By Dr. Mercola
About one in every three deaths in the US is attributed to cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attacks and stroke. In the US, the most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), which can lead to heart attack.
Even though the death rate from cardiovascular diseases has declined by 29 percent between 2001 and 2010, it's still the number one cause of death in the US. According to a new report1 from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 800,000 Americans die from cardiovascular disease annually.
A quarter of these deaths—or about 200,000—could be prevented through simple lifestyle changes, and more than half (6 out of 10) of the preventable heart disease and stroke deaths happen to people under age 65. As reported in the featured USA Today article:2
"Preventable/avoidable deaths were defined as all deaths from heart disease and stroke in people under age 75 because if their risk factors... had been under control they should have lived longer, says the lead author Linda Schieb, a CDC epidemiologist.
The current life expectancy in the USA is age 78 so if people died sooner than that it is considered early or premature, she says."
CDC Director Thomas Frieden noted that the findings were "really striking" since we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people dying well before their time each and every year.
The analysis shows that African Americans are nearly twice as likely as Caucasians to die from preventable cardiovascular disease. Those living in Southern states also had the highest rates of preventable deaths from heart disease and stroke. According to Mr. Frieden:
"It's unfortunate that your longevity may be influenced more by your "ZIP code" than "genetic code."
If you ask me, that's a telling statement indeed! Ditto for the following statement by preventive cardiologist Gina Lundberg, an assistant professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta:
"Americans need to take better control of their health and be more aggressive in controlling their blood pressure, their cholesterol, their weight, their exercise habits — and to stop smoking."
Yes, You CAN Avoid Becoming a Statistic
According to the CDC report, preventive lifestyle strategies include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Managing your blood pressure and diabetes
- Reducing salt consumption
- Quitting smoking
In a nutshell, preventing cardiovascular disease involves reducing chronic inflammation in your body. Proper diet, exercise, sun exposure, and grounding to the earth are cornerstones of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.
Unfortunately, while all the CDC's general recommendations listed above are spot-on, there's still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to more detailed recommendations for how to achieve weight loss and manage health problems like blood pressure and diabetes.
For example, the recommendation to reduce salt intake makes no differentiation between harmful processed table salt, which is also what you'll find in processed foods, and health-promoting salts high in essential trace minerals, such as Himalayan salt or other natural unprocessed sea salts.
Salt can actually be a nutritional goldmine, provided you consume the right kind and pay very careful attention to your optimal salt-to-potassium ratio, but you won't hear about that from most conventional sources. Similarly, conventional dietary advice for weight loss and diabetes management leaves an awful lot to be desired, and more often than not lead you in the wrong direction.
The Diet—LDL Particle Size Connection
First and foremost, it's important to realize that your diet is your best and primary ally for the prevention of inflammation that can lead to heart- and cardiovascular disease. Much focus is placed on cholesterol levels and the ratio of "good" HDL and "bad" LDL cholesterol, but unfortunately, many conventional recommendations for how to improve your cholesterol levels are seriously flawed.
For example, it's vitally important to realize that there are different sizes of LDL cholesterol particles, and it's the LDL particle size that is relevant (as opposed to just the overall level of LDL's), as small particles get stuck easily and causes more inflammation. It's possible to have normal total or LDL cholesterol yet have a high number of LDL particles.
This is nearly universally missed using the conventional testing. On the other hand, you may end up being prescribed a statin drug to lower your cholesterol when in fact your LDL particle number is normal, placing you in the low risk category for heart disease. To learn about how to test for LDL particle size, please see my interview with Chris Kresser, L.Ac.
It's important to realize that statin drugs, while aggressively lowering your cholesterol levels, do not modulate LDL particle size. What's worse, statin drugs in and of themselves actually promote inflammation and accelerate heart disease! A 2012 study published in the journal Atherosclerosis3 showed that statin use is associated with a 52 percent increased prevalence and extent of calcified coronary plaque compared to non-users. And coronary artery calcification is the hallmark of potentially lethal heart disease!
