Protecting the right to use bio-identical hormones in your heart disease prevention program

If you've been following the Track Your Plaque program, you know that we are advocates of "bio-identical hormones", i.e., hormone replacement using forms that are identical to the naturally-occuring human form.

In other words, we find it criminal that pharmaceutical manufacturers continue to promote use of non-identical hormones despite a probable increased side-effect and complication profile (a la Premarin). This unhappy situation persists because bio-identical hormones cannot be patent protected, meaning profits cannot be protected. Synthetic hormones can be patented and profits protected, thus their popularity among drug companies.

If that's not bad enough, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals--maker of synthetic hormone preparations, Premarin and Prempro--has filed an FDA petition to disallow the use of bio-identical hormones as prepared and dispensed by "compounding pharmacies". These are specialty pharmacies that mix and dispense hormones like estrogens (human estradiol, estriol, and estrione) and testosterone. They do so only with a doctor's prescription. Most are members of the Professional Compounding Centers of America (, a professional organization devoted to promoting quality-control over compounding practices.

Compounding pharmacies are occasionally guilty of compounding some suspect preparations. Witness the Fentanyl lollipops of 2002 in which the pain medication, Fentanyl, was put into lollipops for patients with chronic pain. This posed obvious dangers to any children who unsuspectingly ate the lollipops.

But the majority of compounding pharmacies are not guilty of such exotic practices. Most are simply pharmacies who might, for instance, mix a specific dermatologic preparation according to the orders of a dermatologist. Likewise with bio-identical hormones.

We have extensive experience with such a pharmacy in Madison, Wisconsin, the Women's International Pharmacy. They have filled hundreds of hormone prescription for us. They are responsible in their dispensing practices, in our experience. In fact, they have been at least as good, if not better, than other pharmacies we've dealt with.

We believe in protecting our rights to prescribe and you to use the choice of hormone preparations you and your doctor desire. This should include bio-identical hormones. The transparent profit motive from Wyeth should raise the hairs on your neck.

If you would like to post your comment to the FDA, there's a little time left. The folks at Womens' International Pharmacy have made it easy by posting links on their website. Go to and just follow the instructions.

Here's a sample of some of the objections citizens have raised to Wyeth's petition:

I have been taking bioidentical hormones for two years. Bioidentical Hormones have been a great relief to me without the risk. I consult with my Physician who prescribes bio-identical hormones specifically for me, and my pharmacist prepares them. Without this medication and I would not be able to sleep; I would not be able to work due to the constant hot flashes. Without this medication, I find that I have less tolerance and I am considerably disagreeable. I also have problem with my memory without them. I want the bioidentcial hormones for the health benefits they provide. I urge you to not be swayed by Wyeth's petition. The product Premarin made by Wyeth, is made from pregnant horses not natural sources. Wyeth's hormones have been shown to cause cancer. I would not expect my government and its officials to submit to the highly funded petitioning of a pharmaceutical company who product is threatened by bioidentcial hormones. I do not expect my government to approved Wyeth's petition and leave me no choice of bioidentcial hormones and only the choice of Wyeth's cancer causing drugs Preamrin and Prempro. I ask that the FDA reject Wyeth's petition Docket #2005P-0411.

Another petitioner writes:

As a woman I take exception to Wyeth accusing the Compounding Pharmacy industry of unsafe practices. As a citizen of the United States I expect the FDA to stand up for my rights and the rights of all women who have found or in the future may seek consistent, safe and effective treatment with bioidentical hormones. Eliminating options by bowing to a large pharmaceutical company like Wyeth is not in the public interest and would deprive hundreds of thousands of American women from access to bioidentical hormones. Synthetic hormone replacement has been proven unequivocally unsafe in a government sponsored study and should not be forced as the sole treatment option for women. I hereby request the FDA rule against Wyeth's request. The FDA should not close down the bioidentical option of healthcare. I welcome studies of bioidentical hormones even though they are already FDA-approved and have been working effectively for decades. We already have the proof - hundreds of thousands of women, who over the past two decades have chosen bioidentical hormones based on their physicians' assessments. They are living proof that bioidentical hormones are safer and more effective and reliable than synthetic hormone drugs.

