Atherosclerosis and Cardiovascular Disease
Atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease take a huge toll on our society. More than 81 million Americans suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease, making it the leading cause of death in the country. As of 2006, cardiovascular disease was responsible for at least one in every 2.9 deaths in the United States (American Heart Association: Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2010).
Despite the fact that cardiovascular disease is the single most deadly disease in the United States, most individuals, including most mainstream physicians, have a flawed fundamental understanding of the disease. The fact is, long before any symptoms are clinically evident, vascular disease begins as a malfunction of specialized cells that line our arteries. These cells, called endothelial cells, are the key to atherosclerosis and underlying endothelial dysfunction is the central feature of this dreaded disease.
Not every person who suffers from atherosclerosis presents with the risk factors commonly associated with the condition, such as elevated cholesterol, but every single person with atherosclerosis has endothelial dysfunction. Aging humans are faced with an onslaught of atherogenic risk factors that, over time, contribute to endothelial dysfunction and the development of atherosclerosis.
Maturing individuals must address all of the underlying factors that contribute to endothelial dysfunction if they are striving to protect themselves from the ravages of vascular disease. Regrettably, mainstream medicine has failed to identify and correct all of the cardiovascular disease risk factors. This means that people wishing to stave off atherosclerosis must take matters into their own hands to ensure that all underlying causes are effectively neutralized.
In the antiquated view of mainstream medicine, blood vessels have been thought of as stiff pipes that gradually become clogged with excess cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream. The solution that physicians recommend most often is cholesterol-lowering drugs, which target only a very small number of the numerous factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Conventional medicine’s preferred method of reestablishing blood flow in clogged vessels is through surgery (coronary artery bypass graft surgery) or by insertion of catheters bearing tiny balloons that crush the plaque deposits against the arterial walls (angioplasty), followed by the implantation of tiny mesh tubes (stents) to keep the blood vessels open. However, the grafts used to reestablish blood flow often develop plaque deposits themselves. The same was true for balloon angioplasty; in their early years, up to half of all angioplasty procedures “failed” when the arteries gradually closed again. Even today, with the use of improved stents, the failure rate is considerable and many people have to undergo repeat angioplasty or even surgery.
|Endothelial Dysfunction: The Underlying Cause of All Vascular Diseases
The cause and progression of vascular disease is intimately related to the health of the inner arterial wall. Blood vessels are composed of three layers. The outer layer is mostly connective tissue and provides structure to the layers beneath. The middle layer is smooth muscle; it contracts and dilates to control blood flow and maintain blood pressure. The inner lining consists of a thin layer of endothelial cells (the endothelium), which provides a smooth, protective surface. Endothelial cells prevent toxic, blood-borne substances from penetrating the smooth muscle of the blood vessel.
However, as we age, a barrage of atherogenic factors, if left unchecked, damages the delicate endothelial cells. This damage leads to endothelial dysfunction and ultimately allows lipids and toxins to penetrate the endothelial layer and enter the smooth muscle cells. This results in the initiation of an oxidative and inflammatory cascade that culminates in the development of plaque deposits. Subsequently, these plaques begin to calcify and, over time, become prone to rupture. If a plaque deposit ruptures, the result is oftentimes a deadly blood clot.
If people do not take steps to correct the endothelial dysfunction occurring in their aging bodies, the consequence will be a worsening of the epidemic of arterial disease that currently kills 35% of Americans and 30% of all people worldwide (American Heart Association: Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2010). Sadly, mainstream medicine continuously fails patients by prescribing drugs that address only a very small number of risk factors that contribute to the pathogenesis of vascular disease.
Numerous factors that directly contribute to endothelial dysfunction have been identified and aging individuals can easily assess their risk for vascular disease through blood testing. The results of these blood tests can then be used to develop targeted intervention strategies to modify levels of risk factors that do not fall within an optimal range. Atherogenic factors that all aging individuals must be aware of include:
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Targeting Vascular Disease Risk Factors with Nutritional Therapeutics: Part 2.
|Scientific studies have revealed that several nutrients effectively protect against endothelial dysfunction caused by the atherogenic factors identified above. Unlike mainstream medicine’s approach to treating atherosclerosis, which involves addressing only very few proven cardiac risk factors, a comprehensive nutritional regimen can be designed to target all of the risk factors that contribute to atherosclerosis.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids combat the development and progression of vascular disease via multiple mechanisms including, lowering triglycerides, lowering blood pressure, improving endothelial function and raising HDL levels (Robinson, 2006).
A team of researchers examined the correlation between tissue omega-3 fatty acid levels and measures of circulating Lp-PLA2, a marker of inflammatory arterial plaque, in over 300 patients. They found a strong, independent and inverse association between tissue omega-3 levels and circulating Lp-PLA2. The researchers went on to conclude that intake of omega-3 fatty acids might reduce Lp-PLA2 levels and reduce the risk of vascular disease (Schmidt, 2008).
In another study involving 563 elderly men, 2.4 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation was found to improve arterial elasticity (Hjerkinn, 2006).
In 16 patients with peripherial artery disease who were already being treated with conventional methods, the addition of 2 grams daily of omega-3 fatty acids was shown to significantly improve endothelial function, as measured by brachial artery flow-mediated dilation (from 6.7% to 10.0%) and plasma soluble thrombomodulin (from 33.0 ng/mL to 17.0 ng/mL) (Schiano, 2008). Similarly, another study found that when omega-3 fatty acids were combined with rosuvastatin, the combination improved endothelial dependent vasodilation (-1.42% to 11.36%) while rosuvastatin alone failed to improve endothelial function (Mindrescu, 2008).
Propionyl L-carnitine (PLC). PLC has received attention for its ability to directly improve endothelial function. PLC passes across the mitochondrial membrane to supply L-carnitine directly to the mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles of cells. Carnitines are essential for mitochondrial fatty acid transport and energy production, which is important because endothelial cells and heart muscle cells burn fatty acids for 70 percent of their energy. By contrast, most other cells generate 70 percent of their energy from glucose and only 30 percent from fatty acids (Kaiser KP, 1987).
In human studies, PLC produced significant improvement in maximum walking distance with claudication (sclerotic peripheral vascular disease) and had no major side effects (Wiseman LR et al 1998). Another study found that PLC significantly reduced homocysteine levels when administered intravenously to hemodialysis patients (Signorelli, 2006).
Animal studies suggest PLC may help prevent or decrease the severity of vascular disease. In rabbits fed a high-cholesterol diet, which normally induces endothelial dysfunction and subsequent atherosclerosis, supplementation with PLC resulted in reduced plaque thickness, markedly lower triglyceride levels and reduced proliferation of foam cells (Spagnoli, 1995).
PLC also improves endothelial function by increasing nitric oxide production in animals with normal blood pressure and in animal models of hypertension. Nitric oxide is important because it helps keep arteries open. The increased nitric oxide production induced by PLC is related to its antioxidant properties; PLC reduces reactive oxygen species and increases nitric oxide production in the endothelium in the presence of the antioxidative enzymes superoxide dismutase and catalase (Bueno R et al 2005).
L-arginine. This amino acid has attracted attention for its ability to improve endothelial function. L-arginine serves as the precursor of nitric oxide in the endothelium (Cockcraft JR 2005). To find out whether L-arginine improved arterial function in people with peripheral arterial disease, as well as determine an optimal oral dose, a group of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, looked at L-arginine’s ability to improve walking distance and walking speed among people with peripheral arterial disease. The research group found in a pilot study of 80 patients that 3 g L-arginine daily improved both walking speed and distance (Oka RK et al 2005).
