Why not just get "perfect" lipids and call it a day?

What if you achieved the Track Your Plaque lipid targets: LDL cholesterol 60 mg/dl, HDL 60 mg/dl, and triglycerides 60 mg/dl?

After all, these are pretty stringent standards. Compared to national guidelines (the ATP-III Guidelines of the National Cholesterol Educational Panel), the Track Your Plaque 60-60-60 goals are laughably ambitious. There's a lot of wisdom hidden in those numbers. The triglyceride level of 60, for instance, is a level at which triglycerides become essentially unavailable for formation of triglyceride-containing lipoprotein particles such as small LDL and VLDL.

If you get to the 60-60-60 target, isn't that good enough? What if you just held your values there and went about your business? Will coronary plaque stop growing and will your CT heart scan score stop increasing?

Sometimes it will. But, unfortunately, many times it will not. The experience generated through clinical trials bear this out. Studies like the St. Francis Heart Study and the BELLES Trial both showed that just reducing LDL cholesterol is insufficient to stop plaque growth. Beyond the Track Your Plaque experience, there's no clinical trial experience that shows whether the 60-60-60 approach does any better.

In our experience, achieving 60-60-60 is indeed better than just reducing LDL. That makes sense. Just raising HDL from the average of 42 mg/dl for a male, 52 mg/dl for a woman adds advantage. Compound this with triglyceride reduction from the plaque-creating equation, and you've doubled success.

But there's even more. What if you had hidden patterns not revealed by conventional lipids? How about lipoprotein(a)? Small LDL? Postprandial (after-eating) abnormalities? Hypertensive effects (more common than you think)!

In 2006, stopping the increase in your heart scan score is, for most of us, not just a matter of taking Lipitor or its equivalent and sitting back. For nearly all of us, stopping the progression of your score is a multi-faceted effort.

Hospitals: Then and Now

It's 1920. The hospital in your city is a facility run by nuns or the church. It's a place for the very ill, often without hope of meaningful treatment, but nonetheless a place where surgeries take place, babies are born, the injured and chronically ill can find care. No one has health insurance and there's no Medicare. Everyone pays what they can. The hospital is accustomed to doling out plenty of care without compensation. For that reason, they welcome donations and sometimes will build new additions or other facilities in honor of a major donor.

Volunteeers are common, since the wards are understaffed and generally suffering from a shortage of trained nurses and personnel associated with the church. Drugs, such as they are, are often prepared from basic ingredients in the hospital pharmacy. Product representatives hawking medicines and devices are virtually unheard of.

Though their therapeutic tools are limited, the physicians are a proud group, dedicating their careers to healing. The majority of the medical staff volunteer large portions of their time to care for the poor who come to the hospital with very advanced stages of disease: metastatic tumors, advanced heart failure, debilitating strokes, overwhelming septicemia, etc.

Hospitals are usually governed by a board of clergy and physicians who make decisions on how to apply their limited resources and continually seek charitable donations.

Fast forward to present day: Hospitals are high-tech, professional facilities with lots of skilled people, complicated equipment,and capable of complex procedures. While they still house people with advanced illnesses, the floors are also filled with people with much earlier phases of disease. In general, they do a good job, with quality issues scrutinized by a number of official agencies to police practices, incidence of hospital-related infections, medication errors, care protocols, etc.

The hospital of 2006 is a more more effective place than the hospital of 1920. But its aims and operations are different, also. Though some churches are still involved in hospitals, more and more are owned by publicly-traded companies that answer to shareholders--shareholders who want share value to increase. Though donations are still sought, much of the revenues are obtained by concentrating on profitable, large-ticket procedures. More procedures are often generated by advertising.

Because they operate to generate profits, several hospitals in a single city or region compete with one another. The 21st century has therefore witnessed the phenomenon of hospital-owned physicians: more and more practicing physicians are employees of their hospital. That way, the physician brings all his patients and procedures to his hospital, not to a competitor. The top of the funnel is the primary care physician, who tends to see all disease when it first occurs. The primary care physician then sends the patient to the specialist, who is obliged (by contract) to perform his/her procedure in the hsopital paying their salary.

Representatives from companies manufacturing and selling expensive hospital equipment and drugs are everywhere, falling over themselves to gain attention of the physicians using their equipment and the hospital buyers who make purchasing decisions. Millions of dollars can be transacted with just one sale.

