least 2½ hours a week.
  • If you smoke, quit. 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. Lose weight if you need to.
  • Manage other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

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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