A physician and user of bio-identical hormones writes:

Wyeth, the filer of this complaint, is trying to prevent women from being able to choose less expensive compounded options for hormone replacement. There is medical evidence that in modifying the structure of their drugs (such as Premarin and Prempro) so that they could be patented, they may have introduced factors that cause the health risks identified in the Women's Health Initiative. This complaint appears to be filed for commercial purposes because of the market share that has shifted from Wyeth's products to bio-identical products from compounding pharmacies. If the complaint were upheld, patients and their doctors would not have a choice in hormone treatments. Wythe's commercial strategy of trying to eliminate the 'competition' from compounding pharmacies is against the public interest and in the interest of its own corporate profits. Women and their doctors should be able to choose between patented formulations such as those offered by Wyeth, bioidentical formulas available from compounding pharmacies, and no hormone treatment. I have been taking bio-identical hormones for several years and have had excellent results in improving my symptoms. I have been unable to take other synthetic hormones in the past, and am very concerned that my best treatment option will be taken away.

If you get a 64-slice CT coronary angiogram

With new 64-slice CT scanners popping up everywhere nowadays, be sure to get your heart scan with it.

The new scanners do indeed provide wonderful images of the coronary arteries. But, say you have a 20% blockage in one artery by a coronary angiogram generated on one of these devices. What will you do in 1, 2, or 3 years when you want to know if you have progressed? Should you have the CT angiogram repeated?

Well, if you did you'll be exposed to a large dose of radiation--appropriate for a diagnostic test, but not for a screening test. The radiation exposure is not that different from undergoing a full conventional cardiac catheterization, or up to 100 chest x-rays.

"20% blockage" is also, contrary to popular opinion, not a quantitative measure. It is just an estimate of the diameter reduction at one spot. That number says nothing about the lengthwise extent of plaque. It also says nothing about the potential for "remodeling", the phenomenon of artery enlargement that occurs as plaque grows. In other words, if you had another CT coronary angiogram a year later and was told that your blockag was still 20%, in reality you could have had substantial plaque growth but it would not be reflected in that value.

People will come to me after having a CT angiogram for an opinion. Unfortunately, I send them back to their scan center to get a simple coronary calcium score. That measure is easy, quantitative, precise, and can be repeated yearly if necessary to track progression. (Track Your Plaque--I hope most of you get this by now.) Some physicians poke fun at the heart scan, or calcium, score--it's old, boring, only a measure of hard plaque. None of that's true. The coronary calcium score is a measure of total plaque (hard and soft). And when you are empowered to learn how to control and reduce your score, then it's the most exciting number in your entire health program!

Don't fall for the hype. If you go to a scan center and they insist on a 64-slice CT scanner, or if your doctor orders one, you should insist on getting a calcium score out of the test. Just ask. If they refuse, go somewhere else. Centers that refuse to generate a score have one thing on their mind: identifying people with severe blockages sufficient to obtain the downstream financial bonanza--angioplasty, stents, and bypass surgery.

If you have hypertension, think Lp(a)

Clair has coronary disease.

Clair first came to attention at age 57 when she suffered a large heart attack involving the front of her heart (the "anterior wall") two years ago. Her cardiologist implanted a drug-coated stent. Her doctors advised her to "cut the fat" in her diet, exercise, and take Lipitor.

One year later, she required a stent to another artery (circumflex). At this point, Clair was thoroughly demoralized and terrified for her future. Her first heart attack left her heart muscle with only 50% of normal strength.

She came to my office for another opinion. Of course, one of the first things we did was to identify all causes of her heart disease. No surprise, Clair had 7 new causes not previously identified, including low HDL (37 mg/dl), a severe small LDL particle pattern (75% of all particles were small), and Lp(a).

Her blood pressure was also 190/88, despite her relatively slender build and 3 medications that reduced blood pressure. That's a Lp(a) effect: Exagerrated coronary risk along with unexpected hypertension that often seems inappropriate.

In fact, I saw several patients just this week with lipoprotein(a), Lp(a), and exagerrated high blood pressure (hypertension). It's not that uncommon.

Though it has not been described in the medical literature, our experience is that hypertension is a prominent part of the entire Lp(a) "syndrome".

Lp(a) is responsible for much-increased potential for coronary disease (coronary plaque). It increases in importance as estrogen recedes in a woman (pre-menopause and menopause) and testosterone in a man, since both hormones powerful suppress Lp(a) expression (though why and how nobody knows).

I believe that Lp(a) is also responsible for hypertension that most commonly develops in a persons mid-50s and onwards, often with a vengeance. 3 or 4 anti-hypertensive medications and still not controlled.