Another study looked at the effects of oral L-arginine in patients with stable coronary artery disease. The team found that L-arginine therapy of 10 g daily improved brachial artery dilation, a measure of endothelial function (Yin WH et al 2005).
CoQ10. CoQ10 is critically important for vascular health, as it is directly involved in the production of ATP, the “energy currency” of the human body. Because the heart is a muscle that never rests, it needs a substantial amount of CoQ10. CoQ10 levels in heart tissue decline disproportionately with age. At age 20, the heart has a higher CoQ10 level than other major organs. At age 80 this is no longer true, with heart levels cut by more than half (Kalen, 1989). CoQ10 pioneer Karl Folkers (1985), in agreement with other Japanese studies, found lower CoQ10 levels in patients with more severe heart disease and showed that CoQ10 supplements significantly raised blood and heart tissue levels of CoQ10 in these patients.
In addition to its involvement in energy production, CoQ10 is also a potent antioxidant. CoQ10 is the first line of defense against LDL oxidation; oxidized LDL is a major contributor to endothelial dysfunction (Thomas, 1995).
CoQ10, in combination with vitamins C, E and selenium, was shown in a randomized controlled trial to significantly improve arterial elasticity in patients with multiple cardiovascular risk factors. The authors found that the antioxidant-induced increases in arterial elasticity were associated with improved glucose and lipid metabolism, as well as decreased blood pressure (Shargorodsky, 2010).
In an animal study, CoQ10 supplementation was shown to improve endothelial function, as measured by thoracic aorta nitric oxide availability and blood pressure (Graham, 2009).
Pomegranate. For HDL to perform its vital functions, an enzyme called paraoxonase-1 (PON-1) is attached to its surface. PON-1 serves to protect HDL from oxidation, which impairs its ability to protect arteries. As humans age, PON-1 levels markedly decline, thereby reducing the ability of HDL to protect against heart attack and stroke. This phenomenon helps explain the onset of accelerated atherosclerosis; where within a period of only a few years, an aging person’s healthy arteries rapidly occlude with plaque. In addition to its ability to protect HDL against oxidation, PON-1 has also been shown to hydrolyze (break apart)homocysteine thiolactones, which are responsible for damage to blood vessels. So PON-1, on its own, is a blood vessel protector (Jakubowski, 2001).
Lipid peroxidation is a free radical reaction that severely damages cell membranes and is implicated in a host of degenerative diseases. PON-1 blocks destructive lipid peroxidation reactions, making it a crucial enzymefor aging humans to maintain (Rozenberg, 2003; Leus, 2000; Sapian-Paczkowska, 2010; Ikeda, 2007).
Research indicates that pomegranate and its extracts can significantly elevate levels of PON-1 activity in the body. Pomegranate does this through a number of distinct biomolecular pathways that include combating inflammation and LDL adhesion and favorably modulating gene expression. Pomegranate extracts reduce oxidation and inflammation largely through their effect on PON-1 activity, intervening at each step in the development of atherosclerosis (Aviram, 2000).
Researchers studied the effects of pomegranate on human subjects who consumed pomegranate juice for 2 weeks. The team found dramatic reductions in LDL “clumping” and retention in vessels, accompanied by a 20% increase in PON-1 activity (van Himbergen, 2006).
In atherosclerosis-prone mice supplemented with pomegranate, a 90% reduction in oxidation of LDL cholesterol was seen. Supplemented mice also developed atherosclerotic lesions 44% smaller than controls, an effect attributed to reduction in the number of inflammatory foam cells (van Himbergen, 2006).
Lipoic acid. This naturally occurring antioxidant serves as a coenzyme in energy metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. It can regenerate thioredoxin (an antioxidant protein), vitamin C, and glutathione, which in turn can recycle vitamin E. Lipoic acid also helps manage proper serum glucose levels in diabetic patients (Packer, 2001). In animal studies, it has been shown to reduce endothelial dysfunction (Lee WJ et al 2005a). Human studies have found that lipoic acid improves endothelial function among people with metabolic syndrome (Sola, 2005). Lipoic acid works best in combination with antioxidants including vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, carnitine, and selenomethionine (Mosca, 2002).
Garlic. Aged garlic extract has been studied for its ability to reduce inflammation and the damaging effects of cholesterol in the endothelium (Orekhov,1995). In one study of 15 men with coronary artery disease who were also being treated with statin drugs and low-dose aspirin, two weeks of supplementation with aged garlic extract significantly improved blood flow by improving endothelial function (Williams, 2005).
Finally, high-dose garlic was studied in 152 individuals with clinically observable atherosclerotic plaque buildup. Over 48 months, the study participants experienced significantly less increase in plaque deposits than a control group, and a regression of plaque was seen in some participants, leading researchers to conclude that garlic had a “not only preventative but possibly also a curative role in arteriosclerosis therapy” (Koscielny,1999).
Ginkgo biloba. Several studies have shown that ginkgo favorable alters endothelial function and reduces levels of oxidized LDL (Kudolo GB et al 2003; Ou, 2009; Pierre, 2008). Ginkgo has also been shown to protect against the formation of foam cells (Tsai, 2010).
In a study involving eight patients who had recently undergone aortocoronary bypass surgery, supplementation with ginkgo biloba extract, 120 mg twice daily, was shown to reduce atherosclerotic plaque formation by 11.9% and reduce nanoplaque size by 24.4%. Furthermore, ginkgo increased levels of endogenous antioxidant enzymes and reduce levels of the dangerous oxidized-LDL (Rodriguez, 2007).
In an animal model, researchers found that ginkgo was effective in reducing high homocysteine-induced intimal thickening, indicating a reversal in the atherosclerotic process (Liu, 2008).
Resveratrol. Experiments have shown that the benefits of resveratrol include improvements in the health of the endothelial tissue lining blood vessels (Balestrieri, 2007; Ungvari, 2007; Wang, 2007; Ballard, 2007). One mechanism by which it does this is to facilitate the generation of endothelial progenitor stem cells, thereby providing the endothelium with fresh new cells.
Resveratrol benefits the circulatory system by eliciting a decrease in the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL); by fostering decreases in platelet aggregation; and by promoting relaxation of small blood vessels called arterioles (Nissen, 2006; Taylor, 2002; Crouse, 2007; Cloarec, 2007). Collectively, these mechanisms benefit the overall health of the cardiovascular system by decreasing factors that contribute to the development of atherosclerosis, and by decreasing the likelihood of undesirable clotting, which, in turn, decreases the risk of stroke (Opie, 2007). Furthermore, data indicate that resveratrol decreases the incidence of dangerous heart arrhythmias (Chen, 2007).
Quercetin. The so-called French paradox is the phenomenon of low rates of heart disease in a country known for its high intake of fatty foods. Recent research suggests that one of the reasons French people are protected from heart disease is a high intake of quercetin, a potent antioxidant and polyphenol found in red wine (Kuhlman, 2005) and certain vegetables. Numerous studies have examined quercetin and found it to be both a powerful antioxidant and a stimulator of nitric oxide, which inhibits endothelial proliferation, a hallmark of atherosclerosis (Kuhlman, 2005).
In spontaneously hypertensive rats, quercetin, along with other bioflavonoids, preserved endothelial function by increasing nitric oxide and reducing blood pressure (Machha, 2005).
