Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in America. An estimated 81 million American adults, or more than 1 in 3, have one or more types of cardiovascular disease, including:
- high blood pressure,
- atherosclerosis (build up of cholesterol, fat, and fibrous tissue in the walls of the arteries),
- coronary heart disease – narrowing of the arteries to the heart muscle, reducing blood supply to the heart, and resulting in angina pectoris (chest pain) and myocardial infarction (heart attack),
- heart failure, and
- stroke (interruption of blood supply to the brain).
For more than two decades, cholesterol has been vilified as the culprit for heart disease. You have been told by doctors and the media to keep your cholesterol as low as possible. Consequently, a low-fat diet is endorsed and foods like eggs and animal (saturated) fats that are high in cholesterol are banished.
In reality, cholesterol is vital for your body. It is found not only in your bloodstream, but also in every cell in your body, where it helps to produce cell membranes, hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids for fat digestion. Moreover, cholesterol is essential for your memory and brain function.
Eating foods high in cholesterol does not simply translate to high blood cholesterol. In reality, one of cholesterol’s roles is to repair injuries. When the liver receives signals that there is damage in the lining of the arteries, it transports cholesterol to the area to do the repair work. High levels of cholesterol often indicate that you have sustained much damage.
So what causes damage in the lining of arteries in the first place? Latest research shows that insulin and leptin resistance are the strong causal link to such damage leading to cardiovascular disease. Insulin and leptin resistance is the result of eating too much sugar and refined carbs over an extended period of time.
In this case, how come so many doctors are still prescribing cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) to their patients? What are the side effects of statins and are they truly effective in lowering your risk of heart disease? Read on to learn more.
High blood cholesterol does not necessarily mean that you have a higher risk of heart disease. Find out how to assess your heart disease risk from your blood test results.
Finally, like other degenerative diseases, cardiovascular disease is mostly preventable by good dietary and lifestyle habits. Learn ways to naturally lower your risk of heart disease.
Is cholesterol The Cause Of Heart Disease?
75% of the cholesterol in your bloodstream comes from what your liver is manufacturing and distributing. That’s why the cholesterol that you eat plays little role in determining your cholesterol levels in the blood.
The cholesterol that’s being made by the liver and deposited in your arteries is called LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), and the cholesterol that’s being taken away from the arteries back to the liver is called HDL (the “good” cholesterol). The reason cholesterol is taken back to the liver is that it can be conserved and recycled for future use.
One function of cholesterol is to keep your cell membranes from falling apart; it acts like a super glue. When the lining of your arteries are damaged, inflammation occurs, just like when you cut your finger. The liver is notified to send cholesterol to the damaged site to do repair work. This is a deliberate process that takes place in order for your body to produce new, healthy cells.
A common problem is that there is damage occurring in your body on a regular basis. In this case, you have chronic inflammation, which leads to accumulation of cholesterol in your arteries (called plaque) and an increased risk for high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Hundreds of scientific studies have now linked insulin and leptin resistance, caused by eating too much sugar and white carbs, to damage in the lining of arteries and cardiovascular disease. That’s why people with diabetes (a disease characterized by insulin and leptin resistance) have a much higher risk of heart disease than people with normal blood sugar levels.
To make things worse, insulin and leptin resistance also result in a greater number of small, dense LDL cholesterol (as opposed to bigger and less dense LDL) which can squeeze between the cell lining inside the arteries and get stuck, potentially oxidize (turn rancid), and cause more inflammation and plaque formation.
Are Statins The Cure For Heart Disease?
If you have high cholesterol, it means that you have chronic inflammation in the body. The cholesterol is there to help your body heal and repair.
By taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, yes, you are lowering your cholesterol levels and reducing plaque buildup in your arteries but you are not addressing why your body needs to produce the extra cholesterol in the first place. Besides, with less cholesterol to do the repair work, how do you heal the damage in the lining of the arteries?
Statin drugs have proliferated in the market. In America, it is the second most common class of medications prescribed, after antidepressants. Many doctors prescribe them to lower their patients’ cholesterol, not understanding that they are only dealing with the symptoms but not the underlying disease.
In addition, they are exposing their patients to a series of major side effects, including:
- muscle and tendon problems,
- cognitive impairment, including memory loss,
- depressed immune function,
- pancreas or liver dysfunction,
- sexual dysfunction, and
Statins also lower your CoQ10, which is an antioxidant that mops up free radicals and a biochemical that transfers energy from food to your cells to be used for the work of staying alive and healthy. Statins, by blocking the pathway involved in cholesterol production, also blocks the same pathway by which CoQ10 is produced.
The loss of CoQ10 leads to loss of cell energy and increased free radicals which further damage your DNA and accelerate aging. The heart is usually the first to feel the statin-associated CoQ10 depletion because of its extremely high energy demands. The longer you are on the drug, the more complications you may have. These can range from chronic fatigue to cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease) and congestive heart failure.
Hence, if you are on statins, you need to supplement with CoQ10. If you are over 40, you should take the reduced version called ubiquinol as your body is less efficient in converting it. Unfortunately, most doctors don’t tell you this.
Given all these unpleasant side effects, are statins really effective in lowering your risk of heart disease? Many studies show that the result is inconclusive for people who have not had a heart attack.
Even BusinessWeek did a story on this topic in the January 17, 2008 issue. It reports that in Pfizer’s own newspaper ad for Lipitor, the drug company boasts that Lipitor reduces heart attacks by 36%. But there is an asterisk next to it and in smaller print underneath, it says: “In a large clinical study, 3% of patients taking a sugar pill or placebo had a heart attack compared to 2% of patients taking Lipitor.”
