Heart Health; The Heart of the Matter
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the single leading cause of mortality in the United States today. The American Heart Association estimates that approximately 70 million Americans have one or more forms of cardiovascular disease. Nearly a million or more people die every year from cardiovascular disease. This is one out of every 2.6 deaths. So there is a 30 percent chance that you will have some form of heart disease.
Cardiovascular disease is called the “silent disease” because the first symptom may be a heart attack or stroke. In fact, half the time the first symptom is cardiac arrest. The silent disease is not really so silent if we were to look inside the body and see all of the events leading up to a coronary event as well as heart disease itself. From high blood pressure, which puts tremendous pressure on the heart to the severe build up of plaque on the arteries in atherosclerosis, heart disease has many forms and also many symptoms that may go undiagnosed:
- High cholesterol and triglycerides • High C-Reactive Protein
- Diabetes • High fibrinogen
- Insulin resistance • Inflammation
- High blood pressure • Obesity
- High homocysteine • Inheritance
- Chronic infection
There are also many lifestyle factors that can lead to heart disease and heart disease risk:
- Eating trans-fats and fried foods • Smoking
- High sugar and starch consumption • Stress
- Eating a low nutrient diet • Pollution
- Sleep apnea • Gum disease
Combine long term heart disease risk factors with lifestyle choices and you have a recipe for disaster! In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association advised that “heart disease prevention must begin in early childhood or adolescence.” (JAMA) Several studies have determined that the build-up of plaque in the arteries can begin in childhood. Dr. Stephen Sinatra, author and cardiologist, reports a study in “Reverse Heart Disease Now” in which 3,000 young people (14-35 years) were autopsied following deaths not related to heart disease. Twenty to 25 percent of these young people “already had a major lesion in the coronary arteries.” (21:Sinatra) He concludes that “the message from these statistics is clear: you should not wait to begin a preventive program. Start as early as possible.”
How Does the Heart Work?
The heart is a muscular pump that pumps blood and oxygen throughout the body. From the heart extends a vast highway of arteries and blood vessels that carry this valuable fuel to all of the cells of the body. Waste products that are dumped into the bloodstream are also filtered, as the blood returns to the heart. It is crucial that the heart needs to perform its function without obstruction. The blood vessels and arteries need to be smooth and clear of obstructions.
The most important part of this entire system is the walls of the arteries. They are a system of tubes with a lining called the endothelium that secretes chemicals that control the constriction and relaxation of the blood vessels. If this endothelium is damaged from inflammation and plaque, you are at great risk for a cardiac event. This may take years to develop, but it is silently causing damage with little to no symptoms.
By the time you notice any symptoms it may be too late. The artery may become completely blocked and there may be significant deprivation of oxygen to the heart. It is best to prevent this situation from happening, but even with significant hardening of the arteries, the damage can be reversed by paying attention to your diet and developing a healthy lifestyle.
What About Cholesterol?
Since the Framingham study, medicine has believed that high cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats) contribute to heart attacks and heart disease. As more studies are undertaken, medicine’s focus on monitoring cholesterol levels is beginning to take a back seat to other underlying factors – in particular, inflammation. There are some reports that 50 percent of those who suffer heart disease do not have increased levels of cholesterol.
So, what is cholesterol and what difference does it make to your health?
Cholesterol has been given a bad reputation, but we can’t exist without healthy levels of cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy and fat-like substance that is produced by the liver. It makes enough to cover all your body’s needs. You can also get cholesterol from your diet – eggs, meat, dairy. If you don’t eat cholesterol laden foods, then your liver has to make more to make up the difference. With that said, your diet only contributes a small portion of what your body needs, as most of the cholesterol is still made by your liver.
Some of the important contributions that cholesterol makes to your health include the following:
- Delivers the fat soluble vitamins to the cells
- Makes your steroid hormones – adrenal hormones and reproductive hormones.
- Makes the bile acids needed for digestion
- Provides the raw materials for the cell membranes
- Fights infections (total cholesterol increases and HDL decreases)
- Makes brain cells
If your cholesterol gets too low (<150mg/dl) you may have an increased risk for global amnesia, depression, memory deficits, fatigue (low adrenal function), and low nutrient status.
Since you need cholesterol to make your body function effectively, having higher amounts may not always create a health issue and in some cases, be protective.
If Cholesterol is Good for Your Health, What Makes it Bad?
According to present day medical science, it is the type of cholesterol that may create heart disease risk. Cholesterol can become damaged or oxidized. Low density lipoproteins (LDL) are a type of oxidized cholesterol. What oxidizes cholesterol are high levels of free radicals in the body. Oxidized cholesterol products get into the cells and cause excessive damage to the cells as well as the endothelium. These free radicals are a result of ongoing inflammation and low dietary intake of anti-oxidants (fruits and vegetables).
This oxidized cholesterol can be removed naturally if the diet contains enough foods that contain phosphatidylcholine (PC). It can be obtained in food such as: fish, eggs, wheat germ, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and soy. Lecithin found in these foods supports an enzyme that attaches to excess cholesterol and helps to transport it back via high density lipoproteins (HDL) to the liver. This system naturally keeps the arteries free of diseased cholesterol and plaque.
Fish oils are particularly good at also clearing the arteries of unwanted plaque and breaking up free radicals.
