Learning About How the Heart Works

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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. These foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, lean meat, fish, and whole grains. Limit things that are not so good for your heart, like sodium, alcohol, and sugar.
  • Be active. Talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program. Your doctor can help you know what amount and level of activity is safe for you. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.
  • 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. Lose weight if you need to.
  • Manage other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use, talk to your doctor.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.