A porcine study showed that quercetin has potent antioxidative properties and protects endothelial cells against induced dysfunction (Reiterer, 2004). Quercetin and resveratrol may work particularly well together.
Green tea extract. Green tea extracts, which are rich in natural antioxidants and antiplatelet agents, are routinely used in Asia to lower blood pressure and reduce elevated cholesterol. In studies of smokers, 600 mL green tea (not extract) was shown to decrease markers of inflammation and decrease oxidized cholesterol, both of which are intimately involved in the development of atherosclerosis (Lee W et al 2005b).
A Japanese study of 203 patients found that the more green tea patients drink, the less likely they are to suffer from coronary artery disease (Sano J et al 2004). This study supported an earlier study that found that greater green tea consumption was related to a reduced presence of coronary artery disease in Japanese men (Sasazuki S et al 2000).
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Vitamin C inhibits damage caused by oxidative stress. In cigarette smokers, daily supplementation with 500 mg vitamin C significantly decreased the appearance of oxidative stress markers (Dietrich M et al 2002). Another study showed that supplementation with 500 mg vitamin C and 400 IU vitamin E daily reduced the development of accelerated coronary arteriosclerosis following cardiac transplantation (Fang JC et al 2002).
Vitamin C’s benefits seem especially profound in people who suffer from both diabetes and coronary artery disease. One study demonstrated that, in this group, vitamin C significantly improved vasodilation (Antoniades C et al 2004).
Vitamin K. Vitamin K is steadily gaining attention for its ability to reduce vascular calcification and help prevent vascular disease (Jie KSG et al 1996). Evidence for the ability of vitamin K to prevent calcification can also be found in an animal study in which researchers administered the anticoagulant warfarin to rats. Warfarin is known to deplete vitamin K. At the end of the study, all the animals had extensive calcification, suggesting they had lost the protective effect of vitamin K (Howe AM 2000).
A large study of more than 4,800 subjects followed for 7-10 years in the Netherlands demonstrated that people in the highest one-third of vitamin K2 intake had a 57% reduction in risk of dying from vascular disease, compared to those with the lowest intake. Furthermore, their risk of having severe aortic calcification plummeted by 52%—a clear demonstration of the vitamin’s protective effects (Geleijnse, 2004).
Another study by the same group showed that higher vitamin K2 intake was associated with a 20% decreased risk of coronary artery calcification (Beulens, 2009).
Vitamin E. Vitamin E is often studied in conjunction with vitamin C for its potent antioxidant powers. It has been shown to decrease lipid peroxidation and inhibit smooth muscle cell proliferation, platelet aggregation, monocyte adhesion, oxidized LDL uptake, and cytokine production—all of which occur during sclerotic vascular disease (Munteanu A et al 2004; Harris A et al 2002).
In cultured arterial endothelial cells, vitamin E increased the production of prostacyclin, a potent vasodilator and inhibitor of platelet aggregation (Wu D et al 2004). Most vitamin E supplements come in the form of alpha tocopherol, but it is also important to supplement with around 200 mg of gamma tocopherol to gain vitamin E’s comprehensive benefits.
Several studies show that patients with advanced cardiovascular disease exhibit normal plasma levels of alpha tocopherol but have substantially lower levels of gamma tocopherol (Ohrvall, 1996; Kontush, 1999; Ohrvall, 1994). In a seven-year follow-up study of more than 334,000 postmenopausal women with no previous heart disease, greater intake of dietary vitamin E—consisting predominantly of gamma tocopherol—was strongly associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease. The data did not appear to demonstrate a similarly protective role for supplemental alpha tocopherol (Kushi, 1996).
Numerous animal studies likewise suggest that gamma tocopherol may provide powerful protection for the heart. In laboratory rats, supplementation with gamma tocopherol reduced platelet aggregation and clot formation even more effectively than alpha tocopherol (Saldeen, 1999). In addition, gamma tocopherol at physiological doses was more effective than alpha tocopherol in enhancing the activity of superoxide dismutase (SOD), an antioxidant enzyme that may help reduce the risk of cardiac events (Li, 1999).
Niacin. Niacin reduces VLDL particles. Less VLDL leads to less small-dense LDL (prone to oxidation and atherogenesis) and higher HDL (Carlson, 2005). Niacin also improves endothelial function and nitric oxide synthase activity.
Niacin’s benefits are not limited to its influence on blood markers of vascular disease risk. It also reduces heart attack risk dramatically. The Coronary Drug Project was the first to establish that niacin is a powerful agent in lowering heart attack risk. When more than 1,000 heart attack survivors were given 3000 mg of (immediate-release/crystalline) niacin daily for six years, the incidence of recurrent non-fatal heart attacks was reduced by 27%, and the number of strokes was reduced by 26% (Canner, 1986).
Gynostemma pentaphyllum. Gynostemma pentaphyllum (G. pentaphyllum) has long been used in traditional Asian medicine to promote health (Liu 2015). It activates a critical enzyme called adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK) (Park 2014; Gauhar 2012; Nguyen 2011).
AMPK is found inside every cell (Shirwany 2014). It serves as a master regulating switch, affecting metabolism and longevity (Ulgherait 2014). Levels of activated AMPK decrease with age (Hardman 2014; Yang 2010; Mortensen 2009; Liu 2012; Salminen 2012; Rojas 2011).
Results of G. pentaphyllum-induced AMPK activation include increased fat burning, as well as an increase in cellular glucose uptake (Gauhar 2012; Nguyen 2011). Studies of G. pentaphyllum demonstrate considerable cardiovascular benefits (Circosta 2005; Gou 2016; Tanner 1999; Yu 2016).
A study in people with type II diabetes who were not taking any medications showed daily supplementation with G. pentaphyllum tea for 12 weeks reduced fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin A1C levels, and insulin resistance significantly more than placebo (Huyen 2010). A similar study in people with type II diabetes who were already taking the antidiabetic drug gliclazide showed adding G. pentaphyllum significantly reduced fasting blood sugar more than two-fold, and significantly lowered hemoglobin A1C as well (Huyen 2012). A study in obese individuals showed daily supplementation with G. pentaphyllum extract for 12 weeks significantly reduced body weight, total abdominal fat area, body fat mass, percentage body fat, and body mass index compared with placebo (Park 2014).
Trans-tiliroside. Trans-tiliroside is a flavonoid extracted from members of the Rosaceae plant family (Goto 2012; Nagatomo 2015). It is a functional component of the traditional Chinese herbal medicine Potentilla chinensis Ser. (Zhu 2010; Qiao 2011) and is found in substantial quantities in rosehip (Cohen 2012; Ninomiya 2007). Trans-tiliroside stimulates AMPK signaling within cells (Goto 2012).
AMPK signaling stimulates and regulates fat metabolism, causing cells to burn intracellular fat stores. Chronic AMPK activation has been shown to limit triglyceride accumulation in liver cells of rats fed a high-fat diet (Henriksen 2013). AMPK activation also reduces new fat and cholesterol synthesis in the liver (Henin 1995).
In diabetic rodents, trans-tiliroside reduced glucose, total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in blood, and raised levels of “good” HDL cholesterol (Qiao 2011). In rats with high blood pressure, trans-tiliroside dose-dependently reduced blood pressure by dilating blood vessels and reducing peripheral resistance (Silva 2013). Trans-tiliroside also reduced the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (Schinella 2007), which is a key stage in the development of atherosclerosis (Holvoet 2001; Gómez 2014).