Thus, if the diet contains some cholesterol, some phosphatidylcholine, and a high amount of anti-oxidant foods including fish oil, then the build-up of undesirable cholesterol is certainly decreased. Although, there are many other factors that lead to heart disease, making healthy changes in your diet is a good start!
Inflammation and Heart Disease
There are many reasons for inflammation, but as it relates to heart disease being overweight, obesity, blood sugar imbalances, chronic infection, and gum disease play significant roles.
Weight issues: Extra weight and extra fat release inflammatory chemicals into the bloodstream. Being overweight isn’t just a metabolic issue, it is primarily an inflammatory issue.
Infections: Certain types of infections are known to be related to heart disease – chlamydia pneumonia, staph infections, and possibly nanobacteria.
Normally the body is designed to clear unwanted infectious organisms from the bloodstream. But, many people have compromised immune systems (diabetes, autoimmune, allergies, chronic stress) and have less ability to clear these organisms. Thus, the infection becomes chronic and the immune system maintains its fight, which results in a state of chronic inflammation. Eventually, the immune system begins to attack arterial tissue.
Stress: The stress response causes an increase in inflammatory chemicals such as Interleukin-6 (IL-6). If stress becomes chronic then IL-6 is constantly being produced which then leads to chronic inflammation which can then cause the blood to clot.
Trans Fats: Trans fats are damaged fats that cause free radical damage to cell membranes and increase levels of arachadonic acid, which in turn leads to high levels of inflammation. In addition, these trans fats inhibit the metabolism of the good fats leading to even more cell damage and inflammation.
High Blood Pressure: It accelerates blood pressure volume in the arteries leading to an increase in inflammatory chemicals.
Diabetes, Insulin Resistance: There is no doubt today that diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome create high levels of inflammation. In both cases, high levels of blood sugar (and insulin) can lead to an increase in oxidized cholesterol, triglycerides, high blood pressure, high homocysteine, high C-Reactive Protein, free radicals, and abdominal fat storage,
Homocysteine: Homocysteine is an amino acid. But, when it builds up it can cause damage to the arteries, inflammation, blood clot formation, and even damage to brain cells. It is one of the major risk factors for not only heart disease but plaque formation in atherosclerosis. It is also the leading cause of oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Any level above 5 indicates ongoing systemic damage to the endothelium in blood vessel walls and the formation of plaque on the brain. Levels can be measured by a blood test and should be part of any routine blood test.
Nutritional support of additional B6, B12, and folic acid are the accepted treatment for lowering homocysteine levels.
C-Reactive Protein; This is protein secreted by the liver in response to infection, free radicals, obesity, high blood sugar, and essential fatty acid deficiency. It can be measured in the blood and should be a part of a routine blood test.
Lipoprotein Lp(a); This fat-like protein has the job of repairing arterial walls from free radical damage. However, when there is significant damage, high levels of Lp(a) can build up and then clog the arteries. Naturally high levels of Lp(a) run in families and are thus a genetic risk factor for atherosclerosis and heart disease. According to Linus Pauling, if the body is deficient in Vitamin C, then Lp(a) levels steadily increase. He developed a formula that contains Vitamin C, and the amino acids lysine and proline to directly address lowering the levels of Lp(a). Make certain that you consume enough Vitamin C so that your blood vessel walls don’t weaken so that Lp(a) has to repair them.
Nutrition and Heart Disease Prevention
It may seem as if the “decks are stacked against you” when it comes to heart disease prevention. The reality is that you can prevent heart disease and even reverse heart risk damage once it starts. It is definitely a health issue that is successfully treated with appropriate nutrition and lifestyle interventions. The key is to develop a lifestyle based on prevention and healthy eating.
The areas to address when developing your nutrition program are blood sugar regulation, anti-oxidant repletion, emphasizing anti-inflammatory foods, incorporating high fiber foods and meals along with healthy exercise, and consistent stress management.
- To manage your blood sugar and to lose weight it is best to consume lots of fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, high fiber non-gluten grains (brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat) and legumes, quality essential fats (fish oil, flax oil, nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocados), quality sources of protein (poultry, fish, eggs), and limited dairy (yogurt, cottage cheese).
- Eat some source of protein at every meal to support the regulation of blood sugar.
- Eat at least two servings of high fiber grains or legumes each day.
- Eat one to two servings of nuts or seeds each day.
- Consume fish oil capsules or liquid.
- Eat fish high in Omega 3 fats (salmon, cod, halibut, mackerel) at least twice a week.
- Eat at least seven servings of fresh vegetables and two servings of fruit per day.
- Use healthy oils for salad dressings: olive oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, macadamia nut oil.
- The diet should contain no trans fats (margarine, hydrogenated oils, vegetable shortening, deep fried food), limited alcohol (red wine only), and stimulants such as coffee.
- Eat only organically grown foods.
- Stop smoking.
- Get some type of physical activity or exercise every day.
- Maintain an ideal weight and keep your inflammation down. Run a blood panel that includes C-Reactive Protein, Homocysteine, Lp(a), HGAIC (blood sugar marker), fasting blood sugar and insulin, white blood cells, anemia markers, thyroid function, electrolytes, and kidney screen.
- Completely eliminate refined foods, especially refined carbohydrates (baked goods, white rice, refined flours, white bread, sugar-laden cereals) from your diet.
- Decrease sugar and sugary foods.
- Test for any food allergens or sensitivities – eating them causes high levels of inflammation.
- Practice stress management and relax each day. Take breaks and really rest during your breaks.