The number of volunteers has dwindled. The poor and uninsured are commonly diverted elsewhere, often to a government-funded, and often second-rate, institution. Hospitals measure success by comparing annual revenues and numbers of major procedures.

The hospital of 2006 is a vastly different place than 1920. If you're expecting charitable treatment, compassion, and selfless care, you're in the wrong century. In 2006, the hospital is a business. You don't expect charitable treatment at Wal-Mart or from your car dealer. Don't expect it from your hospital. They are businesses and you are a customer. Recognize this fact, lose the nostalgia for the hospitals of yesterday, and a lot more will become clear to you.

The dreaded small LDL particle

Brian is a 59-year old landscape architect whose starting CT heart scan score was 276.

Brian's food choices at the start were deplorable: a pound of sausage per week, sometimes more; butter on anything and everything; up to two pounds of cheese per week; hot dogs; etc. His lipoproteins were accordingly just as miserable: low HDL, high triglycerides, excessive (postprandial, or after-eating) IDL. Small LDL was a particularly stand-out pattern, with 95% of all LDL particles in the small category.

Brian made a dramatic turnaround in lifestyle and corrected all of his patterns--except for small LDL. After one year, small LDL still occupied 95% of all LDL particles, even though the quantity of LDL had been reduced. In order to help convince Brian that correction of his small LDL was going to be necessary to achieve control oover coronary plaque, I suggested that he undergo another heart scan. His score: 435, or a 57% increase.

Each day that passes, I gain more and more respect for small LDL as a cause for coronary plaque growth. Conventional thought among lipid experts is that small LDL should no longer be a factor if total LDL (e.g., LDL particle number) is reduced. But our experience suggests otherwise: when small LDL persists, we tend to see continued, sometimes frightening, plaque growth.

I therefore asked Brian to intensify his efforts: additional weight loss off his somewhat prominent abdomen (since visceral fat increases small LDL), further reduce wheat products and processed carbohydrates, increase niacin (to 1500 mg per day), and use more raw almonds and oat bran.

Don't let small LDL get the best of you. It is a nasty, sometimes persistent abnormality that has impressive effects on plaque growth.

Winning Through Intimidation

Do you remember the book, Winning Through Intimidation by author Robert J. Ringer?

In his 1984 bestseller, author Ringer details how to succeed in business by overwhelming clients and competition by appearing hugely successful and powerful. Rather than a business card, he'd hand out an elegant book to represent himself. He'd show up in a limousine to a meeting, even when he could barely afford it. He used these tactics, even when he was a small-fry, in commercial real estate and built a successful business following such techniques.

This reminds me a lot of what happens in conventional medical practice: The large and successful hospitals, filled with trained staff and technology, exude legitimacy and success. How can they possibly be wrong? Such overwhelming know-how and multiple levels of expertise mustbe right!

Let's be grateful that we do have access to such high-tech, capable care. Unfortunately, just as Mr. Ringer used deceptive practices to appear something he wasn't, this is also true in hospitals. Not all physicians have your best interests in mind. Their principal concern is how profitable your care can be for them--can you be persuaded to have your stent, bypass, etc.. After all, look around you: Aren't all this equipment and personnel impressive? Aren't you intimidated?

The patient that most recently drove home this issue for me recently was a smart and capable executive who came in for consultation. He had been told by his internist that a surgery (to replace his aorta, a HUGE procedure) was probably necessary. In my view, it was not--his process was simply not that far progressed. The risks for danger over the next several years was virtually nil. Unfortunately, this man, now confused and worried, sought an opinion from the chief of thoracic surgery (in the usual white coat and with professorial demeanor, I'm sure) in a major metropolitan hospital (in Chicago), who promptly rushed him off to the operating room.

The pathology report, cleverly not mentioned in any other of the hospital documentation, showed what I had suspected: this man had mild disease that wasn't even close to requiring surgery. But, with all that technology, $100,000 or so of costs, chief of surgery who looked the part, etc.--they must be right!

Robert Ringer's concepts only ring too true for hospitals and some of the unscrupulous physicians in practice. Don't allow yourself to be intimidated.

Can natural treatments "cure" or "treat" any disease?

According to current FDA policy, the answer is a flat "NO!"