In a controlled clinical trial, study participants who consumed 40 g of rose hip meal prepared as a beverage daily for six weeks experienced a 4.9% reduction in total cholesterol, 6% reduction in LDL cholesterol, and 6.5% improvement in the ratio of a LDL to HDL cholesterol, compared with placebo. Moreover, study participants also achieved a 3.4% reduction in systolic blood pressure and an impressive 17% improvement in their overall cardiovascular disease risk score compared with those drinking a control beverage. The authors of this clinical trial ascribed some portion of the overall benefit to the trans-tiliroside fraction of the rose hip extract (Andersson 2012).
Lactobacillus reuteri. Various Lactobacillus species have demonstrated positive effects on risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and markers of inflammation (Upadrasta 2016). A research review found that, of the probiotic strains studied, Lactobacillus reuteri (L. reuteri) NCIMB 30242 had the best evidence for reducing cardiac risk by safely lowering total and LDL cholesterol and levels of inflammatory markers (DiRienzo 2014).
In a randomized controlled trial, 114 participants with high cholesterol levels who were otherwise healthy consumed either a probiotic yogurt providing 2.8 billion colony forming units of microencapsulated L. reuteriNCIMB 30242 or a control yogurt daily for six weeks. The L. reuteri group had reductions in total cholesterol (9%) and LDL-cholesterol (5%), levels relative to the placebo yogurt group. ApoB100 (a structural component of atherogenic LDL and VLDL cholesterol), which at high levels is associated with vascular disease, was significantly reduced in the L. reuteri group (Jones, Martoni, Parent 2012; Semekovich 2016). In another controlled clinical trial on 127 healthy adults with high cholesterol levels, subjects received either capsules ofL. reuteri NCIMB 30242 or placebo for nine weeks. Those taking the L. reuteri probiotic had a greater than 9% drop in total cholesterol and a drop in LDL cholesterol levels of over 11.5% compared with placebo. The ratio of apoB-100 to apoA-1 fell by 9% in the L. reuteri-supplemented group compared with placebo. The apoB-100:apoA-1 ratio is a strong predictor of cardiovascular risk, particularly in overweight and obese individuals (Lu 2011; Walldius 2012). High-sensitivity C-reactive protein and fibrinogen, additional markers of cardiovascular risk and inflammation, were also significantly reduced relative to placebo (Jones, Martoni, Prakash 2012). A later analysis of the same study showed vitamin D levels increased more in the L. reuterigroup than the placebo group (Jones, Martoni, Prakash 2013). Since low vitamin D levels have been associated with high cardiovascular disease risk (Liu 2016), raising vitamin D levels is another way this probiotic may prevent cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, another post-trial analysis of the data from this study found subjects taking the probiotic also experienced general improvement in functional gastrointestinal symptoms (Jones, Martoni, Ganopolsky 2013).
Centella asiatica. Centella asiatica (C. asiatica) is a perennial herbaceous plant used in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for thousands of years (Gohil 2010). The most important bioactive components in C. asiatica are triterpenes, which have been studied extensively for their healing properties, including to the endothelium (Bylka 2014; Incandela, Cesarone 2001; Alqahtani 2015; Zheng 2007; Fong 2015). Centella’s benefit to the vascular endothelium appears to be related, at least in part, to anti-inflammatory activity, modulation of collagen formation, and oxidative stress reduction (Belcaro 2011).
C. asiatica has been demonstrated to stabilize atherosclerotic plaques. In two randomized controlled trials in patients with atherosclerosis, supplementation with 60 mg of a triterpenoid extract of C. asiatica, three times daily for 12 months, stabilized atherosclerotic plaques in femoral and carotid arteries (Incandela, Belcaro 2001; Cesarone 2001). A series of studies lasting from 2.5 to 4 years examined the effect of a novel combination of C. asiatica triterpenoid extract and the pine bark extract known as Pycnogenol on progression of mild atherosclerosis. Researchers found the combination reduced and limited the progression of atherosclerotic plaque; they also observed an association between these benefits and a significant reduction in oxidative stress (Belcaro, Dugall 2015; Belcaro 2014; Belcaro, Ippolito 2015).
Pycnogenol. Pycnogenol® is a standardized bark extract of the French maritime pine tree (Pinus pinaster). Between two thirds and three quarters of Pycnogenol is made up of procyanidin compounds, specifically catechins and epicatechins (D’Andrea 2010; Rohdewald 2002). Pycnogenol benefits cardiovascular health through a variety of important mechanisms. It has been demonstrated to inhibit inflammation and clotting and to improve endothelial function (Gu 2008).
In a randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover trial, individuals with coronary artery disease received 200 mg Pycnogenol daily for eight weeks followed by placebo or vice versa. Treatment with Pycnogenol resulted in a significant reduction in oxidative stress and a 32% increase in a standardized measure of blood flow and vasodilation, a powerful indicator of endothelial function (Enseleit 2012). In a double-blind placebo-controlled trial in 58 hypertensive adults, those who took 100 mg Pycnogenol daily for 12 weeks reduced their dosage of a calcium-channel blocker and experienced a significant decrease in levels of the powerful vasoconstrictor endothelin-1 (Liu 2004).
In a preclinical study, Pycnogenol suppressed expression of inflammatory and tissue factors involved in the formation of atherosclerotic plaques, including nuclear factor-kappa B, interleukin-6, and interferon-beta (Gu 2008). In a mouse model of induced atherosclerosis, Pycnogenol reduced the size of atherosclerotic plaques; reduced total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels; and raised HDL cholesterol levels (Luo 2015). A clinical trial in smokers found 200 mg Pycnogenol per day for two months, taken before the first cigarette of the day, inhibited smoking-induced platelet aggregation to the level of non-smokers (Araghi-Niknam 2000).
Pycnogenol has been shown, in a preclinical as well as in a randomized clinical trial, to enhance nitric oxide production via increased endothelial nitric oxide synthase activity, which can ameliorate endothelial dysfunction (Fitzpatrick 1998; Nishioka 2007). Enhanced nitric oxide function may also inhibit LDL cholesterol oxidation and platelet aggregation, which are critical steps in atherosclerotic plaque formation (Fitzpatrick 1998).
Citrus flavonoid glycoside. Citrus fruits have long been associated with good health, and research has found flavonoid molecules in citrus have powerful cardioprotective and anticancer activity (Turati 2015; Mulvihill 2012; Roohbakhsh 2015; Farooqi 2015; Peterson 2006). Flavonoids are highly concentrated in the peel of citrus fruit (Manthey 1996; Londoño-Londoño 2010; Rawson 2014).
Of particular interest is a unique flavonoid known chemically as hesperetin-7-O-rutinoside 2S. In a clinical absorption trial, hesperetin-7-O-rutinoside 2S was found to be 108% more bioavailable than standard hesperidin (BioActor 2013). Hesperetin-7-O-rutinoside 2S belongs to a special form of flavonoids known as flavonoid glycosides. Laboratory and animal experiments have demonstrated hesperetin-7-O-rutinoside 2S has a beneficial effect on endothelial function and inflammation. In a placebo-controlled crossover trial, 24 participants with metabolic syndrome received 500 mg per day of hesperetin-7-O-rutinoside 2S or placebo for three weeks. A significant improvement in endothelial function was apparent for those in the hesperetin-7-O-rutinoside 2S arm of the trial, and this effect was found even after the supplement had been discontinued. Inflammatory markers were significantly decreased in those taking hesperetin-7-O-rutinoside 2S. This beneficial effect appears to occur as a result of increased expression of endothelial nitric oxide synthase (Possemiers 2015)
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The Remarkable Lifesaving Benefits of Aspirin: Part 3.
