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The Beginner’s Heart-Health Checklist

March 22, 2012 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Chances are you know someone with heart disease, one of the most common — and dangerous — chronic health conditions we face. Heart disease is preventable. But too often, I’ve seen patients, warned about the risks, who decide to ignore medical advice and suffer the consequences. That’s exactly what happened to my patient, Phyllis, who survived a heart attack in her late 40s, only to end up suffering from potentially dangerous statin side effects.

Why Statins Are Not the Silver Bullet

Heart disease happens when we ignore the foundations of a healthy lifestyle — that is, regular, moderate exercise; plenty of fresh, filtered water; restful sleep; and a whole-foods diet. It takes years for the damage to accumulate to life-threatening levels, but inevitably that’s what happens. And while statins can help lower cholesterol levels, it’s a mistake to think that cholesterol is the only factor in heart disease or that statins can make up for years of unhealthy living and a failure to change bad habits! Drugs known as statins have changed heart disease treatment dramatically in the last few years. But as a practicing doctor, I can tell you that, for too many patients, statins are creating a false sense of security. Yes, statins make it possible to eat a cheeseburger and fries without sending cholesterol levels off the charts. But using these powerful, potentially dangerous drugs to counteract the downsides of the Standard American Diet (SAD) is a very bad idea.

And let’s not forget that cholesterol has benefits, too. It plays a role in mental functions, the nervous system, cell-wall structure, and the manufacture of various hormones. The goal is to keep cholesterol in a healthy range, not get rid of it completely. I advise most patients to aim for total blood cholesterol below 200, LDL cholesterol no higher than 160, and HDL cholesterol above 40 for men and 50 for women.

Furthermore, please note that statins are not harmless. They not only deplete essential nutrients, including CoQ10, but also interfere with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, including A, D, E, and K, as well as essential fatty acids (EFAs). Statins may also have other serious side effects, such as muscle damage and memory loss.

How to Heal Yourself

From my perspective, the missing ingredient in most heart disease treatment is the emotional or spiritual aspect. Far too often, we get hung up on the mechanics of heart disease — things like clogged arteries and cholesterol levels — and overlook the individual’s emotional landscape. As I mentioned in my newsletter, emotions play a tremendous role in illness, and heart disease is a perfect example.

Our hearts and minds are in constant contact, continually sending signals back and forth. A number of studies have shown that people who are stressed, frustrated, irritated, and/or angry are more likely to develop heart disease. Negative emotions strain the heart, increase blood pressure, flood the body with stress hormones, and disrupt rhythmic heartbeats. On the other hand, positive emotions — love, happiness, gratitude — ease that strain and allow the heart to beat normally.

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Clearly, we need to focus on the powerful heart-healing potential of positive feelings and let the others go. Regular, moderate exercise is one way to reduce stress and encourage positive emotions. And new research shows that even a small amount of physical activity helps reduce heart disease risk.

Meditation is another way to prevent negative emotions from ruining your health. Look online for meditation resources or investigate local classes, which may be offered through adult education, YMCA or YWCA, or a community college.

What to Use in Place of Statins

Increasingly these days, I see many patients who want to get off prescription drugs for one reason or another. In fact, “Is there a natural alternative to statins?” is one of the most common questions I hear. Fortunately, my answer is an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Here are five steps that can make a major difference in your heart health.

  1. Statins not only have serious side effects, they’re also expensive. And while statins may reduce LDL cholesterol levels, they do nothing for triglycerides or HDL cholesterol, which often tends to be low in heart patients. The good news: There’s a far less costly remedy than statins, and it’s completely free of side effects — water! That’s right — drinking plenty of fresh, pure water is an excellent heart-healthy strategy. Here’s why: A recent study of more than 20,000 men and women found that individuals who drank five or more glasses of water daily were much less likely to be at risk for fatal heart disease than those who drank less than two glasses per day. Researchers concluded that not drinking enough water is as bad for your heart as smoking.
  2. Fish oil supplements supply plenty of heart-healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids. Literally, thousands of clinical trials have shown that omega-3s, such as fish oils, promote heart health, even in individuals who already have heart disease. These fatty acids not only decrease the rate at which the liver produces LDL cholesterol, but they also reduce inflammation, slow the development of plaque in arteries, and help thin the blood. I recommend only molecularly distilled products free of heavy metals and other contaminants.Typically, 2 grams of fish oil daily, taken in divided doses morning and evening, is a good starting point. For maximum effectiveness, look for products with two to three times the amount of DHA as EPA. And remember, reducing your intake of omega-6 fatty acids found in common vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, and the like) is helpful, too.
  3. Red yeast rice is a good substitute for statins. Red yeast rice, which is a type of yeast fermented on rice, is nearly identical chemically to statins. Research shows that combining red yeast rice with a healthy eating plan and moderate exercise is just as effective as prescription statins. And unlike statins, red yeast rice lowers triglycerides and raises levels of HDL cholesterol. A daily dose of 600 mg is a good place to start.
  4. Vitamin E can remove excess LDL cholesterol from the arteries, improving blood flow and making it easier for the heart to pump blood throughout the body. It’s difficult to get sufficient quantities of vitamin E from diet alone, so supplements are a must. I recommend a daily dose of 400 IU of mixed tocopherols or the natural form (d-alpha-tocopherol) of vitamin E.
  5. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) lowers LDL cholesterol, maintains healthy blood pressure, and much more. Whether you decide to continue on statins or substitute red yeast rice, I urge you to look into CoQ10 supplements. This powerful antioxidant is manufactured in the body, but levels naturally decline as we age. Moreover, taking statins depletes CoQ10 supplies even further, so supplements are highly recommended. A streamlined form of CoQ10 known as ubiquinol appears to be more absorbable than traditional CoQ10. I recommend 100 to 200 mg of either ubiquinol or CoQ10 daily.

There is much more I’d like to say about preventing and treating heart disease, so we’ll revisit this topic in coming months. For now, the bottom line is this: anything you do to improve your heart health benefits your whole body. So even if you don’t have heart disease, being proactive about heart health before problems develop means you’ll be reaping rewards for years to come.

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