No natural treatment, whether it be fish oil (as a nutritional supplement), l-arginine, vitamin D, magnesium, various flavonoids like theaflavin or resveratrol, can be declared to treat or cure any disease. That's why you see the evasive and vague wording on nutritional supplements, nutraceuticals, and various foods, like "Supports heart health" or "Supports healthy cholesterol". Claiming, for instance, that taking 6000 mg per day of a standard OTC fish will reduce triglycerides and stating so on the label of a supplement is unlawful and prosecutable.

Think what you will of Mr. Kevin Trudeau (author of Natural Cures They Don't Want You to Know About"): visionary, consumer advocate, David vs. the Goliath of the FDA and "Big Pharma", or huckster, scam artist, and one-time felon. But Trudeau got it right on one important issue: The FDA dictates what claims can be made to treat disease. On one of his ubiquitous informercials, Trudeau states:

"...the way the system works today, you have the Food and Drug Administration—the FDA, and you have the drug industry. They really work in tandem. Unfortunately, there’s an unholy alliance there. People don’t know that the majority of commissioners of the FDA, which allegedly regulates the drug industry, and the food industry—Food and Drug Administration, the commissioners of the FDA—the majority of them—go to work directly for the drug companies upon leaving the FDA and are paid millions and millions and millions of dollars. Now in any other format, that would be called bribery; that would be called a conflict of interest; that would be called payoffs. That’s exactly what’s happening right now. So what has occurred is the Food and Drug Administration is really working in tandem with the drug industry to protect their profits. Example: The Food and Drug Administration says that only a drug can diagnose, prevent, or cure any disease."

He goes on to say that

"...the Food and Drug Administration says only a drug--nothing else--can cure, prevent, or diagnose a disease. Therefore the Food and Drug Administration continues to call more and more and more things diseases. Therefore they eliminate all-natural remedies. No one can say what a natural remedy can do if it’s been classified as a disease. So Attention Deficit Disorder is now a disease. Therefore only a drug can cure, prevent, or diagnose it. Cancer is a disease. Acid reflux is now a disease. Obesity is now a disease."

(PLEASE do not construe this as an endorsement of Mr. Trudeau's overall opinions. But I do think he's right on this one point.)

The stated purpose of this restrictive policy is to protect the public. Indeed, in years past before protective legislation, ineffective and even poisonous products were commonly sold as therapeutic treatments. (Remember cocaine and morphine in cold remedies? Lead and other toxic agents were also common.) Unfortunately, a huge gap has emerged as clinical data accumulates that support the efficacy of nutritional treatments and other non-traditional methods to treat or alleviate diseases. Any disease, or anything construed as disease as Trudeau points out, can onlybe treated by a drug.

In the FDA's defense, they have made slow progress in allowing "claims" of benefits for several supplements and food substances, such as the beta-glucan of oat products, soy protein, and most recently barley (for cholesterol reduction). The scrutiny is quite thorough and the wording of the policy is quite specific. Regarding oat products, for instance, the policy states:

"FDA concluded that the beta-glucan soluble fiber of whole oats is the primary component responsible for the total and LDL blood cholesterol-lowering effects of diets that contain these whole oat-containing foods at appropriate levels. This conclusion is based on review of scientific evidence indicating a relationship between the soluble fiber in these whole oat-containing foods and a reduction in the
risk of coronary heart disease.

Food products eligible to bear the health claim include oat bran and rolled oats, such as oatmeal, and whole oat flour...To qualify for the health claim, the whole oat-containing food must provide at least 0.75 grams of soluble fiber per
serving. The amount of soluble fiber needed for an effect on cholesterol levels is about 3 grams per day."

(Source: FDA Talk Paper which can be viewed in its entirety at http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/ANSWERS/ANS00782.html.)

In light of the boom in nutritional and non-traditional research that validate or refute efficacy, is such a policy still necessary? Or does it inhibit the open dissemination of information and result in a extraordinary monopolization of health treatment for the drug companies?

This debate will likely rage for the next two or more decades, particularly as drug companies are increasingly viewed as profit-seeking enterprises and more validation is gained by non-drug treatments.

For the moment, don't dismiss a "treatment" because it doesn't come by prescription. But don't reject a drugjust because it is a prescription. We need to strike a healthy, rational balance somewhere in between.