As a general rule, regardless of your LDL particle number, chances are you do NOT need a statin drug to address high cholesterol. The only people who may truly benefit from a statin drug are those with the genetic defect called familial hypercholesterolemia. The only way to make sure your LDL particles are large enough to not get stuck and cause inflammation and damage is through your diet. In fact, it's one of the major things that insulin does. So rather than taking a statin drug, you really need to focus on your diet to reduce the inflammation in your body, which is aggravated by:
- Eating lots of sugar/fructose and grains
- Oxidized cholesterol (cholesterol that has gone rancid, such as that from overcooked, scrambled eggs)
- Eating foods cooked at high temperatures
- Eating trans fats
What Constitutes a Heart-Healthy Diet?
If you're still confused about what a "proper diet" is, I suggest reviewing my Optimized Nutrition Plan, which is designed to guide you through the dietary changes in a step-by-step fashion, moving from beginners to intermediary to advanced. When properly applied, it can improve just about anyone's health. Following is a summary of the basic recommendations, all of which will help combat chronic inflammation:
✓ Limit or eliminate all processed foods
✓ Eliminate all gluten, and highly allergenic foods from your diet
✓ Eat organic foods whenever possible to avoid exposure to harmful agricultural chemicals such as glyphosate
✓ Eat at least one-third of your food uncooked (raw), or as much as you can manage
✓ Increase the amount of fresh vegetables in your diet
✓ Avoid artificial sweeteners of all kinds
✓ Swap all trans fats (vegetable oils, margarine etc) for healthful fats like avocado, raw butter or coconut oil
✓ To re-balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, take a high-quality omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil, and reduce your consumption of processed omega-6 fats from vegetable oils (trans fats)
✓ Drink plenty of pure water
✓ Optimize your vitamin D levels, either through appropriate sun exposure, a safe tanning bed, or as last resort an oral vitamin D3 supplement
✓ Limit fructose to less than 25 grams per day, from all sources, including whole fruits. If you have insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension or heart disease, you'd be well advised to keep your fructose below 15 grams per day
Beware: Heart Disease May be an Outcome of Cholesterol- and Vitamin D Deficiency
One of the most common dietary misconceptions is the notion that animal foods are bad for your heart because they contain cholesterol. Conventional medicine tells you that heart disease is due to elevated cholesterol and recommends lowering cholesterol levels as much as possible, including in your diet.
Compelling research by Dr. Stephanie Seneff (the same researcher who recently published a groundbreaking study on the harmful impact of glyphosate on human health) suggests the converse may be far closer to the truth. She believes heart disease is due to getting too little cholesterol, opposed to getting too much.
According to Dr. Seneff, heart disease is more likely a cholesterol deficiency problem, and in particular a cholesterol sulfate deficiency problem. She points out that all of this information is available in the research literature, but it requires putting all the pieces together to see the full picture. Her research suggests that high LDL is a symptom of cholesterol sulfate deficiency. Basically, it's your body's way of trying to maintain the correct balance by taking damaged LDL and turning it into plaque, within which the blood platelets produce the cholesterol sulfate your heart and brain need for optimal function.
Hence, when you simply remove the LDL using a medication, you remove your body's "backup" mechanism to keep your heart as healthy as possible, and as a result you can end up with heart failure.
Vitamin D from sun exposure also plays a significant role in this equation. Low levels of vitamin D in your blood have long been correlated with higher risk of heart disease and heart attacks. It's also been suggested that the more sunlight you get, the better your cardiovascular health will be, as there are a number of physiological mechanisms triggered by vitamin D production through sunlight exposure that act to fight heart disease, such as increase in your body's natural anti-inflammatory cytokines; the suppression of vascular calcification; and the inhibition of vascular smooth muscle growth.