Oftentimes, the benefits of aspirin are overlooked in light of the numerous nutritional ingredients that convey cardio-protective effects. This is unfortunate because maturing individuals can utilize aspirin, along with these nutritional ingredients, to significantly enhance their defense against cardiovascular disease.
Studies indicate that aspirin may protect against heart disease in part by improving endothelial function. In a study involving 41 patients with hypertension and high cholesterol, 100 mg of aspirin daily was shown to lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure and to increase flow-mediated dilation, a maker of endothelial function (Magen, 2005).
The heart depends on its coronary arteries for the oxygen supply that fuels this most vital of organs. Coronary heart disease occurs when normal blood flow through the arteries that feed the heart is slowed or interrupted by factors such as blood clots or plaque.
Preventing clots is another way that aspirin helps prevent heart attacks. By irreversibly blocking production of clot-promoting compounds known as thromboxanes, aspirin prevents platelets in the blood from latching on to each other and forming a clot. A platelet has a life span of 10 days, and aspirin irreversibly impairs the platelet’s clotting ability. Aspirin helps blood flow more smoothly past any plaque that is narrowing an artery, and if a plaque ruptures, aspirin will reduce the likelihood of a clot clinging to it (Steinhubl, 2005).
Aspirin can also help prevent heart disease through its anti-inflammatory action. Inflammation participates in many disease processes in the body, including plaque accumulation in the arteries (Libby, 2002). The growth of plaque can obstruct blood flow through the arteries. If a plaque ruptures due to inflammation, it can trigger a heart attack.
A 2003 meta-analysis examined aspirin’s effects on primary heart-attack prevention (that is, the prevention of first heart attacks). In more than 55,000 men and women, aspirin use was associated with a 32% reduction in the risk of having a first heart attack, and with a 15% reduction in the risk of all major vascular events (Eidelman, 2003).
A study presented at the 2005 meeting of the American Heart Association reported on the lifesaving benefits of aspirin therapy. This study examined nearly 9,000 women with stable heart disease, ranging in age from 50 to 79. During more than six years of follow-up, women taking aspirin were 25% less likely to die from heart disease and 17% less likely to die from any cause. Some women took 81 mg of aspirin daily, while others took 325 mg. The study authors stated that the two doses appeared to be similarly effective, but that higher doses of aspirin are associated with a greater risk of certain side effects, such as stomach bleeding (American Heart Association).
A meta-analysis published in 2006 examined the effects of aspirin therapy in preventing cardiovascular events in women and men. Examining data from more than 50,000 women, investigators determined that aspirin therapy was associated with a significant 12% reduction in cardiovascular events in women. Among more than 44,000 men, aspirin therapy produced a significant 14% reduction in all cardiovascular events and an even more impressive 32% reduction in heart attacks (Berger, 2006).
According to the US Preventive Services Task Force, aspirin’s proven benefits are reason enough for people to start using it if they have at least a 6% chance of developing coronary heart disease in the next 10 years. By contrast, the American Heart Association recommends aspirin for people whose 10-year risk of developing coronary heart disease is 10% or higher, as long they have no medical contraindications for taking the drug. A doctor can help you calculate your cardiovascular risk based on factors such as tobacco use, cholesterol, and blood pressure. You can also assess your cardiovascular risk by using online risk factor calculators available at the American Heart Association website.
Life Extension strongly recommends that people who have already had a heart attack (or other episode of heart disease) discuss aspirin therapy with their doctor as part of a strategy to prevent future problems. Life Extension also suggests that people with no previous history of cardiovascular disease—but who are nevertheless at high risk for heart disease—strongly consider aspirin therapy in consultation with their personal physician. The recommended dose for preventing heart-related problems is 81-325 mg daily. Speak with your doctor about your personal needs before beginning aspirin therapy.
Hormones and Cardiovascular Health
Testosterone and estrogen balance (men). Recent studies suggest that testosterone-replacement may improve the symptoms of vascular disease. A placebo-controlled crossover study in men with ischemic heart disease and low testosterone levels reported that exercise time and the time to development of ischemic changes on a treadmill test were both increased with testosterone-replacement therapy (Malkin, 2004).
It has been shown that men with lower levels of testosterone have poorer endothelial function. In a study of 187 males, researchers found that those men in the highest quartile of testosterone levels had 1.7 fold greater flow mediated dilation, a marker of endothelial function (Akishita, 2007).
In another study, researchers examined the correlation between testosterone levels and mortality in over 900 men with coronary heart disease. The team found that the mortality rate in patients with testosterone deficiency was 21%, while only 12% of subjects with normal testosterone levels died. The authors of the study concluded that “in patients with coronary disease testosterone deficiency is common and impacts significantly negatively on survival” (Malkin, 2010).
Researchers analyzed 30-day survival data for 126 men who had suffered a heart attack. All of the men who did not survive were found to have low total testosterone levels (<= 300 ng/dL). The team went on to conclude that “a low level of testosterone was independently related to total short-term [post-heart attack] mortality (Militaru, 2010).
Testosterone levels are also inversely associated with the development of coronary artery disease. In a study of men 45 years of age or younger, researchers found that subjects with diagnosed coronary artery disease had significantly lower levels of free testosterone than did healthy, age-matched controls. The researchers went on to caution that, based on their findings, “a low level of free testosterone may be related to the development of premature coronary artery disease” (Turhan, 2007).
Italian researchers compared plasma testosterone levels of 119 elderly men with isolated systolic hypertension to those of 106 nonhypertensive elderly men. All the study participants were 60 to 79 years old, non-obese, nondiabetic, and nonsmokers. The hypertensive men were found to have 14% lower levels of testosterone compared to the nonhypertensive men. In both the hypertensive and nonhypertensive men, low testosterone levels correlated with higher blood pressure values (Fogari, 2003).
In a study of over 11,000 men, followed for up to 10 years, baseline testosterone concentrations were inversely associated with cardiovascular and all-cause mortality. Men with total testosterone levels of 481 ng/dL or greater at baseline were significantly less likely to die of cardiovascular disease or any cause during the follow-up period compared to men with testosterone levels below 481 ng/dL. The correlation held even after adjustment for various other confounding factors. The authors of this study declared that “low testosterone may be a predictive marker for those at high risk of cardiovascular disease” (Khaw, 2007).
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) measured blood estradiol (a dominant estrogen) in 501 men with chronic heart failure. Compared to men in the balanced estrogen quintile, men in the lowest estradiol quintile were 317% more likely to die during a 3-year follow-up, while men in thehighest estradiol quintile were 133% more likely to die (Jankowska, 2009).
The men in the balanced quintile—with the fewest deaths—had serum estradiol levels between 21.80 and 30.11 pg/mL. This is very similar to the optimal range that Life Extension has long recommended for aging men. The men in the highest quintile who suffered 133% increased death rates had serum estradiol levels of 37.40 pg/mL or above. The lowest estradiol group that suffered a 317% increased death rate had serum estradiol levels under 12.90 pg/mL.
For more information on optimizing male hormone levels in order to prevent not only vascular disease, but many other age-related diseases as well, please review the chapter on Male Hormone Restoration Therapy.
