If we read the mainstream magazines filling the newsstands we find an overwhelming number of articles on heart health. Raising public awareness of major health risks is wonderful but I’m disturbed that most of these articles appear to be written by the marketing departments of major pharmaceutical manufacturers. The theme is usually the same- a page or two filled with all sorts of facts and figures intended to impress on us the inevitability of dying of heart disease, then the welcome news that through the miracle of modern medicine new drugs are now available to help us manage these disease processes. If we follow the implied logic we have no escape, either from the disease or the drug regimens that will enslave us. If you are reading this I suspect that, like me, you reject that logic, or at the very least are seeking some more hopeful path to happily ever after.
I won’t altogether avoid reciting the numbers, but I will try to present a different perspective. The first medical reports of heart attacks appear only about a hundred years ago and even today heart disease and heart attacks are essentially unknown in the more primitive people groups of the world. Do you think cholesterol levels are the best marker for heart risk? Cultural studies show the greatest predictor may be the amount of sugars consumed in the diet, and current medical research identifies elevations in homocysteine, C-reactive protein, and possibly fasting insulin levels as better predictors than cholesterol levels. Why the media fascination with cholesterol? Dollar$- the pharmaceutical industry reaps billions of dollars in profits every year from cholesterol-lowering medications, but has no patentable drugs in the marketplace addressing the greater markers.
The correlation is somewhat greater for men, but the most recent published data I read showed that only 52% of women who had experienced heart attack had elevated cholesterol levels. Not only are we focusing our collective energy and funding on managing a relatively weak marker for cardiac risk, when we treat hyperlipidemia we are essentially treating a symptom of endocrine imbalances. Elevations in total cholesterol and inappropriate ratios between lipid fractions are generally recognized by functional medicine practitioners as the result of insulin resistance or hypothyroid responses or a combination of both.
Remember that statistic about sugar consumption? Excessive sugars along with other foods that lead to rapid increases in blood glucose or that stimulate excessive insulin release lead to the development of insulin resistance. This impairment in insulin response is considered the underlying causal factor for metabolic syndrome, the current term for the cluster of related “diseases” including abdominal obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Current estimates indicate that fully 70% of all adults in this country have at least one marker for metabolic syndrome, and that almost 40% of those adults over the age of sixty fit the full profile.
Let’s cut to the chase. Our heart health is the direct result of our diet, our lifestyle, and our environment. Our western diet has undergone more change in the last three generations, with the rapid rise of the food processing industry, than in all previous human history. We have chosen convenience and passive entertainment to the extent that many of us only briefly escape our sedentary lives by driving to the gym and paying to use machines for exercise. Environmental toxins could be considered inescapable; pesticide residues and industrial pollutants have been detected more than twenty feet deep in polar ice caps. Yet in spite of these trends we don’t have to accept the inevitability of heart disease. All of us can choose better health. Although it may not be easy, we can make healthier dietary choices, choosing foods for nutrient density and health benefit rather than for convenience. Choosing intentional physical activity may be as simple as gardening, using a push or walk-behind mower rather than riding, walking around the neighborhood several times a week, or participating in sports rather than watching millionaires play on television. And even though we can’t move overnight to a cleaner world, we can strengthen our own internal detoxification capacity so that we are more able to overcome the environmental influences.
“Okay”, you say, “I’ll choose health- now what?” Discerning the proper path through the jungle of conflicting, competing, and sometimes self-serving dietary claims can be difficult. And every vitamin shelf, every multi-level marketing product line, every alternative doctor’s newsletter claims the ultimate health-in-a-bottle, the latest supplement that will allow you to avoid responsibility for your health, allow you to enjoy your Krispy Kreme and clean arteries too! I can’t offer any magic pills, but as we continue this article next time I will discuss the best available information on dietary choices as related to health as well as presenting specifics on using nutritional supplements as tools as we work to reduce cardiac risk. We all have the innate ability to repair and rebuild; when we strengthen and support our biochemical processes we are truly investing in the rest of our lives.