Can procedures alone keep you alive?

My days in the hospital remind me of what heart disease can be like when no preventive efforts are taken--what it used to be like even with my patients before taking a vigorous approach to prevention (though over 12 years ago).

Several cardiologists in my hospital, for instance, express skepticism that heart disease prevention works at all. Yes, they know about the statin cholesterol drug trials. But they claim that, given their experience with the power of coronary disease to overpower an individual's control, statin drugs are just "fluff". Coronary disease is a powerful process that can only begin to be harnessed with major procedures, i.e., a mechanical approach.

So these cardiologists routinely have their patients in the hospital, often once a year, sometimes more, for heart catheterization and "fixing" whatever requires fixing: balloon angioplasty, stents, various forms of atherectomy. Year in, year out, these patients return for their "maintenance" procedures. Their cardiologists maintain that this approach works. The patients go on eating what they like, taking little or no nutritional supplements, and medications prescribed by their primary care physicians for blood pressure, etc. But no real effort towards heart disease prevention beyond these minimal steps.

Can this work? Very little at-home, preventive efforts, but periodic "maintenance" procedures?

It can, perhaps, for a relatively short time of a few years, maybe up to 10 years. But it crumbles after this. The disease eventaully overwhelms the cardiologist's ability to stent or balloon this or that, since it has progressed and plaque has growth diffusely the entire period that maintenance procedures have been performed. In addition, acute illness still occurs with some frequency--in other words, plaque rupture is not affected just because there's a stent in the artery upstream or downstream.

Not to mention this can be misery on you and your life, with risk incurred during each procedure. It's also terribly expensive, with hospitalization easily costing $25,000-$50,000 or more each time. (Compare that to a $250 or so CT heart scan.)

As people become more aware of the potential tools for prevention of heart disease, fewer are willing to submit to the archaic and barbaric practice of "maintenance" heart procedures in lieu of prevention. But it still goes on. If you, or anybody you know, are on this pointless and doomed path, find a new doctor.

Bloodletting, another antiquated health practice

Support your local hospital: HAVE A HEART ATTACK!

I'm kidding, of course. But, in your hospital's secret agenda, that's not too far from the truth. Catastrophes lead to hospital procedures, which then yields major revenues.

Prevention, on the other hand, yields nothing for your hospital. No $8,000 to $12,000 for heart catheterization, several thousand more for a stent, $60,000-plus for a bypass, $25,000 or more for a defibrillator. In other words, prevention of heart attack and all its consequences deprive your hospital of a goldmine of revenue.

The doctors are all too often conspirators. I heard of yet another graphic example today. A man I didn't know called me out of the blue with a question. "I had a heart scan and I had a 'score' that I was told meant a moderate quantity of plaque in my arteries, a score of 157. My doctor said to ignore it. But I got another scan a year later and my score was 178. So I told this to my doctor and he said, 'Let's get you into the hospital. We'll set up a catheterization and then you'll get bypassed.' Of course, I was completely thrown off balance by this. Here I was thinking that the heart scan was showing that my prevention program needed improvement. But my doctor was talking about bypass surgery. Can you help? Does this sound right?"

No, this is absolutely not right. It's another tragedy like the many I hear about every day. Heart scans are, in fact, wonderfully helpful tools for prevention. This man was right: he felt great and the heart scan simply uncovered hidden plaque that should have triggered a conversation on how to prevent it from getting worse. But the doctor took it as a license to hustle the patient into the hospital. Ka-ching!

This sort of blatant money-generating behavior is far from rare. Don't become another victim of the cardiovascular money-making machine. Be alert, be skeptical, and question why. Of course, there are plenty of times when major heart procedures are necessary. But always insist on knowing the rationale behind such decisions, whether it's you or a loved one.

Hospitals contain experts in ILLNESS

Hospitals contain many experts in sickness. This seems obvious. But walk down the hallways of any hospital, and you'll quickly be convinced that hospitals contain almost no experts in health.

People (hospital staff, that is, not the patients) in hospitals are especially good at identifying and treating disease. They lack knowledge of health.

If your nurse is 100 lbs overweight and struggles to walk down the hall because of arthritis in both knees, would you entrust her with health advice?

