In today’s article we’ll discuss how to prevent heart disease without drugs. If you haven’t already read Part 1 of this series, which examined the problems with statin drugs, and Part 2, which debunks the myth that cholesterol causes heart disease, you might want to do that before reading this article.
Last week I mentioned the INTERHEART study, which looked at the relationship between heart disease and lifestyle in 52 countries around the world. What this study revealed is that approximately 90% of heart disease could be prevented by simple changes to diet and lifestyle.
Let’s just make this crystal clear: 9 out of 10 cases of heart disease are completely preventable without drugs. With sales of statin drugs reaching close to $30 billion this year with Lipitor alone bringing in close to $14 billion, this might come as some surprise. But the pharmaceutical companies are, quite literally, invested in people taking their cholesterol-lowering drugs in spite of the complete lack of evidence that lowering cholesterol prevents heart disease.
In order to understand the changes we need to make to prevent heart disease, we have to briefly examine what causes it. By now you know that the answer is not “cholesterol”. In fact, as I mentioned briefly in last week’s article, the two primary contributing mechanisms to heart disease are inflammation and oxidative damage.
Inflammation is the body’s response to noxious substances. Those substances can be foreign, like bacteria, or found within our body, as in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. In the case of heart disease, inflammatory reactions within atherosclerotic plaques can induce clot formation.
When the lining of the artery is damaged, white blood cells flock to the site, resulting in inflammation. Inflammation not only further damages the artery walls, leaving them stiffer and more prone to plaque buildup, but it also makes any plaque that’s already there more fragile and more likely to burst.
Oxidative damage is a natural process of energy production and storage in the body. Oxidation produces free radicals, which are molecules missing an electron in their outer shell. Highly unstable and reactive, these molecules “attack” other molecules attempting to “steal” electrons from their outer shells in order to gain stability. Free radicals damage other cells and DNA, creating more free radicals in the process and a chain reaction of oxidative damage.
Normally oxidation is kept in check, but when oxidative stress is high or the body’s level of antioxidants is low, oxidative damage occurs. Oxidative damage is strongly correlated to heart disease. Studies have shown that oxidated LDL cholesterol is 8x greater stronger a risk factor for heart disease than normal LDL.
Since there may be some confusion on this point, I want to make it clear: normal LDL cholesterol is not a risk factor for heart disease in most populations, but oxidated LDL cholesterol is. This points to oxidation as the primary risk factor, not cholesterol. Why? Because when an LDL particle oxidizes, it is the polyunsaturated fat that oxidizes first. The saturated fat and the cholesterol, hidden deep within the core of the lipoprotein, are the least likely to oxidize.
It follows, then, that if we want to prevent heart disease we need to do everything we can to minimize inflammation and oxidative damage.
Top four causes of oxidative damage & inflammation
- Poor nutrition
- Physical inactivity
By focusing on reducing or completely eliminating, when possible, the factors in our life that contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation, we can drastically lower our risk for heart disease. Let’s take a brief look at each risk factor.
In the INTERHEART study, stress tripled the risk of heart disease. This was true across all countries and cultured that were studies. The primary mechanism by which stress causes heart disease is by dysregulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is directly intertwined with the autonomic nervous system, and it governs the “fight-or-flight” response we experience in reaction to a stressor.
Continued activation of this “fight-or-flight” response leads to hyper-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn leads to chronically elevated levels of cortisol. And elevated levels of cortisol can cause both inflammation and oxidative damage.
Stress management, then, should be a vital part of any heart disease prevention program. In fact, some researchers today believe that stress may be the single most significant factor in the cause and prevention of heart disease. There are several proven methods of stress reduction, including mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), acupuncture and biofeedback. It doesn’t matter which method you choose. It just matters that you do it, and do it regularly.
I assume that you are already well aware of the dangers of smoking, so I won’t spend much time on this one. For the purposes of this discussion, I will point out that smoking as few as 1-4 cigarettes a day has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease by 40%. But smoking 40 cigarettes a day increases that risk by 900%.
