Q. I hear conflicting messages about cholesterol’s link to heart health. What’s the truth? How can I lower my risk of heart attack?
A. There are several hundred risk factors for heart disease that are not being evaluated or treated. Addressing only the “traditional” five risk factors—blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and smoking—still leaves more than 50% of patients at risk for heart disease. I want to educate physicians and the public about how to measure, prevent, and treat all risk factors for heart disease, which is why I wrote What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Heart Disease. I hope the book will reduce heart disease and save lives.
For decades, we’ve been told that if the five major risk factors for heart disease are kept under control, you’re practically guaranteed not to have a heart attack. And, quite frankly, that’s a lie. The truth is, abnormal cholesterol levels are not the primary cause nor indicator of heart disease. More myths include:
- Consuming a high-cholesterol diet or eating eggs does not significantly raise blood cholesterol levels for most people.
- All LDL cholesterol is not bad and all HDL cholesterol is not good.
- A fasting morning blood sugar reading of 99 mg/dL—deemed normal by most labs—is not safe or normal. Instead, it indicates an increased risk of coronary heart disease and heart attack.
- The blood pressure reading taken in your physician’s office may not be an accurate measure.
- A normal body weight does not ensure heart health, as it doesn’t reflect the amount of the “belly” fat that promotes heart disease.
So, what is the real reason people have heart attacks? Although high cholesterol is one factor, for many people, the pathways to heart disease of greatest concern are inflammation, oxidative stress, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity and increased body fat. High blood sugar, in particular, is critically linked to heart health. Elevation in blood sugar damages proteins and enzymes all over the body—essentially, it accelerates aging of the arteries and heart.
What You Can Do
Taking omega-3 fatty acids is number one. I also strongly recommend the following supplements: vitamin K2 (use the MK7 form), garlic, resveratrol, CoQ10, alpha- lipoic acid, selenium, vitamin D, vitamin E (gamma delta tocotrienols), D-ribose, L-carnitine, taurine, curcumin, N-acetyl cysteine, and glutathione.
In terms of diet, I find that eating a low-sodium/high-potassium and high-magnesium diet is extremely beneficial for the heart. I also encourage patients to enjoy red wine. I outline my heart-healthy diet in my book. It’s a compilation of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, focusing on great amounts of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and sodium restriction. My diet also incorporates lean meat, fish, and wild game, and it limits the consumption of refined carbohydrates and grains (even whole grains). This may come as a shock to those who are used to the “6-11” servings of grains recommended by the USDA, but grains are simply not foods that our bodies have evolved to consume.
Mark C. Houston, MD, is a hypertension specialist who has spent more than 20 years doing research, writing peer-reviewed articles in the medical literature, and practicing clinical patient care on the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and coronary heart disease. He is the author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Heart Disease: The Revolutionary Book that Reveals the Truth Behind Coronary Illnesses—and How You Can Fight Them.