Testosterone Protects Women Too
Testosterone is often thought to be beneficial only for men. However, a study of nearly 3,000 women reveals that maintaining optimal testosterone levels is important for females as well. After assessing testosterone levels at baseline, researchers found that, over a 4.5 year follow-up period, those women with the lowest levels of testosterone were more likely to experience a cardiovascular event and to die of any cause than women with the highest testosterone. The authors concluded “low baseline testosterone in women is associated with increased all-cause mortality and incident cardiovascular events independent of traditional risk factors” (Sievers, 2010).
DHEA (men and women). DHEA is a precursor to sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Levels of steroid hormones, including DHEA, decline with the age-associated onset of a variety of medical conditions, including chronic inflammation, hypertension, and atherosclerosis. Higher levels of DHEA in humans are associated with lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers (Sondergaard HP et al 2004).
A study showed that men with high levels of DHEA tended to have greater protection against aortic atherosclerosis progression (Hak AE et al 2002). Similarly, another study of 419 Japanese individuals found that those with the highest circulating levels of DHEA-sulfate (form of DHEA commonly measured on blood tests) were much less likely to have carotid atherosclerosis (Yoshida, 2010).
Animal studies show a protective role for DHEA in preventing atherosclerosis. Providing DHEA to human vascular endothelial cells in culture increases nitric oxide synthesis, which boosts blood flow (Simoncini T et al 2003).
Progesterone (women). Several studies have determined that non-bioidentical progestin promotes the formation of atherosclerosis (Register, 1998; Levine, 1996). The story is quite different for bioidenticalprogesterone, where multiple animal studies have shown that bioidentical progesterone inhibits the process of atherosclerosis (Morey, 1997; Houser, 2000). To illustrate, scientists fed postmenopausal monkeys a diet which is known to cause atherosclerosis for 30 months. The scientists then divided the monkeys into groups that received estrogen alone, estrogen plus non-bioidentical progestin, or a control group that did not receive hormones. The control group developed substantial atherosclerotic plaque. The administration of estrogen resulted in a 72% decrease in atherosclerotic plaque, compared to the control group. Treatment with non-bioidentical progestin yielded disturbing results. The group that received estrogen combined with non-bioidentical progestin had a similar amount of atherosclerotic plaque as the control group, meaning that non-bioidentical progestin completely reversed estrogen’s inhibitory effects on the formation of atherosclerosis (Adams, 1997). In contrast, when the same investigators administered bioidentical progesterone along with estrogen, no such inhibition of estrogen’s cardiovascular benefit was seen (Adams, 1990).
In a trial published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers studied postmenopausal women with a history of heart attack or coronary artery disease. The women were given estrogen in combination with either bioidentical progesterone or non-bioidentical progestin. After 10 days of treatment the women underwent exercise treadmill tests. Compared to the non-bioidentical progestin group, the amount of time it took to produce myocardial ischemia (reduced blood flow to the heart) on the exercise treadmill was substantially improved in the bioidentical progesterone group (Rosano, 2000).
Estriol (women). Growing evidence suggests that estriol may offer benefits to the cardiovascular system. For instance, Japanese scientists found that a group of menopausal women given estriol for 12 months had a significant decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (Takahashi, 2000). Another study compared the use of estriol for 10 months in 20 postmenopausal and 29 elderly women. Some of the elderly women had decreases in total cholesterol and triglycerides and an increase in beneficial HDL (Nishibe, 1996).
To examine the effects of estriol on atherosclerosis, researchers conducted an experiment in which female rabbits were fed a high cholesterol diet with or without supplemental estriol. The rabbits had their ovaries removed surgically to mimic menopause. Remarkably, the group receiving estriol had 75% less atherosclerosis than the group fed the high cholesterol diet alone (without estriol) (Kano, 2002).
Phytoestrogens (women). Following menopause, circulating levels of estrogen are depleted. Phytoestrogens are plant hormones with estrogenic activity. In postmenopausal women, phytoestrogens appear to have estrogen-like benefits such as protection against osteoporosis (Atkinson C et al 2004; Crisafulli A et al 2004a) and possibly hot flashes (Crisafulli A et al 2004b). Phytoestrogens have also been shown to improve vascular function, which tends to decline with age. In one study genistein, a phytoestrogen, provided in a daily 54 mg supplement for one year, significantly improved endothelium-dependent vasodilation in postmenopausal women. Moreover, its benefits were as substantial as those observed in women receiving an estrogen-progestin regimen (Squadrito F et al 2003).
For more information on optimizing female hormone levels in order to prevent not only cardiovascular disease, but other age-related diseases as well, please review the chapter on Female Hormone Restoration Therapy.
Atherosclerosis is a serious threat to the health of a staggering number of individuals across the globe. Its progression has been linked to increased risk of heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation and dementia, among other potentially fatal conditions. Since it may begin as early as childhood and aging has been identified as the greatest risk factor for its development, it is vital to combat this disease as early—and as aggressively—as possible. Unfortunately, if aging individuals leave the health of their arteries in the hands of mainstream medicine, they cannot expect conventional approaches to address all the risk factors that lead to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
Comprehensive blood testing helps aging individuals identify and target their specific risk factors, allowing for the development of a personalized, targeted treatment regimen that can be used to preserve and improve cardiovascular health.
In contrast to the methods of mainstream medicine, which address only very few heart disease risk factors, Life Extension has identified numerous scientifically validated ways by which aging individuals can improve the function of their endothelial cells and greatly reduce their risk of developing deadly atherosclerotic plaque buildup in their blood vessels.
“The Great American Heart Hoax”
May 2009 Life Extension Magazine, By Michael Ozner, MD
America spends at least $60 billion a year on invasive cardiovascular care. Even in these days of escalating national debt and unbalanced budgets, that’s a staggering amount of money. And shockingly, evidence suggests that much of it is being squandered on high-risk, expensive procedures that have not been proven to either save lives or prevent heart attacks.
Studies show that these now-common cardiac procedures—including coronary artery angioplasties, stent placements, and coronary bypass surgeries—are of dubiou
s value, adding little in terms of long-term health outcomes, and sometimes even making things worse than if they hadn’t been performed at all. America has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we perform half of the world’s bypass surgeries and stent placements.
And countries that spend a fraction of what we do on heart surgery have fewer per capita heart attacks and fewer heart-related deaths! Cardiovascular care is an almost obscenely lucrative industry in America, and evidence abounds that financial concerns may be distracting hospitals and physicians from focusing on what should be their primary concern: what’s truly best for the patient.
The American Heart Association reports that 80 million men and women suffered from cardiovascular disease in 2005. Many of those unfortunate individuals experienced severely reduced quality of life, enduring symptoms that include intermittent to constant chest pain, to the inability to walk, breathlessness, and countless drug side effects, among other troubling symptoms. As heart disease worsens, doctors are often forced to prescribe an increasing number of drugs to alleviate escalating symptoms—medications that present the risk of dangerous drug interactions. And despite the billions spent on cardiovascular medicine annually, nearly a million men and women in America over the age of eighteen die each year of heart disease.
Clearly, we have a problem. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to resign ourselves to lives of increasingly clogged arteries and ever-mounting risk of heart attack or stroke. Nor must we resign ourselves to dependence on expensive medications, or submit to surgeries that don’t work. There is an alternative to invasive procedures, costly surgery, and an ever-declining quality of life.