If your doctor sits down in the cafeteria and eats his lunch of a ham sandwich with cheese on a bun, fried onion rings, and a milkshake and pastry, can you believe that he/she possesses any insight into health and nutrition?

If your physical therapist or cardiac rehabilitation counselor struggles nearly as much as you while climbing a single flight of stairs, can you accept their advice on how to regain your stamina and use exerise to full health advantage?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, no. Hospital staff are generally expert at dressing surgical wounds, stopping bleeding, identifying infections, and providing the support services for surgical and diagnostic procedures. In contrast, they are generally miserable at conveying genuine health advice. They certainly fall short in being examples of health themselves.

To hospitals and their staff, health is a temporary situation that persists only until you become ill. Illness is an inevitability in the hospital staff mindset. Health is a temporary state in between illnesses.

We need to shake off this perverse mentality. Health is the state of life that should dominate our practices and philosophies. Illness via the occasional catastrophe, e.g., broken leg from skiing, car accident, etc., is the province of hospitals. We should gravitate towards this philosphy and away from the over-reliance on hospitals that has come to dominate our present perceptions of health. Hospitals are not glamorous. They are, for the most part, profit-seeking businesses intent on portraying themselves as champions of health.

When I walk down the halls of hospitals, I am shocked and ashamed at the extraordinary examples of ill-health presented by hospital staff. Yet they falsely paint themselves as experts in both illness and health. Don't believe it for a second.

Are there still unexplored causes of heart disease?

I met a woman today. She had her first heart attack at age 37. She just had her 2nd heart attack this morning, at age 40.

Several issues are surprising about her story. First, she's pre-menopausal. Heart attacks before menopause are unusual. We'll occasionally see women have a heart attack before or during menopausal years only if they're heavy smokers and/or they have had diabetes (either type I or type II) for many years. But this young woman had neither. She is slender and has never smoked.

Even more surprising are her basic lipid values: LDL cholesterol 35 mg/dl, HDL 150 mg/dl, triglycerides 317 mg/dl. This is a very unusual pattern.

Unfortunately, this is all developing acutely in the hospital. (I've just met her today--she's not a Track Your Plaquer!) Lipoprotein analysis would be extremely interesting. In particular, I'd like to see whether she has any other markers besides elevated triglycerides of a "post-prandial" abnormality, i.e., persistence of abnormal particles after eating. The high triglycerides make this quite likely.

If this proves true, the omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil will be a lifesaving treatment for her, since they dramatically reduce both triglycerides as well as persistent postprandial particles like intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL). (Track Your Plaque Members: See the Special Report on Postprandial Abnormalities on the present home page at www.cureality.com for a more in-depth discussion of this fascinating collection of patterns that is just started to be explored.)

In the real world, especially acute care medicine, there's always a kicker: she speaks no English. Unfortunately, communicating the intricacies of a powerful program like ours that aims to identify all causes of heart disease, then corrects then and aims for coronary plaque regression, is difficult if not impossible.

I also do occasionally worry that, given this woman's extraordinary risk at a young age, and overall very unusual lipid patterns (HDL 150?!), if there are causes presently beyond our reach. We have to make use of the tools available to us for now.

Everything causes heart attack!

The media are presently gushing about a recent study that associates caffeine intake with heart attack.

CBS News: That cup of coffee you're craving might not be such a good idea. Research in the September issue of Epidemiology suggests coffee can trigger a heart attack within an hour in some people.

Some reporters and their quoted sources are musing about whether it's the caffeine, cream vs. other whiteners, time of day, interaction with other risk factors, etc.

My advice: Get a grip! How many relatively benign, every day factors in life can be blamed for dire health risks?

The problem with many of these studies is that they are cross-sectional. They do not enroll participants, then "treat" with coffee (or other substance in question) vs. placebo. In other words, it is not a randomized trial, the sort of trial necessary to prove a hypothesis. That's all that can be generated by a study like this one: a hypothesis.

Perhaps there's a bit of warning for the person with uncorrected lipids and lipoproteins, has no idea that they have extensive coronary plaque because they've never had a heart scan, and have a slovenly lifestyle. Maybe that person might have exaggerated risk from a cup of coffee.

But for us, involved and intensively addressing all causes of coronary plaque to the point of stabilizing or reducing it, coffee is likely a non-issue.

For more conversation on coffee and this report, go to the www.cureality.com home page.