Role of l-arginine

L-arginine may be more helpful in this situation than others. L-arginine, recall, is the supply for your body's nitric oxide, a powerful dilator of the body's arteries and thereby reduces blood pressure. We use 6000 mg twice a day, a large dose that requires use of powder preparations rather than capsules.

More reading about l-arginine and nitric oxide is available through Nobel laureate, Dr. Louis Ignarro's book, NO More Heart Disease : How Nitric Oxide Can Prevent--Even Reverse--Heart Disease and Stroke, available at (

Will l-arginine truly reverse heart disease on its own? No, I don't believe so. Contrary to Dr. Ignarro's extravagant claims, I find l-arginine a facilitator of plaque regression, i.e, it helps other strategies achieve regression, but it does not achieve regression or reversal by itself. (Note that Dr. Ignarro is a lab researcher who studies rats and has never treated a human being.)

But l-arginine may have special application in the person with lp(a), particularly if hypertension is part of the syndrome.

Note: As always, please note that I talk frankly about l-arginine and other supplements and medications but have no hidden agenda: I am not selling anything, nor am I affiliated with any source/website/store etc. that sells these products. If I advocate something, I do so because I truly believe it, not because I'm trying to sell something. I make this point because so much nonsense is propagated in the media because of profit-motive. That's not true here.

Dr. Ornish: Get with the program!

In the era up until the 1980s, most Americans indulged in excessive quantities of saturated fats: fried chickem, spare ribs, French fries, gravy, bacon, Crisco, butter, etc.

Along came people like Nathan Pritikin and Dr. Dean Ornish, both of whom were vocal advocates of a low-fat nutritional approach. In their programs, fat composed no more than 10% of calories. This represented a dramatic improvement--at the time.

In 2006, a low-fat diet is a perversion of health. It means over-reliance on breads, breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers, cookies, pretzels, etc., the foods that pack supermarket shelves and that now constitute 70-80% of most Americans' diet.

Dr. Ornish still carries great name recognition. As a result, his outdated concepts still gain media attention. The June, 2006 issue of Reader's Digest, in their RDHealth column, carried an interview with Dr. Ornish in which he reiterates his fat-phobia.

However, on this occasion he takes a different tack. This time he rails against the "dangers" of fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids. "I've recently learned that omega-3s are a double-edged sword...In some cases, omega-3s could be fatal."

He goes on to say that, while he believes that fish oil may prevent heart attacks, it has fatal effect if you already have heart disease.

Does this make sense to you?

He's basing his views on a single, obscure study published in 2003 conducted in rural England that showed an increase in death and heart attack on fish oil. Most authorities have not taken these findings seriously, since they are wildly contrary to all other observations and because the study had some design flaws.

Despite the fact that this isolated study runs counter to all other, better-conducted studies seems not to matter to Dr. Ornish.

Clinging to the low-fat concept is like hoping 8-track tapes will make a comeback. It's not going to happen. We enjoyed the benefits while they lasted, appropriate for the era. But now, they're woefully outdated.

The overwhelming evidence is that fish oil provides tremendous benefits with little or no downside. In the Track Your Plaque program, fish oil remains a crucial supplement to gain control over your coronary plaque and stop or reduce your heart scan score. Ignore the doomsday preachings of Dr. Ornish.

(Watch for an article I wrote updating the benefits of fish oil for Life Extension magazine.)

The cholesterol fallacy

Evan spotted the kiosk set up in the middle of the local mall. "Free cholesterol screenings. Know your heart health!" the sign declared.

It was a free cholesterol screening being offered by a local hospital.

The friendly nurse behind the kiosk had Evan fill out a form, then pricked his finger. Five minutes later, she reported to him with a smile, "Sir, your cholesterol is 177--your heart's fine! We get concerned when cholesterol is over 200. So you're in a safe range."

What the nurse failed to recognize is that Evan's HDL was 30 mg, a low value that actually places him at high risk for heart disease. Low HDL also signifies high likelihood of the small LDL particle pattern, a marked predisposition towards pre-diabetes and diabetes, a probable over-reliance on processed carbohydrates in his diet, a dramatically increased probability of hidden inflammation (e.g., elevated C-reactive protein), increased tendency for high blood pressure. . .

