I have an important question for you… what is the number one killer of Americans today? How many of you would vote for cancer? How about heart disease?
Actually, it is neither… the number one killer today is misinformation! I will dedicate this article to shedding light on those little tidbits fed to us about cholesterol by the medical community, government agencies or supposed helpful associations that are misleading or just plain wrong, and then try to give you useful data and actions you can take to keep your heart healthy and live a longer, more productive life.
Myth #1: Lowering your cholesterol will definitely help you avoid dying from a heart attack.
This is actually a very complicated issue that needs serious attention in order to understand the truth.
There is a quaint little community in Massachusetts known as Framingham. Many of the people living in this town were followed for a long time to help determine the risk factors in heart disease. It is the supposed results of this study that have been used to establish the fact that high cholesterol leads to heart disease, thus lowering cholesterol should naturally make you less likely to die from a heart attack. Of course, a huge part of today’s medicine, and more dollars than you could actually count, is dedicated to measuring and finding ways (usually drugs and diets) to lower your cholesterol.
Well, if you were to actually look at the numbers from the Framingham Study, you may be inclined, like I am, to determine that there was a very weak correlation between cholesterol levels and dying from a heart attack. In the Framingham study, in general, the group that had heart disease only had cholesterol levels 5-10% higher than those who did not. And, 30% of people without heart disease had a cholesterol level of 220 while 40% of people with heart disease had the same reading of 220. That 10% difference equates to a weak correlation.
Further investigation into the actual study results will also show you that once you hit the age of 48 you may not have to worry about cholesterol at all. The findings were that after 47 years of age the people that had high cholesterol died from heart disease at the very same rate as those who had “normal” cholesterol levels. Do not misinterpret this fact to mean you don’t have to worry about heart disease after 47, this simply means that lower cholesterol levels offer no protection from heart disease after 47 years of life. Clearly, as we age, heart disease is more likely to take your life. As a matter of fact, 95% of deaths from heart disease occur after the age of 48.
Myth #2: Lowering your cholesterol naturally (by altering your diet) is good for you.
How many of us have been through the following scenario? You go to the doctor for a check-up. He sends you for a routine blood work-up, including blood cholesterol levels. A week later you get a letter or a phone call informing you that your cholesterol was elevated. You go in for the follow-up visit and your doctor tells you that you need to go on a low-fat/low-cholesterol diet and that if your cholesterol does not get lower through dietary mean within the next 6 months than you’ll have to start taking a medicine to lower it.
Indeed, even the American Heart Association states… “The results of the Framingham study indicate that a 1% reduction…of cholesterol [corresponds to a] 2% reduction in cardiac heart disease risk.” That statement is a falsehood. This is what the actual Framingham study authors report concerning lowering cholesterol through dietary means… “For each 1mg/dl drop of cholesterol there was an 11 percent increase in coronary and total mortality.”
So, what do the statistics really say about that low-fat/low-cholesterol diet? It says that getting the red meat and eggs out of your diet simply as a means of lowering your cholesterol actually makes you more likely to die from heart disease! And if you think about it, this makes perfect sense.
A low-fat diet will result in getting less of the beneficial essential fatty acids, which have been clearly shown to be heart protective. Cholesterol is needed to make cells more pliable. A lack of cholesterol can lead to “stiffer” cells that can’t flow through small capillaries as well. This may lead to less oxygen and nutrition being delivered to the tissues of the body. Less fatty foods may also mean less of the fat-soluble antioxidants, also known to be heart healthy vitamins. Lastly, a low-fat diet often means a high sugar diet (substituting animal products with grains and pastas). This can lead to diabetes, whether diagnosed or not, that is a risk factor itself for coronary heart disease.
There certainly are other benefits to getting the commonly available animal fats out of your diet. Animal fats are the reservoir of toxins that the animal was exposed to in its lifetime. Typical beef and chicken stock get all sorts of antibiotics and steroids to make them more profitable and viable in today’s market environment. A high animal protein diet may lead to increased homocysteine levels, which is a much clearer risk factor for possible heart disease. Diets based on animal proteins may also alter calcium absorption, which is a vital heart health mineral.
Low-fat diets are the wrong way to go. You should be thinking in terms of healthy fats. The fats that you get from certain nuts and seeds, like Flax or Walnuts, or from cold Atlantic fish are the ones that have been shown to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease and all other causes, including cancer.
Myth #3: Lowering cholesterol by drug therapy is the best solution.
The category of drugs known as the “statin” drugs are one of the most commonly prescribed groups of medicines today. Indeed, prescriptions for Zocor, Pravachol, Lipitor, Lescol, Crestor and Mevacor are dispensed from every pharmacy on an hourly basis.
