Jim was a patient of mine years back. He had come to me for holistic advice on heart health. His doctors were recommending statin drugs to control his cholesterol, even though he’d never had a heart attack.
As an integrative physician, I occasionally prescribe certain pharmaceuticals when the patient and I feel it’s necessary. But statins aren’t on my list, and Jim had good reason to be wary.
However, with the best intentions, another doctor prescribed a statin for Jim and he was convinced he had to take them. He had always been an active walker and hiker; but a few months after he began the drug regimen, he developed severe, debilitating muscle pain and progressive weakness in his legs, including night spasms. He was unable to hike and take long walks anymore.
This is a tragically common, well-documented side effect of statin drugs, but it’s not the only one. There have even been reports of patients developing temporary amnesia or progressive memory loss and confusion, also believed to be a result of these drugs.
When Jim came to see me later in the year, I was struck by his decline — he had seemed to fast forward the aging process. We discussed ways to ease him off of the statins, but it took almost two years to restore Jim’s health so that he had enough energy for life. What saved him: His recovery program included a nutrient-dense diet, specific supplements, mind-body exercises, and targeted clinical treatments.
Weigh the statin risk
Today, a number of studies and reports suggest what many people have observed clinically: that statins can contribute to severe and sometimes irreversible damage to mitochondria, the tiny engines in cells that produce energy. Mitochondria are responsible for countless functions throughout the body.
Statins work by blocking an enzyme needed to produce cholesterol: HMG Coenzyme-a reductase. But in blocking this enzyme, statins also interfere with the production of critical nutrients such as co-q10, thus damaging cellular mitochondria. Symptoms of damage include muscle pain, weakness, liver problems, metabolic problems, memory impairment, and neurological disease. In fact, people on statins have a significant increase in their chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
Yet statins are still hailed by many as wonder drugs that can save lives by preventing heart attacks. It’s even been suggested that we add statins to public water supplies. Are the benefits really worth the risks?
Staggering statistics motivate statins prescriptions
According to the American Heart Association, more than 2,100 Americans die each day from a heart-related condition. Survivors face their own hurdles with lingering conditions like angina and congestive heart failure. Obviously, we should be doing everything possible to care for our hearts.
But we aren’t. Most Americans don’t fulfill the basic guidelines for regular exercise. And they insist on consuming the Standard American Diet (SAD), full of inflammatory foods like sugar and unhealthy fats. Nearly 20 percent of Americans still smoke. These habits invite disease — and not just heart disease but metabolic syndrome, diabetes, dementia and more.
Lifestyle factors matter. For example, a review of clinical trials showed statins were associated with a 36 percent reduction in heart attack risk. That’s the same reduction in the risk of dying from a cardiac event after quitting smoking.
We simply need to do a better job as a society of taking care of ourselves. This also means looking critically at the drugs that are all too often prescribed as bandages that cover up bigger lifestyle problems.
And importantly, there’s no clear evidence that simply lowering cholesterol actually prevents heart disease.
The real culprit
Popular wisdom states that high cholesterol causes arterial plaque to build up, generating arterial blockages and heart disease. But actually, it’s the type of cholesterol: oxidized (i.e., rancid) LDL cholesterol that contributes to this damaging plaque buildup. Oxidized cholesterol comes from eating cooked (rancid) vegetable oils, found in most fried and/or processed foods. It is also created inside the body as a result of chronic inflammation, toxins, and free radical damage, turning LDL cholesterol into hard arterial plaque that triggers more inflammatory reactions and furthers this vicious cycle.
Indeed, the heart disease real risks come from chronic inflammation, which oxidizes cholesterol, produces damaging free radicals and fuels uncontrollable scarring that causes tissues and organs to harden and lose their function. Large-scale studies now show that people with high levels of C-reactive protein, and especially with high levels of galectin-3 (both are blood markers of inflammation), have a much higher risk of heart disease.
