Cholesterol and Heart Disease is the number one tandem of health ailments that most of us face as we age. Medicine has certainly made great advances in fighting these two problems over the past decade. But, are we fooling ourselves into thinking we've got these problems beat? I think we are.
For example, Newsweek recently featured an article praising statin drugs as the new "cure-all." Statin drugs, including brand names Lipitor and Zocor were revered for their all-powerful, cholesterol-lowering and heart-protective properties, as well as their potential impact on preventing cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
The article also reviewed clinical studies that proved that a balanced diet and regular exercise can have the same disease-protective impact as statin drugs, without the negative side effects. Several overweight, cholesterol-laden executives were interviewed and they were asked which option they would choose to prevent imminent disease states-a healthy lifestyle or drugs. And, they chose the drugs. The reason: "Drugs are easier."
In our "quick-fix" society, people often turn to drugs when they can get the same result with no side effects (apart from positive ones) from adopting a healthier lifestyle. All drugs have contra-indications, and statins in particular are known to suppress liver and kidney function and deplete the body's levels of CoQ10, a very important co-factor in energy production in the muscle cells, particularly in the heart. Many recent studies have demonstrated that CoQ10 deficits in statin users can cause cognitive, muscular, cardiovascular, and other problems; meaning that statins effectively increase the risk of the same diseases they ostensibly protect you from! Hmmmmm.
Let me dispel some of the common misconceptions about cholesterol and its link with increased risk of heart disease and give you good reason to choose lifestyle modifications over drugs to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
First, there are a few important terms to understand. Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) carries cholesterol from your tissues into your blood stream. It gets its "bad cholesterol" moniker because excess cholesterol in your blood stream coupled with other factors such as dehydration, excess oxidation can increase risk of heart disease. High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) picks up and transports cholesterol in the blood back to the liver where it is eliminated from your body. HDL can help keep LDL cholesterol from building up in the walls of your arteries, which is why it is referred to as "good cholesterol." Triglycerides are a form of fat carried through your bloodstream. High triglyceride levels are implicated in heart disease.
How much and what kind of cholesterol do you need for good health? Cholesterol is a fat that is absolutely essential to life. It is part of every cell and many of the hormones in your body. You need cholesterol in order to survive. However, an excess of oxidized LDL and too little HDL are associated with increased risk of heart disease.
Is cholesterol the best indicator of heart disease? Reducing LDL is important in reducing risk of heart disease, BUT cholesterol levels are not the gold standard of for predicting heart attacks. Why? Reducing cholesterol ALONE does not necessarily decrease risk of heart disease. (Studies show there is NO association between high cholesterol and death from heart disease in people over 70 and nearly 50% of patients with heart disease have normal cholesterol levels.) Studies show fasting insulin levels are MORE THAN TWICE as predictive of risk of heart disease than LDL cholesterol. (Journal of American Medical Association 1998). Triglycerides are also more predictive of risk of heart disease than LDL levels. Why? High triglyceride levels indicate insulin resistance or carbohydrate sensitivity.
How do you reduce your risk of heart disease? Dr Cass Ingram, in his popular book, Eat Right to Live Long (published by Literary Visions Publishing Inc 1994), lists as the top six causes of high cholesterol as being: excess dietary sugar; excess dietary starch; excess hydrogenated and processed fats; liver dysfunction; amino acid (protein) deficiency; and essential fatty acid deficiency. Avoiding foods containing unhealthy fat (especially hydrogenated, and processed fats and oils) and cholesterol is important for optimal health. However, keep in mind that 80% of your daily cholesterol is produced in your body (by your liver); it does not come from your diet. So it is most important that you control the production of cholesterol in your liver.
How do you do control production of cholesterol? An ENZYME (HMGCoA) controls the production of cholesterol in your liver. The hormones GLUCAGON and INSULIN control the release of this enzyme. GLUCAGON inhibits the enzyme, and INSULIN activates the enzyme. To control cholesterol production, you want to increase glucagon and decrease insulin. This is exactly what common statin drugs do: inhibit the production of LDL by regulating the HMGCoA enzyme. You can achieve the same results as these commonly prescribed drugs through balanced nutrition, effective exercise, and strategic supplementation, without the harmful side effects!
How do you lower insulin and increase glucagon through nutrition? The key is to eat in a manner that keeps your blood sugar stable. In keeping your blood sugar stable, you control the excess release of insulin. Excess insulin is secreted every time you "over-carb." Whenever you eat sugar or processed carbohydrates, or simply too many carbohydrates for your body, (because all carbohydrates break down into blood sugar called glucose) you will have excess glucose in your blood stream, causing your blood sugar to spike. In turn, your pancreas secretes insulin. Insulin is your body's most powerful storage hormone. Insulin totally blocks your body's ability to burn fat, converts all the excess blood sugar into triglycerides (blood fats), and stores these fats in your fat cells. Glucagon is released every time you eat lean protein. Glucagon, when present in your blood steam, also lowers insulin levels. It is important to eat lean protein every single meal.
When faced with high cholesterol (over 200 total cholesterol), most patients are recommended a statin drug, along with a reduced fat/high carbohydrate diet. Lowering unhealthy fat intake decreases LDL levels. But, increasing carbohydrate content causes HDL (good cholesterol) to drop and triglycerides and total cholesterol to increase, which means increased risk of heart disease.
To control the balance of glucagon and insulin, eat a healthy balance of lean protein, good fats/oils (containing essential fats omega 3 and 6), and unprocessed carbohydrates at each meal. Avoid sugar, white flour, and other processed carbohydrates; and always combine carbohydrates with lean protein and/or good fats/oils. This slows the gastric emptying of the carbohydrates, preventing a blood sugar spike and controlling the excessive release of insulin. Staying hydrated with pure water and avoiding caffeine and other dehydrators is also of integral importance. In addition to these nutrition guidelines, exercise regularly and follow a basic supplementation program. When you adopt these healthy lifestyle habits, you will find your cholesterol levels will return to healthy levels (180-200 total cholesterol, under 100 LDL, and over 50 HDL) within 60-90 days, without prescription medication!
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