And I must admit that some of these drugs have been shown to actually lower the risk of dying from heart disease, maybe even dying from some other reasons too. However (and this is a big however), the corresponding lowering of cardiac mortality has nothing to do with cholesterol levels! These drugs have been shown to lower death rates in people regardless of what happens to their cholesterol levels. It is hypothesized that the statin drugs may exhibit some sort of anti-inflammatory properties that help protect the heart.
But at what cost are we introducing a possible heart healthy anti-inflammatory to our bodies? And what other options are available?
Well, the actual dollar costs of the statin drugs are immense. And don’t you dare think to yourselves that you aren’t affected by those costs even if you don’t happen to take a statin drug yourself. The high cost of your insurance is partly due to the overuse of prescription medicines like the statin drugs, regardless of your personal use.
Also, when using the statin drugs, the following is the protocol that is recommended by the manufacturers: a blood test to determine liver function should be preformed before initiation of therapy, after 6 weeks, 12 weeks and every 6 months thereafter. Also, blood testing to determine liver function should be repeated any time the dosage of one of these medicines is increased.
Why all the concern about liver function? Obviously, the statin drugs are liver toxic… they can cause your liver to break down. And you should realize that your liver may very well start to lose efficiency of function long before it shows up on a blood test.
But there are other concerns as well with the statin drugs. They are known carcinogens (agents that cause cancer) in rats, and possibly humans too. Here are the conclusions drawn from one study, as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1996… “Extrapolation of this evidence of carcinogenesis from rodents to humans is an uncertain process. Longer-term clinical trials and careful post-marketing surveillance during the next several decades are needed to determine whether cholesterol-lowering drugs cause cancer in humans. In the meantime, the results in experiments in animals and humans suggest that lipid-lowering drugs, especially with the fibrates and statins, should be avoided except in patients at high short-term risk of coronary heart disease.”
First of all, are you willing to be the guinea pigs that this drug is tested on over the “next several decades” to find out if they do indeed cause cancer? And secondly, it is obvious that many physicians are not heeding this warning seriously and are prescribing the statin drugs way too often. In fact, I have seen physicians actually prescribing the statin drugs for people as a preventative measure, even if their cholesterol is normal, just because of a family history.
Lastly, the statin drugs are known to cause a deficiency in maybe the most vital heart nutrient, Coenzyme Q-10. This nutrient plays a role in the production of energy within the cell. What organ in your body works harder, and therefore has more of a need for cellular energy, than the heart? Also, Co Q-10 is a potent antioxidant itself and enhances the antioxidant properties of other nutrients like Vitamin E. The preferred form of Co Q-10 to take as a supplemental is called Ubiquinol– this is that reduced form that allows for better absorption and higher blood levels after comsumption.
Known antioxidants like Vitamins C and E have been shown to be heart healthy, helping to decrease the risk of cardiac mortality, and are relatively inexpensive and do not pose the possible risk of unwanted side effects, like melting your liver or giving you cancer.
Exercise on a regular basis really costs you nothing more than the effort to get off of your butt and actually do something. And as it turns out, there is nothing more potent that can be done for heart health than to start walking… every single day… without fail… regardless of the weather outside or any other of the myriad excuses that we invent to avoid doing it!
Myth #4: If high cholesterol is bad for you, then the lower the better.
Cholesterol is an important tool that the body uses for various reasons… that is why the liver makes cholesterol. I promise you, God did not plan for our livers to manufacture cholesterol just so the drug companies would have an additional profit stream.
Cholesterol is an important part of nearly every cell membrane (the outside wall or barrier) in your body. It is the cell membrane that helps determine what is to be let in and what is to be denied access to the inside of the cell. The cell membrane also needs to be pliable so that cells (especially blood cells) can squeeze through small spaces and flow properly.
Cholesterol is the building block that the body uses to make other substances, including various hormones and vitamin D. Sometimes, an over-production of cholesterol by the liver (high cholesterol in the parlance of our doctors) is the body’s response to a hormonal imbalance, especially during menopause.
Generally speaking, cholesterol levels below 170 are too low and care should be taken to avoid this, especially if you are currently taking a cholesterol lowering medicine. Recently, I had a patient in my office that was on a statin drug and his most recent cholesterol reading was in the 140’s. That is dangerously low!
So, in conclusion, I will always go back to the fact that the healthiest people that I know are ones who have the best and clearest understanding about how their bodies work, and truly grasp the ways to keep their bodies working at optimal levels. With this in mind, it is easy to see how misinformation can be the worst killer of all!
For more in-depth information about cholesterol, cardiovascular risk and limiting that risk, tune into our live webinar here.