What this means is that for every 100 people who took Lipitor over the test period, 3 people
who were on placebos had heart attacks, versus 2 people on Lipitor. Not a significant achievement to brag about!
Other studies on Zetia and Vytorin (which is a combination of Zetia and Zocor) also fail to show that the drugs reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes.
Therefore, unless you have already had a heart attack, were born with a genetic defect called familial hypercholesterolemia, or are high in heart disease risk factors (see below), you should carefully weigh the risks and benefits before taking statins.
Alternatively, you may consider taking niacin (vitamin B3) to raise your HDL, and lower small, dense LDL and triglycerides (fats in blood). The major side effect of high-dose niacin is flushing of the skin and itching. Unfortunately, the non-flush niacin that’s available in the market seems to be ineffective for this purpose.
Make sure the niacin is nicotinic acid and not other related forms as they are not as effective. Start with 500 mg of sustained release niacin every other day and slowly work up to 2 grams per day to minimize side effects such as upset stomach, headache, and dizziness.
Take niacin with a big meal like dinner and 2 glasses of water to reduce the hot flush. Sometimes, it is necessary to take an uncoated aspirin 30 minutes before taking the niacin. Also, don’t drink alcohol or hot fluids around the time of the dose.
Do not take niacin if you have chronic liver disease, diabetes, or peptic ulcer. Always consult with your physician before taking high-dose niacin.
How To Assess Your Risk Of Heart Disease
Except for people whose total cholesterol is 340 or higher, your cholesterol number is not necessarily the most accurate measure of heart disease risk. The following are indicators from your blood test results that provide a better assessment of your risk:
- HDL/Total Cholesterol – ideally, this ratio should be above 0.24.
- Triglyceride/HDL – ideally, this ratio should be below 2.Triglycerides tend to rise from eating too much sugar and refined carbs, being physically inactive, smoking, excessive drinking, and being overweight or obese. Elevated levels increase heart disease risk.
- Small, dense LDL – a high number is linked to a higher risk.
- Homocysteine – too much of this amino acid in the blood is associated with buildup of plaque in arteries and tendency to form clots.
- C-Reactive Protein (CRP) – a marker for chronic inflammation in the body.
Small, dense LDL, homocysteine, and CRP are not part of your typical blood cholesterol tests. You have to specifically request for these additional tests.
Please note that some people with high cholesterol may not have a high risk of heart disease and should definitely not be taking statins. On the other hand, some people with low cholesterol are actually at risk for heart disease. The next section discusses ways to prevent heart disease through heart-healthy dietary and lifestyle habits.
How To Naturally Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease
The goal here is not to reduce your cholesterol as low as it can go because cholesterol, as explained, serves some very important functions in the body. Rather, you want to avoid chronic inflammation which raises your risk of heart disease as well as many other degenerative diseases.
- Optimize your insulin levels. 75% of your cholesterol is produced by your liver, which in turn, is influenced by your insulin levels. Sugar, through a process called glycation, causes damage in the lining of your arteries. Therefore, if your HDL/Total Cholesterol ratio is too low, your should aim to eliminate sugar, fruits, and grains from your diet. Then, gradually reintroduce a small amount of fruits and whole grains when your cholesterol improves.
- Make sure you get plenty of high quality, mercury-free fish oil. It contains omega-3 fats which help cut down inflammation, lower your total cholesterol and trigylcerides and increase your HDL cholesterol. Studies show that fish omega-3 is just as effective as low-dose aspirin in preventing heart disease, without any long-term side effects of the drug.
- Avoid oxidized fats or trans fats. Stay away from refined vegetable oils which are high in polyunsaturated fats. These fats are easily damaged and oxidized during high heat processing or cooking. Oxidized fats are characterized by the presence of free radicals that cause inflammation in the body. Do not use canola, corn, soy, safflower, or sunflower oils. Be aware that they are commonly used in fast foods, restaurants, and processed foods.
- Avoid charring your meats.
- Eat right for your Metabolic Type. Protein types tend to require more fat and protein (in particular, red and dark meats) and less carbs than the Mixed and Carb types. By eating the right proportions of fat, protein, and carbs for your body, it will be like giving an engine the right mix of fuel to run in the most efficient manner. If you want to find out your Metabolic Type and the best foods for your specific body, please contact me.
- Heart-healthy fats include olive oil, coconut oil, organic dairy products (butter, cream, cheese, etc.), organic free-range eggs, avocados, raw nuts and seeds, and organic grass-fed meats.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels at 50-70 ng/ml. Research studies find that vitamin D deficiency is associated with stiffening of the arteries, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
- Reduce your homocysteine levels. Folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and choline are nutrients that lower homocysteine. These nutrients are found mostly in eggs, meats, and green leafy vegetables.
- Check your thyroid. Poor thyroid function (hypothyroidism) often results in high cholesterol levels. Low thyroid function can be due to a diet high in sugar and low in fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. Use natural sea salt, not the refined iodized salt, for a balanced intake of minerals.
- Exercise daily. When you exercise, you increase your circulation and blood flow throughout your body. Even 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day can improve your cardiovascular health.
- Drop the excess weight. Carrying extra pounds increases your risk of heart disease. Even a little weight reduction will raise your HDL levels.
- Avoid smoking. Smoking constricts your blood vessels and raises your risk of heart attacks.
- Don’t drink alcohol excessively. Limit to one drink a day.
- Address the sources of stress in your life. Reduce them or learn ways to cope with them.
- Get plenty of restorative sleep every night.