Researchers have also linked cardiovascular disease to insulin resistance, the hallmark of diabetes type 2 and its precursor, metabolic syndrome. Insulin resistance causes chronically high blood glucose levels, which in turn fuel chronic inflammation. Metabolic diseases are closely linked to chronic inflammation through a number of pathways.
Control inflammation, control disease
Diet is such a fundamental factor in both causing and healing numerous diseases, most of which are related to inflammation. In the case of cardiovascular disease, I am often amazed that dietary recommendations aren’t the first line of treatment. Given the choice between a lethal condition, relatively ineffective and dangerous pharmaceuticals, and eating more vegetables and fruits, it seems like a no-brainer.
However, this is just another example of our backward thinking. We seek expensive and sometimes debilitating treatments for a condition we could easily prevent.
So, let’s talk a little more about prevention using nutrient-dense whole foods. That means avoiding a lot of commercial products that contain processed ingredients, trans-fats, vegetable oils, sugars, and artificial ingredients. Instead, emphasize lean proteins; healthy raw fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, raw nuts and seeds; plus, most importantly, lots of vegetables and fruits. I particularly recommend green leafy vegetables and brightly colored fruits such as berries: They have the highest concentrations of critical phytonutrients shown to promote cardiovascular health.
These simple adjustments protect the heart while helping the body ward off metabolic syndrome and chronic inflammation.
Exercise is not an option, it’s a must
Next to food, physical activity is the best way to prevent cardiovascular disease. Stress generates inflammatory hormones, such as cortisol; and exercise is a great stress-reliever. It also promotes healthy circulation that controls inflammation, stabilizes blood pressure, boosts metabolism, balances blood sugar and contributes to mental well-being.
Some people prefer brutal, boot camp-like workouts. But they are hardly necessary to maintain cardiovascular health. In fact, they can actually contribute to chronic inflammation. A brisk walk each day can do the trick. Try to incorporate small strategies to get the heart rate up. Take a walk around the block, park farther away, choose the stairs over the elevator.
I also recommend “moving meditations” such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong, which have the added advantage of calming the mind while toning the body and reducing cortisol.
Diet and exercise are powerful medicine, and a number of studies have shown that heart disease can actually be reversed through this simple prescription. It seems like a great alternative to medications and surgery.
Supplements can help
There are a number of supplements that also benefit heart health. These work to support circulation and healthy blood pressure while helping reduce inflammation.
One of my favorite heart-healthy supplements is nattokinase, the powerful enzyme found in a popular Japanese soy food called Natto. Because it thins the blood, clears arterial blockages and improves circulation, Natto has been used for hundreds of years to support cardiovascular health. Nattokinase also helps reduce inflammation.
A good botanical is hawthorn berry, used to improve circulation and treat angina, arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. Hawthorn is widely prescribed in Europe to treat cardiovascular disease.
The amino acid L-carnitine has numerous cardioprotective effects and also supports efficient metabolism.
There is another supplement called modified citrus pectin that is particularly good for heart health because it works so well to control inflammation. A fast-growing body of research shows that one of the main culprits in inflammation and subsequent fibrosis (scar tissue buildup) is the protein galectin-3. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved the galectin-3 blood test to screen for cardiovascular disease.
Modified citrus pectin is derived from fruit peels and has received a great deal of attention recently for its ability to bind galectin-3 and block its harmful effects. A 2012 animal study shows that controlling galectin-3 with modified citrus pectin reduces arterial hardening.
Cardiovascular disease is so prevalent in the United States that many people have accepted it as an inevitable part of aging. Sure, if we lead sedentary lives, eat primarily processed foods, smoke and drink too much, those behaviors will damage our heart health.
We can take a pill and live with the side effects, but we don’t have to live that way. While it’s true that people with a family history of heart disease have genetic issues to contend with, for the most part, it’s preventable. We need only to make the right lifestyle adjustments.
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