Let’s start with the boring and scary statistics; 71.3 million Americans currently have some form of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). CVD has been the number one cause of death in the US for the past 100 years. There are several risk factors that contribute to these statistics that are well known by the conventional medical community. There are several others that I look at as well. As a Naturopathic Physician, I want to look at the cause as well as the symptoms.
Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers. We know that nicotine is a stimulant and increases blood pressure, and there are over 200 noxious chemicals in tobacco poisoning our body. The logical way to reduce this risk factor is to just quit. If you have ever smoked, you know this is one of the most addictive substances on earth and quitting is not an easy task. I acquired a great appreciation for how hard it is to quit when I worked at Cancer Treatment Centers of America working with lung cancer patients. It’s not just the chemicals but the many year habituation of smoking that makes it difficult to quit. I try to address both using herbs, antioxidants, diet, exercise, counseling and I refer out for hypnotherapy and acupuncture.
2. High Cholesterol
High LDL (bad guy) and low HDL (good guy) cholesterol are associated with an increased risk for heart disease, especially when accompanied by inflammation. Many people are prescribed medication to lower cholesterol. The majority of medications prescribed are statin drugs. Statin’s work by suppressing an enzyme that is required to make cholesterol from a precursor called Homocysteine. The real question is why is the Homocystein high and why don’t we routinely test for it? I find that poor diet and poor digestion due to acid blockers causes low levels of B vitamins. Three B vitamins in particular can help to lower Homocystein; B12, B6 and folic acid. You can take them in the form of a supplement, but you need normal stomach acid to absorb many of the B vitamins, Ca and Iron. Additionally, statin drugs take out the same enzyme that is needed to make CoQ10. CoQ10 is used in every cell to make energy. The heart in particular requires a lot of CoQ10 because it is constantly contracting. When you reduce the production of energy, the muscles work less efficiently and tire more easily. That is why many people on statin drugs have muscle cramps and a feeling of heaviness in their muscles which reduces their ability to exercise. Statin drugs also reduce some inflammation. Unfortunately many people are left on Statin drugs for many years and their cholesterol gets too low. I had one such man who had total cholesterol levels of 91 (Ideal is between 150-200). Cholesterol is in our body for a reason. It is needed to make many of our hormones including our sex hormones; it is in the membrane of every cell in the body, it is used for blood vessel wall maintenance. In fact there have been several studies showing adverse effects from low cholesterol such as depression, suicide, brain hemorrhage, cancer of the liver and pancreases and digestive disorders to name a few.
There are many things you can do to lower your cholesterol; diet, exercise, herbs and supplements, and therapeutic foods. More than 30 million prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering drugs are prescribed each year. It is the number one prescribed drug in our country. If you are on a statin drug, you can’t just go off. You need to wean off as you change your diet, exercise and take natural therapeutics. If someone comes in with high cholesterol and they are not on medication, depending on how high it is, we work with natural therapies and lifestyle changes, or a combination of drug and natural therapies to get their cholesterol in the safe range. Our goal is to improve heart health and reduced clogged arteries and inflammation. One thing to keep in mind, you can still have a heart attack even with normal cholesterol; it is not the whole picture.
3. High Blood Pressure
We all know that increased blood pressure puts us at risk for many things. We need to address the causes of high blood pressure. Many people are told that they have essential hypertension. Essential means for no known reason. I disagree with this – in almost all cases you can easily pinpoint the cause. High blood pressure in most cases is a result of not getting enough oxygen around to the tissues of the body. It can be due to not getting oxygen in through the lungs, or a weak heart not pushing the blood to the tissues or clogged arteries making it harder to push the blood through smaller openings, or anemia where by you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry the oxygen around, or weight gain so there is more tissue to perfuse with oxygen. These are just a few reasons. In most cases if you address these causes you can bring the blood pressure down.
4. Physical Inactivity
You don’t need a doctor to tell you that physical inactivity leads to many diseases and decreased quality of life. It increases weight, decreases circulation, decreases heart muscle strength, increases blood sugar and insulin, the list goes on. The body is amazingly resilient. Even for those its been a while, you can get back in shape in a fairly short period of time. I tell my patients even if it starts with 5 minutes of walking a day, before they know it they will be up to 30 minutes. Increasing exercise will increase quality of life. It is not about living longer, it is about living better. I had a patient a while back that was 96. He owned a home in town and one at the beach and took care of both, and he rode his bike or kayaked every day. I asked him what his secret was. He said good diet, and he moved every joint every day.
Of course we can’t talk about heart disease without discussing weight. With over 60% of our population overweight this is a critical contributor to the number one killer. I’ll talk extensively about this issue with regard to blood glucose and insulin levels in my next article Diabetes Prevention. A 100% Cure Rate. The bottom line: it is not just about calories in vs. calories out. There are other things that contribute to weight such as thyroid and adrenal function, digestion, insulin and growth hormone levels. Weight and diabetes are very complex issues and have many adverse effects.
It is a given that stress decreases our quality of life. We know most heart attacks happen on Monday morning for those with job stress. We know that exercise is one of the best stress reducers available. I recommend taking time to enjoy the things that you are passionate about. I also use calming herbs and amino acid therapy to provide the precursors to allow the body to make the calming neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA.
Inflammation is something most doctors don’t routinely check. I run a test call CRP to test for inflammation in the body. Many people have chronic inflammation that contributes to many problems. We see high inflammation in many diseases; a few worth mentioning are cancer, arthritis, dementia, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel, and atherosclerosis. We focus so much on cholesterol levels and how it can clog our arteries, but it is the inflammation that initiates this process. Our blood vessels are lined with a very thin layer of cells that separate the blood from the muscle of the vessel wall. When we have inflammation, these cells swell apart exposing the muscle layer of the vessel. This of course is very dangerous and the body sends out signals to plug the hole. A plaque is put on the breach in the vascular lining. This plaque is made up of many components, one of which is cholesterol. If we can keep the inflammation down we will have less plaque build up and less atherosclerosis. In the past, anti-inflammatory drugs like Vioxx and Celebrex have been used to control inflammation, but they were found to increase heart disease so I get a lot of calls looking for natural ways to treat inflammation. Again, you have to get to the cause. Many things cause inflammation, acid blockers that cause bad digestion, dental decay, some prescription drugs, poor liver function, the list goes on. If you can address the cause of the inflammation and reduce it there will be less heart disease.
There are many other things that contribute to heart disease; these are some of the main ones that most people need to address. The best way to treat heart disease is to prevent it. It takes work, but it’s worth it.