How healthy is your heart? If your first thought is something along lines of, “My cholesterol is pretty good, so my heart must be okay,” then pull up a chair, because we need to talk.
Cholesterol is just one factor in heart health. As I’ve said many times, there are other, equally important elements to consider, including inflammation markers such as C-reactive protein, homocysteine, and blood pressure.
Even the big drug companies (which have focused almost exclusively on cholesterol for far too long) are beginning to acknowledge the importance of these other factors. But their solution, a multi-drug concoction known as the “polypill,” had less-than-impressive results in a recent study.
The polypill was created as “preventive medicine” that would reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke with just one medication. Unfortunately, the creators chose to do that by combining a low-dose aspirin with a statin and two medications that treat high blood pressure. This is typical of Big Pharma. Instead of developing a new solution, just whip up a concoction of existing drugs. Not a bad idea on the surface. But let’s take a closer look.
In theory, the polypill would accomplish several goals, including:
- Treating the millions of patients who do not have their blood pressure under control. (Experts estimate that fewer than one-fourth of those with high blood pressure are treating it effectively.)
- Providing more people with the benefits of a daily, low-dose aspirin.
- Reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol.
- Eliminating the need to take four or five separate medications every day.
As a practicing physician, I have a few problems with this approach. First, the polypill is designed for people over the age of 50, whom do not currently have heart disease, to prevent them from developing it. In other words, the polypill is medication for healthy people!
Of course, we all want to avoid getting sick. But is taking unnecessary medication the best way to do that? By that logic, we should all be taking daily antibiotics and chemotherapy, for example, to prevent infections and cancer.
And here’s another reason I have an issue with the polypill: The whole idea of a “magic bullet” to prevent heart disease and stroke without addressing diet and lifestyle completely misses the point. High blood pressure and elevated cholesterol can often be managed with a nutritious diet, stress relief, targeted nutritional supplements, and moderate, regular exercise. Only a very small percentage of my patients who follow these foundations of good health still require prescription medication.
Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that each separate ingredient in the polypill has unwanted side effects, and, for some individuals, these can be quite severe. Here’s a brief summary of the types of complications that might occur. (But in each drug’s case, this is only the tip of the iceberg.)
- Statins can affect memory, cause serious fatigue or weakness, joint and/or muscle pain, and create problems with breathing, coughing, and wheezing.
- Blood pressure medication side effects include fatigue/weakness, confusion, dizziness or fainting, irregular heartbeat, and blurred vision.
- Aspirin’s side effects include kidney disorders, agitation, confusion, dizziness, hearing loss, and gastrointestinal complications, such as bleeding, stomach pain, heartburn, nausea, and ulcers.
By contrast, you won’t find those downsides with a nutritious, whole foods diet, stress management, moderate exercise, or nutritional supplements.
Last, but far from least, results of the latest polypill research were disappointing. The study, reported in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that people taking the polypill were just as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke as those who did not take it. Furthermore, any improvements in blood pressure or cholesterol were minor at best. Clearly, the polypill’s supposed advantage of convenience is canceled out by the fact that it doesn’t work, even though it puts patients at risk for some very serious side effects.
Real Help for Your Heart
So what can you do to protect your heart? After my patients have made appropriate lifestyle changes to support heart health, some of them still need additional help with cholesterol, inflammation, homocysteine, C-reactive protein, and aging arteries. Here is what I recommend:
1) Manage cholesterol
Since most people are aware of cholesterol, let’s start there. Your heart – and every cell in your body – needs an abundant supply of the good fats found in omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). I used to recommend eating more salmon, trout, and herring, since those fish are rich in omega-3s. But the oceans and other waterways are full of toxins, as are the fish. So your best bet is to get your omega-3s from a daily dose of purified fish or marine oil.
These beneficial fats fight inflammation throughout the body, help raise your HDL (good) cholesterol, help skin stay supple, and keep blood from thickening, which makes it easier for the heart to pump. Ideally, your blood should be the consistency of red wine, not ketchup, and good fats can help with that.
Plus, here’s an additional benefit of taking omega-3s: flexible blood vessels. If you’ve ever gardened, you know that when a rubber hose loses its flexibility, it can crack and burst open. This is similar to what happens in the body when arteries have hardened. After artery linings are damaged, either by high levels of glucose, the wrong fats, or excessive bad cholesterol and/or homocysteine, they become rigid and inflexible, leaving you more prone to a heart attack or stroke.
2) Reduce inflammation
Elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which are measured in standard blood panels, mean your body is suffering from inflammation. Chronic, low-grade inflammation sets the stage for a host of ailments, including diabetes, cancer, and painful joint problems, like arthritis.
There are several very effective natural remedies for inflammation, including curcumin, an extract of the spice known as turmeric. Curcumin has proven its inflammation-fighting abilities in hundreds of studies. In addition, it also helps blood vessels dilate, so circulation is improved.
3) Maintain healthy blood pressure
If you’re already taking medications to reduce high blood pressure, you may be aware of the downsides, as well as the fact that these drugs don’t work all that well. Here’s a better solution: vitamin D3. Very few Americans get enough of this essential nutrient, which helps regulate blood pressure, produce hormones, maintain healthy immunity, and keep your bones strong.
Although it’s possible to manufacture vitamin D3 in the body, that requires exposing bare skin (without sunblock) to direct sunlight for about 20 minutes a day. Even then, older individuals have often lost the ability to convert sunlight to vitamin D3. That is why I prefer supplements to sunbathing – you can be certain you’re getting the right amount. As as added bonus, vitamin D3 also fights inflammation.
4) Reduce homocysteine
Some heart health experts consider homocysteine to be just as significant as cholesterol, if not more so. Homocysteine is an amino acid that can accumulate in the bloodstream. High levels of homocysteine can irritate and damage the tender linings of your blood vessels. The lesions created by this damage allow clusters of cholesterol plaque to collect in blood vessels, where they can continue to grow larger, blocking blood flow, or break lose and enter the blood stream, where they can cause a stroke or heart attack.
Certain B vitamins (B6, B12, and folic acid) are the best remedies for reducing homocysteine. These nutrients are water soluble, which means they cannot be stored in the body, so I recommend daily supplementation.
5) Strengthen your heart
There is one supplement that everyone who cares about heart health should know about, and that is Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). This vitamin-like substance plays a major role in firing up the tiny mitochondria that provide your body with power. As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, CoQ10 sparks the energy production for your heart, similar to the spark plugs that “ignite” your car’s engine.
In addition, CoQ10 works as an antioxidant to protect your heart from damage by rogue molecules known as free radicals. Studies have shown that it helps reduce bad cholesterol, improve good cholesterol, and protect the heart during a heart attack. With a resume like that, CoQ10 is clearly one nutrient that’s worth its weight in gold.
Although your body produces CoQ10, the amount decreases as you grow older. Low levels of CoQ10 are commonly seen in conjunction with various heart ailments, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and conditions that affect muscles. CoQ10 supplementation is a must if you take a statin drug such as Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor, or Vytorin for cholesterol management, because statins restrict your body’s production of CoQ10.
For years, I have been sending my heart patients home with a bag full of supplements to help control their risk factors and protect their most vital organ. But now, for the convenience of my patients and readers, I’ve made things much simpler by combining my 5 “must-have” heart nutrients all into a soft-gel that can be taken twice a day.
Your heart is an incredibly hard-working, efficient machine that needs to be properly nourished. Taking a few simple steps to protect it now can reward you with improved health for years to come.