Now, when you expose your skin to sunshine, your skin synthesizes vitamin D3 sulfate. This form of vitamin D is water soluble, unlike oral vitamin D3 supplements, which is unsulfated. The water soluble form can travel freely in your blood stream, whereas the unsulfated form needs LDL (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) as a vehicle of transport. Dr. Seneff believes vitamin D deficiency, combined with cholesterol deficiency, may be at the heart of the cardiovascular disease phenomenon.
Other Lifestyle Changes That Will Naturally Reduce Inflammation
In addition to avoiding the dietary hazards just mentioned—particularly sugar/fructose, grains and processed foods of all kinds—here are a few more recommendations that can have a profound impact on reducing inflammation in your body and reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease.
1. Optimize your insulin and leptin levels. Elevated insulin levels can lead to insulin resistance, a major risk factor for heart disease. If your fasting insulin level is above three, consider limiting (max 15 grams of fructose per day) or eliminating your intake of grains and sugars until you optimize your insulin level. Following my nutrition plan will automatically limit your intake of foods that raise insulin levels.
2. Exercise regularly. One of the primary benefits of exercise is that it helps normalize and maintain a healthy insulin level. A 2011 study4 published in the Lancet, which included several hundred thousand people, found that a mere 15 minutes of exercise a day can increase your lifespan by three years—even if you have cardiovascular disease risks.
3. Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil. Also reduce your intake of damaged omega-6 fats from processed vegetable oils, in order to balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
4. Optimize your vitamin D levels. For the reason discussed above, your best source of vitamin D is through your skin being exposed to the sun. This way, your body will produce much-needed cholesterol sulfate. In the wintertime, however, you may need to take an oral supplement. Just make sure you're taking the right form of vitamin D (D3, not D2), and remember to get your vitamin D levels tested regularly to make sure you're within the therapeutic range of 50-70 ng/ml.
5. Regularly walk barefoot to ground with the earth. When you do, free electrons are transferred from the earth into your body, and this grounding effect is one of the most potent antioxidants we know of, and helps alleviate inflammation throughout your body.
Grounding helps thin your blood by improving its zeta potential, which means it improves the negative electrical charge between your red blood cells thus repelling them and keeping your blood less likely to clot. In fact, grounding's effect on blood thinning is so profound if you are taking blood thinners you must work with your health care provider to lower your dose otherwise you may overdose on the medication. Research has demonstrated it takes about 80 minutes for the free electrons from the earth to reach your blood stream and transform your blood.
Four Additional Heart-Healthy Moves
The strategies listed above will help prevent a variety of chronic diseases caused by reducing chronic inflammation in your body. As for heart disease prevention specifically, there are two additional strategies that need mention.
1. Check your HDL to total cholesterol ratio. HDL percentage is a potent heart disease risk factor. Just divide your HDL level by your cholesterol. This ratio should ideally be above 24 percent.
2. Boost your good cholesterol and lower your triglyceride levels. High triglycerides are also a very potent risk factor for heart disease. In combination, high triglycerides and low HDL levels are an even bigger risk; this ratio is far more important to your heart health than the standard good vs. bad cholesterol ratio. In fact, one study found that people with the highest ratio of triglycerides to HDL had 16 times the risk of heart attack as those with the lowest ratio of triglycerides to HDL.
You calculate your triglyceride/HDL cholesterol ratio by dividing your triglyceride level by your HDL level. This ratio should ideally be below 2. So while you strive to keep your HDL cholesterol levels up, you'll want to decrease your triglycerides. You can increase your HDL levels by exercising and getting plenty of omega-3 fats like those from krill oil. Triglycerides are easily decreased by exercising and avoiding grains and sugars in your diet.
3. Check your iron levels. Iron is nature's rusting agent. If you have excessive levels in your body you are at risk of major oxidation, or premature aging. Excess iron will also increase your risk of heart disease. If you are a man, or a woman in menopause, you should get your iron levels tested and, if they're too high, take steps to reduce them.