So if you smoke and you’re concerned about heart disease – quit.
Over the past century we’ve seen a consistent decline in the consumption of traditional, nutrient-dense foods in favor of highly processed, nutrient-depleted products. The flawed hypothesis that cholesterol causes heart disease has wrongly identified health-promoting foods like meat, organ meats, eggs and dairy products as harmful, and replaced them with toxic, processed alternatives such as chips, white breads, pastries, crackers, cookies, frozen foods, candy and soda.
There are two ways that nutrition contributes to heart disease: too much of the wrong foods, and not enough of the right ones.
The average American gets 57% of his/her calories from highly refined cereal grains and polyunsaturated (PUFA) oils. The #3 source of calories, behind grains and PUFA, is sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. Refined grains, polyunsaturated oils and sugar are all major contributors to both inflammation and oxidative damage.
Not only do refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils and sugar contribute to inflammation and oxidative damage, they are also completely devoid of micronutrients that would protect us from these processes. Meats, fruits and vegetables are all high in antioxidants that prevent oxidative damage, and rich in other micronutrients that play important roles in preventing heart disease.
More than 85% of Americans are not getting the federally recommended five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables each day. The intake of dark leafy green or yellow/orange veggies for the average American is equivalent to 18g – one-half of one small carrot. Iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, french fries, orange juice and bananas constitute 30% of fruit and vegetable intake for most Americans.
Many people know that the “Standard American Diet” is extremely unhealthy. But what most do not know is that the so-called “heart-healthy” diet that has been vigorously promoted for decades actually contributes to heart disease! The “heart-healthy” diet is high in refined carbohydrates and polyunsaturated oils, which, as we have seen, cause inflammation and oxidative damage.
On the other hand, saturated fats (which have been demonized by the medical mainstream) such as butter, coconut oil, lard, tallow and ghee are protected against oxidation and possess many other important health benefits. These fats are the ones we need to be eating to protect ourselves from heart disease.
It is extremely important to buy organic meat, eggs and dairy products that come from animals that have been raised on fresh pasture rather than in commercial, factory feedlots. See this article and this one for more information on why this is so essential.
Finally, it must be pointed out that not all “organic” products are healthy. Most packaged food (including organic cereals, crackers, chips and so-called “nutrition bars”) are full of highly refined carbohydrates, sugar, and vegetable oils. And by now, I don’t need to tell you what that means!
So what would a truly heart healthy diet look like, then? Download my Guidelines for Natural Prevention of Heart Disease to find out.
Physical inactivity is likely a major causative factor in the explosive rise of coronary heart disease in the 20th century. During the vast majority of evolutionary history, humans have had to exert themselves to obtain food and water. Even at the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., a majority of people had jobs that required physical activity (farmers, laborers, etc.) Now the majority of the workforce has sedentary occupations with little to no physical activity at all.
Currently more than 60% of American adults are not regularly active, and 25% of the adult population is completely sedentary. People that are physically inactive have between 1.5x and 2.4x the risk of developing heart disease.
On the other hand, regular exercise reduces both inflammation and oxidative damage. Even relatively low levels of activity are protective – as long as they are consistent. A public review at Harvard University showed that 30-minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week decreases deaths from heart disease by 20-30%.
The best strategy for people struggling to find time to exercise is to make it part of their daily life (i.e. riding a bike or walking to work, choosing the stairs over the escalator or elevator, etc.)
When combined, the four strategies listed above will significantly reduce your chances of getting heart disease – without taking a single pill of any kind.
If you already have heart disease, or you are at high risk for heart disease (overweight, high blood pressure, diabetic, etc.), then you may need additional support. See my
- Natural Prevention of Heart Disease Guidelines
- The Truth About Cholesterol Brochure
- Resources for further learning
- Recommended tests for heart disease
- Recent New York Times article questioning efficacy of cholesterol-lowering drugs