Live Well, Live Strong, Live Long
Heart Disease: Inflammation of the Blood Vessels
Currently in America heart disease is the number one cause of death, accounting for one out of every four deaths. Of course we know that diet and exercise help to prevent heart disease, and many people place an emphasis on cholesterol as the root cause for heart disease. However, it is much more complicated than elevated cholesterol levels. Contrary to popular opinion, cholesterol does not cause heart disease. Although cholesterol (plaque) can be found at “the scene of the crime,” the true cause of heart disease is inflammation.
We know when we have inflammation in our bodies – our joints feel achy; we experience asthma or irritable bowel symptoms. But how does inflammation damage our cells? Oxidative stress causes inflammation at a cellular level. Think of the body as a factory; during production, factories make products and waste. Chemical reactions that happen inside the cells of the body produce both energy for fuel and waste. The “waste” of metabolism is oxidative stress. If the janitorial team for a factory isn’t working, the waste builds up and slows the factory’s production process.
The same concept happens in cells. The janitorial crew for cells is antioxidants. The cell produces energy, which also creates oxidative stress (garbage known as free radicals), and the antioxidants, or janitorial crew, clean it up. Environmental toxins such as heavy metals are another major source of oxidative stress for the cells. If the body doesn’t have enough antioxidants, oxidative stress builds up and damages the cells. The buildup of oxidative stress and the damage from free radicals alerts the immune system that something has gone wrong, which starts a cascade of inflammatory messengers, called cytokines, to circulate through the body. Cytokines mediate many inflammatory reactions as they try to clean up the mess.
Let’s apply this concept to blood vessels. The lining of our blood vessels is called the endothelium. If you could lay out the endothelium, it would cover over six and a half tennis courts! An imbalance between oxidative stress and antioxidants in our endothelial cells starts the process of heart disease. Too much oxidative stress creates inflammation which increases vascular tone (leading to hypertension). Oxidative stress also causes oxidation of bad cholesterol – basically it makes the fats in the body go rancid. Oxidative stress also damages DNA. All of these are part of the downward spiral to heart disease!
How Cholesterols Affect Heart Disease
The body uses cholesterol to repair the holes in the endothelium caused by free radicals. However those free radicals also oxidize cholesterol, and both of these processes attract inflammatory cells to the endothelium. A combination of cholesterol and inflammatory cells leads to plaques, which build up over time and can then result in blood clots. This combination of inflammation/cholesterol, along with the damage done by free radicals, also causes dysfunction of the endothelium, leading to stiffening of the arteries and high blood pressure.
The Importance of Checking Cholesterol Levels
Our own native bad cholesterol (LDL) never causes atherosclerosis. However if we have a lot of oxidized LDL it will definitely increase our risk for heart disease. If that LDL is small, dense, or sticky, it will also increase our risk for heart disease. A good way to check for the size and stickiness of bad cholesterol is with a Cardio IQ cholesterol test. A Cardio IQ tells us not only particle size and stickiness, but also measures the exact number of LDL particles. You don’t want small, dense, and sticky bad cholesterol particles hammering on those arteries! The two proteins that make cholesterol more sticky are Apoprotein B100 and Lipoprotein (a). Statin medications have been shown to increase Lipoprotein (a) in some people, thereby increasing the risk for heart disease!
Another important factor to look at is how much good cholesterol (HDL) is present. The total cholesterol level may be high, but if the majority is good cholesterol then we don’t worry about it. Good cholesterol has the important job of carrying cholesterol back to the liver for storage. Sometimes those in traditional medicine forget that cholesterol has important functions in the body. Every cell in the body is made up of cholesterol. The brain is 65% fat! LDL cholesterol starts the hormone pathway, so without enough bad cholesterol, the body can’t make important hormones such as cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone. When bad cholesterol levels are less than 140, the body can’t produce hormones. Additionally, the body elevates bad cholesterol when we are stressed, since LDL is a precursor to our stress hormone, cortisol.
Triglycerides, another fat in the body, are actually more dangerous than LDL in their ability to cause heart disease. Triglyceride levels generally follow sugar levels. If we eat a lot of sugar/carbohydrates, or if our sugar levels increase due to stress, triglycerides will also increase. However for some people high triglyceride levels are genetic. For others, triglycerides can be high as a result of hormone imbalance or even toxins.
How to Prevent Heart Disease
Essentially, the key to reducing the risk for heart disease lies in reducing inflammation. This means decreasing stress, balancing hormones, reducing toxins, and eating a low inflammatory diet. Let’s start with diet first, since that has long been the focus of attention with heart disease.
Gone are the days of the low-fat diet! Now we know that the body needs fats, especially healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids and some omega-6 fatty acids. We want to get rid of starchy carbohydrates and sugars. Sugars attach themselves to bad cholesterol which alters the shape of the LDL molecule. Now the immune system thinks that it is a foreign molecule, and as it does with oxidized LDL, it attacks the LDL molecule which starts the whole process of endothelial damage.
Simple rules for a healthy diet include:
- No processed foods
- No white food (bread, flour, sugar, potatoes)
- Make animal protein a side dish rather than a main entrée
- Plenty of green, leafy vegetables.
For exercise, make it fun. There are so many different ways to move your body and they all have different benefits. Just make sure you are moving your body and increasing your heart rate for at least 30 minutes, 4-5 days a week.
For so many years, I was told that cholesterol was the cause of heart disease and that diet and exercise were the key to changing your risk. It has been absolutely mind-blowing for me to see the effects of toxins on both heart disease and cholesterol. There is a sizeable body of evidence showing the link between lead and mercury and heart disease. Now that I know what to look for and how to treat it, I am amazed at how reducing toxins not only lowers inflammation but also cholesterol levels, sugar levels, and blood pressure. Detoxing is so important, but if you have heart disease, you should seek medical help to detox safely.
In addition to diet, lifestyle, and detoxing, several supplements help reduce the risk of heart disease. Most people do not consume all the nutrients we need for optimally functioning bodies. We live in a toxic, high-stress world, both of which increase our oxidative stress and free radicals. Remember, heart disease is largely caused by oxidative stress, so antioxidants, such as vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, help prevent heart disease.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and extremely helpful in reducing oxidative stress and preventing heart disease. Vitamin C should be in the form of either ester C or buffered C, as most of us don’t tolerate ascorbic acid very well.
Vitamin E is another powerful antioxidant that helps vitamin C last longer. Vitamin E has many forms, and while alpha-tocopherol is the most common, it has the least benefit. Tocotrienols are best form of vitamin E for heart disease. they raise good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol, and lower triglycerides. Of course, the best way to lower triglycerides is through diet, because triglycerides follow sugars.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Consuming omega-3 fatty acids can help heart disease since they act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and improve cholesterol panels.
Niacin & Fiber
Niacin and fiber also improve cholesterol panels and also help lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol, and raise the particle size of bad cholesterol.
Coenzyme Q10 is a well-known antioxidant that lowers bad cholesterol and blood pressure (used as a pharmaceutical in Japan). Since coenzyme Q10 absorbs, the more biologically available form of CoQ10 called Ubiquinol is more effective.
The heart is a muscle, constantly beating to circulate blood through the body. As with any muscle, several nutrients can improve heart function. L-carnitine, an amino acid that essentially shuttles nutrients in and toxins out of cells, helps with cellular function.