In other words, Evan's "favorable" total cholesterol is, in truth, nonsense. It's misleading, falsely reassuring, and provided none of the insight that a real effort might have yielded. Like hippies, tie-dye, other relics of the 1960s, total cholesterol needs to be put to rest. It has served many people poorly and been responsible for countless deaths.

When you see a kiosk or other service like this, even if it's free, run the other way.

"Heart disease a growth business"

So announced a Boston newspaper recently, featuring a story about new heart program at a local hospital.

They were announcing how a hospital had entered the cardiovasculare procedure game and how it would boost their bottom line. The article discussed how the hospital administration was anticipating "a surge in patients from the baby boom generation."

To justify this new program, the article quoted an administrator from another hospital: "Cardiovascular issues is [sic] the number one cause people sought treatment at our hospital."

The hospital featured in the story had spent $13.5 million dollars to develop their program.

Do you think they'll make it back?

You bet they will--many times over. Hospitals are businesses, complete with a bottom line, an expectation of profit and an eye towards growth.

The hospitals in the city where I live (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) are, as in Boston and elsewhere, very aggressive--expanding into new territories, hiring new "salesmen" (physicians), all to capture more marketshare and produce more "product" (your coronary angioplasty, stent, bypass surgery, defibrillator, etc.).

The equation for hospital profits is tried and true. Ignore your heart disese risk and you can help your local hospital grow its business. Neglect to get your heart scan and you can help your hospital pay down its debt. Get a heart scan, then do nothing about it, and you may even justify a pay raise for the hospital administrators for record revenue growth and profit.

Hospitals are a growth business because of the failure of most people and their doctors to 1) identify hidden coronary disease (CT heart scan to obtain your heart scan score), then 2) seize control over it (the Track Your Plaque program or, at least, your doctor's guidance along with your efforts at prevention).

Unless you do so, you are highly likely to help your hospital boost its annual goal for procedures.

The myth of small LDL

Annie's doctor was puzzled.

Despite an HDL cholesterol of 76 mg (spectacular!) and LDL of 82 mg, her CT heart scan showed a score of 135. At age 51, this placed her in the 90th percentile.

Not as bad, perhaps, as her Dad might have had, since he died at age 54 of a heart attack.

So we submitted blood for lipoprotein testing. Surprise! over 90% of all her LDL particles were small. (By NMR, they're called "small". By gel electropheresis, or the Berkeley Lab test, or VAP (Atherotech) technique, they're called "HDL3".)

What gives? Traditional teaching in the lipid world is that if HDL equals or exceeds 40 mg/dl, then small LDL will simply not be present.

Well, as you can see from Annie's experience, this is plain wrong. Yes, there is a graded, population-based effect--the lower your HDL, the greater the likelihood of small LDL. But small LDL is remarkably persistent and prevalent--regardless of your HDL.

We've seen small LDL even with HDLs in the 90's! I call small LDL the "cockroach" of lipids. If you think you have it, you probably do. Getting rid of small LDL requires a specific bug killer. (Track Your Plaque Members: Read Dr. Tara Dall's interview on small LDL.)

Don't let anybody blow off your request for lipoprotein testing just because your HDL is high. That's just not acceptable. Loads can be wrong even with a favorable HDL.

My stress test was normal. I don't need a heart scan!

Katy had undergone a stress test while being seen in an emergency room, where she'd gone one weekend because of a dull pain on the right side of her chest. After her stress test proved normal, she was diagnosed (I believe correctly) with esophageal reflux, or regurgitation of stomach acid up the esophagus. She was prescrbed an acid-suppressing medication with complete relief.

But Katy also had coronary plaque. Three years ago, her CT heart scan score was 157. She'd made efforts to correct the multiple causes, though she still struggled with keeping weight down to gain full control over her small LDL particle pattern.

I felt it was time for a reassessment: another heart scan. After three years, without any preventive efforts, Katy's score would be expected to have reached 345! (That's 30% per year plaque growth.) It's a good idea to get feedback on just how much slowing you've accomplished.

But Katy declared, "But I didn't think another heart scan was necessary. My stress test was normal!"

What Katy was struggling to understand was that even at the time of her first scan, a stress test would have been normal. Plaque can be present with a normal stress test.

Plaque can even show explosive growth all while stress tests remain normal. Just ask former President, Bill Clinton, how much he should have relied on stress tests. (Mr. Clinton underwent annual stress nuclear tests. All were normal and he had no symptoms--all the way up 'til the time he needed urgent bypass surgery!)