In my work as an experienced, well-trained, board-certified cardiologist and a Fellow of both the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, I’ve seen countless numbers of patients not only avoid worsening heart disease, but actually improve their health and quality of life.
The Numbers Tell the Story
More than 1.5 million angioplasties and coronary bypass surgeries are done annually in the US, which makes heart surgery among the most commonly performed surgical procedures for both men and women. Although heart surgery can be lifesaving, the truth is that surgery benefits only a small fraction of the millions of patients who undergo these operations. For the majority—an estimated 70 to 90 percent—these procedures are at best unnecessary.
In fact, except for a minority of patients, bypass surgery and angioplasty have never been shown to prolong life or prevent heart attacks. And while American patients are seven times more likely to undergo coronary angioplasty and bypass surgery than patients in Canada and Sweden, the number of Canadians and Swedes who die from cardiovascular disease is nearly identical (per capita) to the number of people who die from heart disease in this country.
We’re spending billions of dollars every year on risky procedures that have never been shown to benefit the majority of patients, or make a significant difference in the overall mortality rate.
In fact, the mortality rate for bypass surgery ranges from 3 to 5 percent. This may sound insignificant initially, but when you consider that half a million people undergo these procedures every year, 3 to 5 percent quickly adds up: to 15,000 to 25,000 lives lost a year. Additionally, an estimated 25 to 30 percent of angioplasties fail, requiring patients to repeat the procedure. And eventually many of these angioplasty patients will also require bypass surgery.
The mortality rate isn’t the only worrying statistic associated with bypass surgery. Up to 80 percent of patients may experience cognitive difficulties after surgery, something that can be especially devastating to elderly patients, who may already be experiencing problems with memory and other early signs of cognitive decline. People who undergo bypass surgery are nearly four times more likely to suffer a subsequent stroke at the time of surgery than if they had elected not to go under the knife.
They are also vulnerable to post-surgical infections. Nor are coronary angioplasty and stent placement risk-free; complications include heart attack, stroke, aneurysm at the puncture site, infection, and the need for emergency bypass surgery. Contrast this with the cost of following a heart-healthy lifestyle: none!
An Important Disclaimer
I’m not saying that all heart surgery is a hoax. Far from it! Over the past thirty years, tremendous strides have been made in the surgical treatment of many once-fatal heart problems. Indeed, heart surgery is a life-saver for many, many patients.
Atherosclerosis-related conditions that do warrant surgical intervention include disabling chest pain, despite maximal medical therapy and lifestyle changes; severe blockage of the left main coronary artery; critical blockages of all the major coronary arteries in patients with a weak heart muscle; and unstable coronary syndromes, such as an evolving heart attack.
Don’t mistake my intent: my concern isn’t with cardiac intervention that’s appropriate. My concern’s with the sheer number of inappropriate and unnecessary procedures that are performed—procedures that subject stable patients with coronary artery disease to needless risk when they would be far better served in other ways.
Heart Disease—It’s Not Worth Dying For
What we call cardiovascular disease encompasses a wide range of conditions that affect the heart and vascular system, from high blood pressure (hyper-tension), to coronary artery disease, to heart failure, heart attack (myocardial infarction), peripheral arterial disease, aneurysm, and stroke, among others. All are manifestations of disease within the heart or within the literally thousands of miles of blood vessels in our bodies.
The majority of heart disease is related to something called atherosclerosis, the “hardening” of the arteries through chronic inflammation due to fatty deposits in the artery wall. Healthy arteries are tough while still remaining flexible and elastic. Atherosclerosis gradually destroys this crucial elasticity. When arteries harden, they can block the flow of vital oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the heart, brain, and other organs.
Unfortunately, for a majority of men and about half of all women with atherosclerosis, the first indication that they have this condition is heart attack or sudden cardiac death. Atherosclerosis may take decades to develop, and its progression is stealthy.
Metabolic, Not Surgical
Neither plaque formation nor plaque rupture is simple or straightforward. They both occur because of complex interactions between cholesterol, free radicals, and inflammatory cells. All of these are controlled, either directly or indirectly, by our metabolic processes, which makes heart disease a metabolic disorder—a disorder caused by abnormal chemical reactions in the body that disrupt the normal process of metabolism (how we create energy from the food we eat). And metabolic disorders require metabolic solutions—not surgical ones.
But surgery, in any circumstance, is like putting on a band-aid: it doesn’t fix the problem; it just covers it up for a while.
If we want to stop heart disease, we have to address the underlying causes: cholesterol levels, free radical production, inflammation. The good news is that, because heart disease is a metabolic disorder, all of these things are, to a certain degree, within our control. No one has to die prematurely from heart disease.
Preventing heart disease is in large part a matter of simply encouraging a healthy metabolism: eating the right foods, getting plenty of exercise, and avoiding chronic stress. And you can reverse heart disease the same way. Studies have shown this again and again, including one study published by Harvard-based researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded that lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, etc.) are capable of reducing cardiovascular disease risk by more than 80 percent—a figure which trumps even statin drugs, known to reduce the relative risk of cardiovascular disease risk by 30 to 35 percent.
But if all this is the case—and I can tell you from experience that it is—why aren’t your doctors telling you this? Why does the treatment of heart disease still rely so thoroughly on surgery, which often doesn’t work?
Follow a Mediterranean Diet
What you eat is the single most important factor in your health. It’s something you have an incredible amount of control over (because you make decisions about it every day) and something that affects you at every level (because what you eat provides the building blocks for everything in your body). It plays a part, directly or indirectly, in every other prevention step that follows.
And clinical studies have proved that the best way to eat, for heart disease prevention and for overall health and well-being, is a way that’s been followed for over a thousand years: a Mediterranean diet.
The study that changed the way I think about the connection between diet and health was the Seven Countries Study, the twenty-year study that showed that men living in the Mediterranean region had the lowest incidence of heart disease and the longest life expectancy. This study prompted the lead author, Dr. Ancel Keys, to ask, “If some developed countries can do without heart attacks, why can’t we?” But the Seven Countries Study is far from the only study that demonstrated the benefits of a Mediterranean diet.
Lowering Your Cholesterol
What we need to do is clear: reduce our total cholesterol to under 150 mg/dl, and our LDL cholesterol to around 70 mg/dl. Luckily, how to do it is just as clear. Since we get almost all our cholesterol from our diet, the first step is just to stop consuming so much of it. Lower cholesterol intake equals lower cholesterol.
But what we eat can have a less direct effect on our cholesterol as well. The top foods that have been shown to have a favorable impact on cholesterol include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Olive oil
- Nuts (especially almonds)
- Cold water fish
- Red wine
- Whole grains
- Soy protein
- Plant sterol and stanol spreads
The fiber contained in fruits and vegetables lower cholesterol; in addition, plant sterols in fruits and vegetables interfere with cholesterol’s intestinal absorption. The fiber in nuts, and the plant sterol and stanol in spreads, work the same way. The omega-3 in fish lowers triglycerides, red wine raises “good” HDL cholesterol, and cinnamon (and olive oil) lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol. You may recognize this list of foods; they’re also the main components of a Mediterranean diet.
In addition, exercise has been shown to raise “good” HDL cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and make the “bad” LDL cholesterol particles larger. Larger LDL particles are beneficial because they are less likely than smaller particles to squeeze through the artery lining, get trapped in the wall, and form plaques.
