Nelsan Ellis’ Death: We Are Beyond Words, but Let’s Try to Understand What Happened

Heart health

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

Fans around the world were shocked and deeply saddened by the recent death of actor Nelsan Ellis. He was well known for playing the breakthrough role of a gay Black man named Lafayette Reynolds on the HBO series “True Blood.”

He died of heart failure. He was only 39-years-old.

At first, reports did not reveal the cause of his heart failure, but his father bravely shared what exactly took his son’s life.

The statement from Ellis’ manager says, “Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own. According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.”

It breaks my heart to see another young life lost. Ellis tried to save himself, but his heart could not handle the stress and damage even though he was young and appeared healthy, as a vibrant actor starring in shows and movies and walking red carpets.

Your heart is a strong muscle that is responsible for tons of electric activity that keeps you alive, but you have to protect it and maintain its strength.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), any condition that damages or overworks the heart muscle can potentially lead to heart failure. Some of these conditions include coronary heart disease (when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries), diabetes and high blood pressure.

Certain lifestyle behaviors, like drug and alcohol abuse, may also eventually lead to a damaged heart and heart failure.

As the heart weakens, it may not be able to fill up with blood or pump blood as well as a strong heart. On top of that, with a weak or improperly functioning heart, certain proteins and substances that have a toxic effect may be released into the blood and cause damage to the body.

I think there are two big misconceptions about heart failure.

The first is that it happens suddenly and out of nowhere, like a bolt of lightning. It is actually the exact opposite.

“Although the term ‘heart failure’ conjures up the catastrophe of a suddenly lifeless heart, the condition is better described as a gradual decline in the heart's ability to pump,” says Harvard Health.

The second misconception is heart failure only happens to old people. With the story of Ellis, we see this is simply not true. And although he abused alcohol and drugs, we hear stories all of the time about young people with high blood pressure and diabetes, which also have the potential to lead to heart failure.

Some ways we can be proactive?

Avoid drugs and if you drink alcohol, drink it in moderation. To know how much is too much, click here. Monitor your blood pressure, and be proactive about diabetes. To learn about the signs and symptoms of heart failure, click here. Make sure to also exercise. Exercise helps keep the heart healthy and strong. If you are older and maybe concerned about doing rigorous workouts, golf is a great heart-friendly workout for all age groups. 

Like with many illnesses and conditions, we can be proactive through diet and making sure our bodies have adequate amounts of certain nutrients on a daily basis. A few minerals that may help protect your heart and prevent some of the conditions that may lead to heart failure include:

  • Magnesium & Calcium. These minerals’ importance for the heart can’t be overstated, and they work together hand-in-hand. Magnesium influences heart muscle energy production, keeps calcium levels balanced, loosens up tight blood vessels, reduces inflammation (which is key in helping prevent an array of diseases, including cancer) and keeps the electrical activity in the heart behaving properly. Think of calcium as “Fire” and magnesium as “Hold your fire!” in the heart. Low magnesium has actually been found to lead to worse outcomes in patients with heart disease and higher risk of irregular heartbeat. Magnesium is also widely regarded for its muscle-relaxing properties, which may help people with high blood pressure. Low calcium levels can also cause electrical abnormalities in the heart. To find out which foods contain magnesium and how much you need, click here. For information on calcium, click here.
  • Sodium & Potassium. If you have high blood pressure, your doctor has probably told you to cut back on salty foods. Reducing your sodium intake can help lower high blood pressure. What your doctor may not have told you is that a good balance of sodium and potassium can also help to reduce blood pressure. Studies show that the sodium/potassium ratio intake should be less than 1. Unfortunately, only 12 percent of the U.S. population has this adequate ratio. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum daily intake of 1,500 mg of sodium, but in reality 99.8 percent of the population consumes much more. Avoid processed foods, which tend to have alarming amounts of sodium per serving. For more information on how to get potassium in your daily diet, click here.

Remember, healthy food is medicine, and many of the conditions we see taking the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds may be prevented by a change in lifestyle.    

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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