Of course, at some point even a crude stress test will reveal abnormal results. But that's years into your disease and a lot closer to needing procedures and experiencing heart attack.

So, yes, Katy would benefit from another heart scan despite her normal stress test.

The message: Don't rely on stress tests to gauge whether or not plaque has grown, stabilized, or reversed. Stress tests can be used to gauge the safety of exercise, blood pressure response, and the potential for abnormal heart rhythms. Stress tests can be used as a method to determine whether blood flow in your coronary arteries is normal through an area with plaque.

But a stress test cannot be used to gauge whether plaque has grown. It's as simple as that. Gauging plaque growth requires a heart scan.

Patient-napping: Yet another reason to stay clear of hospitals!

When I started practicing medicine around 20 years ago, it was common practice to alert a physician when their patient was seen in an emergency room.

If John Smith, for example, went to the emergency room with chest pain, the physician who had an established relationship with the patient--knew their history, had managed their health and illnesses, etc.--was notified, even if the hospital ER had no relationship with the physician. It was not uncommon for the patient to then be transferred to the hospital where their own doctor practiced.

Though cumbersome at times, it preserved the relationship of the patient with their doctor.

Over the past few years, this practice has crumbled. Nowadays, hospitals and their employed physicians (and other unscrupulous physicians acting in the name of profit) "fail" to notify the physician with an established relationship.

Guess what happens? The patient all too often ends up being put through the gamut of testing and procedures.

Why? For hospital profit, of course. If failure to notify a doctor who's had a 10-year long relationship with the patient is "overlooked" or, even more commonly, it's "unsafe" to transfer the patient because the patient is too "unstable" to be transferred, then this patient becomes ripe for picking--heart catheterization, stents, bypass surgery, etc. Ten's, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars can be reaped by this deception. I call it "patient-napping".

I see this at least several times every month. As hospitals are becoming increasingly competitive, and as they put pressure on their physicians to churn patients for revenues, you're going to see more and more of this.

As always, what is your protection from this expanding influence of hospitals and the doctors too meek to stand up to them? Education and information. Arm yourself with an understanding of what is accomplished in hospitals, when you truly need them, and when you don't.

Take it one step further. At least from a heart disease standpoint--the #1 profit-maker for hospitals--aim to 1)identify your coronary plaque, then 2) seize control over your coronary plaque and reduce your risk for heart attack and heart procedures as much as humanly possible. That's the goal of the Track Your Plaque program.

Don't believe the negative press on fish oil

A British Medical Journal study released in March, 2006 has prompted a media flurry of reports on the worthlessness of fish oil. (Hooper L, Thompson RL, Harrison RA et al. Risks and benefits of omega 3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: a systematic review. BMJ March,2006)

Don't believe it for a second.

First of all, the study was a re-analysis of the existing published scientific literature. It was not a new study. It included a wild conglomeration of different clinical observations, as the studies examining fish oil over the years have been extraordinarily heterogeneous--in populations examined, omega-3 supplement (e.g., fish vs. capsule), period of observation, endpoints measured.

The results were skewed by inclusion of a moderate-sized British study by Burr et al in men with angina. In this study, no benefit was demonstrated and, in fact, a negative effect--more heart attack and death--was observed with fish oil. This was not news, since the study was published in 2003. It's results have been a mystery to everyone, since its unexpected negative result for fish oil was so starkly different from virtually every other study that preceded it (suggesting a study flaw or statistical fluke).

Nonetheless, the Burr study served to throw off the overall analysis. It diluted the dramatic and persuasive outcome of the GISSI-Prevenzione Study of 11,000 people in which a 28% reduction in heart attack and 45% reduction in cardiovascular death was observed. Note that the substantial numbers of the GISSI make the study's outcome nearly unassailable.

Another important fact: fish oil is among the most powerful tools available to correct elevated triglycerides. Drops of 50% are common. Recall that triglycerides are a necessary ingredient to create the nasty LDL, as well as VLDL, Intermediate-density lipoprotein, and an undesirable shift from large to ineffective small HDL. Reducing triglycerides is therefore crucial for your plaque control program.

This re-analysis serves to prove nothing. Such analyses can only pose questions for further study in a real study like GISSI: a randomized (random participant assignment), controlled (treatment vs. placebo or other treatment) study.

The weight of evidence remains heavily in favor of fish oil, not only as helpful, but fabulously beneficial, particularly for anyone aiming to reduce coronary plaque.