Reduce Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress
The formation of atheromatous plaques, the dangerous cholesterol-laden deposits that can lead to heart attack and stroke, begins when LDL cholesterol gets into the artery wall. But what happens next is just as important to plaque formation as cholesterol itself. Inside the artery wall, LDL cholesterol comes into contact with free radicals, those electron-stealing byproducts of cellular respiration, and becomes oxidized, kicking off a potentially dangerous immune response as the body registers the oxidized cholesterol as a foreign invader.
Ready for some bad news? First, cholesterol isn’t the only thing free radicals steal electrons from. Left unchecked, free radicals cause damage on the cellular level in every part of the body. They’ve been shown to play a part in everything from heart disease, to premature aging, cancer, and many other diseases. When they steal electrons from cholesterol, it leads to heart disease; when they steal electrons from DNA, it leads to cancer.
Second, oxygen free radicals aren’t the only free radicals floating around your body, looking for electrons to steal. We know that oxygen free radicals are produced as a normal part of cellular respiration—the process of turning food into energy—and are used by the immune system to fight off foreign invaders. But any molecule can become a free radical.
All the term “free radical” means is that the atom or molecule is missing an electron and looking for a new one to replace it. So when an oxygen free radical steals an electron and becomes stable—no longer a free radical—whatever molecule it stole from usually becomes a free radical in its place. The new free radical then steals an electron from something else, and so on, creating a dangerous chain reaction that causes disease. We take antioxidant nutrients for the purpose of donating electrons to unstable molecules, thus breaking dangerous free radical chain reactions.
Third, there are certain things—toxins—that, when they enter the body, cause free radical production to go into overdrive. Exactly why this happens, scientists don’t yet know. What we do know is that introducing toxins into the body is like adding lighter fluid to a fire—it causes a free radical explosion.
Known toxins include air pollutants (like carbon monoxide from cigarettes or car exhaust), ultraviolet rays, pesticides, and radiation (from X-rays and tests like the CAT scan as well as things like your television and computer screens). Things like cigarette smoke, excess alcohol, the preservatives and additives in processed foods, and trans fats are also toxins, in that they ratchet up free radical production. (Trans fats, for example, lead to elevated levels of free radicals called lipid peroxides.)
It’s impossible to get away from toxins altogether, though we do have some control over the amount of exposure we receive. And we are exposed to many, many more toxins today than our ancestors were even fifty years ago.
Here’s the good news: We know how to fight free radicals. We have a way to make free radicals stable and stop the chain reaction of free radical creation. That way is antioxidants.
Antioxidants—which include vitamins and nutrients like vitamins C, gamma tocopherol and coenzyme Q10—work by supplying free radicals with the extra electron they would otherwise steal from cholesterol or DNA or other cells of the body. Unlike those other cells, antioxidants can lose an electron to a free radical without becoming free radicals themselves.
One way to think of it is as if there was a war going on inside your body, all the time. On one side are the free radicals, which are attacking your cells; on the other side are the antioxidants, which are trying to “neutralize” the free radicals before they can cause any damage. The more antioxidant soldiers you have, the better off you are.
Unfortunately, we don’t manufacture many antioxidants on our own. Rather, we get most of them from the foods we eat—largely fruits and vegetables, but also whole grains, beans, and other plant products. Different antioxidants work at different “levels” of the body: some of them protect cell nuclei, for instance, while others protect cell membranes.
And we need thousands of different antioxidants in order for our whole body to remain healthy. The best way to ensure this happens is to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables, in a variety of colors, as antioxidant-type appears to correspond loosely to food color.
- Oranges provide vitamin C
- Tomatoes provide lycopene
- Carrots provide beta-carotene
- Blueberries provide anthocyanins
- Spinach provides lutein and zeaxanthin
- Purple grapes provide resveratrol
One intriguing experiment, reported recently in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, demonstrated the benefits of antioxidants, specifically resveratrol (found in red wine as well as in purple grapes). One group of subjects was given a simple meal of turkey cutlets. A second group was given 200 mL (about 6.8 fluid ounces) of red wine with the turkey cutlets. And a third group was given turkey cutlets that had been pre-soaked in red wine before cooking, in addition to the 6.8 ounces of wine.
Afterward, the investigators measured post-meal oxidative stress by assessing blood levels of malondialdehyde, a toxic compound involved in oxidative stress. Even though turkey is not high in saturated fat, which is ordinarily associated with heart disease, eating a simple turkey cutlet was sufficient to raise blood levels of malondialdehyde alarmingly.
However, researchers found that the group who also drank the red wine reduced their post-meal oxidative stress dramatically in comparison—and the oxidative stress in the group whose meat had also been pre-soaked was reduced to zero. This experiment demonstrated a simple concept: by consuming ordinary foods, such as turkey, our bodies inevitably generate free radicals—unless there are plenty of antioxidants ingested in the same meal.
If you’re looking for a way other than red wine to increase your antioxidant intake, green tea could be a great choice. Green tea is a rich source of antioxidants called catechins. The best known and most prevalent of these, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), is so efficient as an antioxidant that it actually protects the body from the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation. This effect has been proven, not only when green tea extract is applied directly to the skin, but also when it is consumed orally.
Laboratory studies and clinical trials have indicated that EGCG and/or green tea extract may offer protection against various forms of cancer, including prostate, breast, and oral cancer, and that it may alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease, among other potential benefits. These findings are not surprising, given that many of these conditions are believed to be related to oxidative stress.
Even better than green tea, however, may be pomegranates. Pomegranates have received considerable attention due to their powerful antioxidant capacity; they show promise in improving atherosclerosis-related conditions such as erectile dysfunction in men, and are effective at preventing cell damage from oxidation.
A recent objective analysis conducted by researchers at UCLA examined the relative anti-oxidant capacity of various widely available anti-oxidant drinks, including green tea, white tea, red wine, and grape, cranberry, orange, and pomegranate juices. Results confirmed manufacturers’ claims that pomegranate juice offers the highest antioxidant potency of any of the beverages tested.
Cocoa and the curry spice turmeric are other great examples of natural antioxidants. Cocoa has been shown to directly benefit endothelial function, and to lower blood pressure, possibly through antioxidant activities. Turmeric, the canary-yellow spice that is a fundamental component of Asian curries, is the source of highly beneficial antioxidants called curcuminoids.
The most common of these, curcumin, has been avidly studied in recent years due to its apparent ability to suppress cancer at various stages, among numerous other beneficial activities, including anti-inflammatory activity. Current human clinical trials are investigating the role of this ancient spice/herbal medicine in treating everything from atherosclerosis, to colon cancer and multiple myeloma, to psoriasis, high cholesterol, and Alzheimer’s disease.
In the war for your health, your body is the battle-ground. By avoiding toxins and eating high anti-oxidant foods, you can help stop free radicals before they cause the oxidative stress that leads to heart disease, cancer, and other disease.
Blood tests are a useful way of detecting problems that may not have manifested yet as physical symptoms, and of determining the correct cause of what physical symptoms are already present.
Excerpted from The Great American Heart Hoax by Michael Ozner, MD. Copyrighted 2008 by Michael D. Ozner, MD. Reprinted with permission from BenBella Books, Inc.
Michael Ozner, MD, FACC, FAHA is one of America’s leading advocates for heart disease prevention and a well-known regional and national speaker in the field of preventive cardiology. Dr. Ozner is a board-certified cardiologist, a fellow of the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association, medical director of the Center for Prevention and Wellness at Baptist Health South Florida, and Voluntary Assistant Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
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