Coenzyme Q10 and statin drugs

Although drug manufacturers claim that muscle side effects from statin drugs occurs in only around 2% or people or less, my experience is very different.

I see muscle weakness and achiness develop in the majority of people taking Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor, Vytorin, etc. I'd estimate that nearly 90% of people get these feelings sooner or later.

Thankfully, the majority of the time these feelings are annoyances and do not lead to any impairment. Full-blown muscle destruction is truly rare--I've seen it once in over 10 years and thousands of patients.

The higher the dose of statin drug and the longer you take it, the more likely you're going to have muscle aches.

I experienced a strange phemomenon myself today. I worked outdoors for about 4 hours, pulling weeds, digging in the dirt, spreading topsoil. (I have an area of overgrowth in the front yard.) Admittedly, I worked pretty hard and it was a warm, humid day.

I was sore, as you'd expect at age 49. But, much more than that, I was exhausted--my muscles ached and I had barely enough strength to get up the stairs.

Hoping for some relief, I took an extra dose of coenzyme Q10. I usually take 50-100 mg per day. Today, when I felt this overwhelming muscle fatigue, I took an additional 200 mg. Within 10 minutes, I felt a surge of energy. It was, in fact, a perceptible, quite dramatic feeling.

I am thoroughly convinced, through my own experiences on Lipitor (I have a high LDL particle number despite a healthy lifestyle, among other abnormalities), and the experiences of many other people, that coenzyme Q10 can be an extremely useful tool to minimize the muscle aches and weakness of the statin drugs.

If you do indeed need to take one of these agents, coenzyme Q10 is worth knowing about. Supplementing coenzyme Q10 has, for me, been a real lifesaver. For many people, LDL reduction is a crucial part of their heart scan score control program. In my experience, many of them would not be able to take the drug without eozyme Q10.

Blast your LDL with oat bran and almonds

Nearly all of us can use an extra boost in reducing LDL cholesterol. We have a large number of people, in fact, who have reduced LDL into the Track Your Plaque range of 60 mg/dl or less without the use of statin cholesterol-reducing drugs.

Oat bran is among my favorite ways to reduce LDL. Three tablespoons per day is a really effective method to drop your LDL around 20 points. There's twice the beta glucan (soluble, or "viscous", fiber)in oat bran, as compared to the more popular oatmeal. Add oat bran to anything you can think of: yogurt, cottage cheese, vegetarian chili, oatmeal, top desserts with it, etc. Some people struggle to find oat bran in the grocery store. Most health food stores that sell bulk products will have oat bran, usually less than a $1 per pound. Many grocery stores will also have an oat bran hot cereal along with the Cream of Wheat and oatmeal. That's okay, provided the only ingredient is oat bran--no added sugars, etc.

Another dynamite method to reduce LDL 10-20 points is adding raw almonds to your daily food choices. One or two handfuls per day works great. We find it at Sam's Club for around $12.99 for a 3 lb. bag. The plentiful fibers and monounsaturates in almonds keep you full and satisified, take the edge off your sweet tooth, and even blunt the blood sugar rise caused by other foods.

Both these foods are also great ways to combat the metabolic syndrome. Since both fiber-rich oat bran and almonds slow the release of sugars into the blood, blood insulin level is also reduced. This results in a happy cascade of less small LDL, increased HDL, and a reduction in inflammation.

All these wonderful effects contribute to inching you closer to success: dropping your heart scan score.

Pre-diabetes with normal blood sugar

We pay special attention to pre-diabetes, in all its varied manifestations, in the Track Your Plaque program. This is because these factors are potent instigators of coronary plaque growth.

Early in the Track Your Plaque program we ignored these measures. After all, this is a program for heart disease risk reduction, not for mangement of diabetes. But we saw explosive rates of plaque growth when pre-diabetic factors were not controlled--even when cholesterol and related factors were under excellent control.

It became increasingly clear that factors associated with pre-diabetes needed to be managed, as well. This includes small LDL, increased blood sugar, high blood pressure, increased inflammation (as CRP).

Many people, however, have normal blood sugars (100 mg/dl or less) with a high blood insulin level (>10 microunits/ml). (This blood test is available in most laboratories.) This means that they have early resistance to insulin. The pancreas, the source of insulin, responds to the body's unresponsiveness to insulin by increasing insulin production.

Increased blood insulin with normal blood sugar will drive production of higher triglycerides, a drop in HDL, creation of small LDL, and inflammation--and coronary plaque growth, as evidenced by increasing CT heart scan score.

Blood insulin levels can be very effectively dropped by weight loss; exercise; reduction of processed carbohydrates like breads, pretzels, and breakfast cereals; and increased raw nuts and oat products; and vitamin D replacement to normal levels. Drug manufacturers are desperately trying to make this a mandate for drug treatment (Actos, Avandia), but are encountering resistance, since most people without overt diabetes don't want to take diabetic medication (rightly so!).

You and your doctor should consider insulin as a factor to track, especially if you have small LDL, low HSL, or high triglycerides, or any of the other manifestations listed above.

Sometimes small LDL is the only abnormality

Janet is a 58-year old schoolteacher. At 5 ft 3 inches and 104 lbs, she had barely an ounce of fat on her size-2 body. For years, Janet's primary care physician complimented her on her cholesterol numbers: LDL cholesterol values ranging from 100 to 130 mg/dl; HDL cholesterol of 50-53 mg/dl.

Yet she had coronary disease. Her heart scan score: 195.

Lipoprotein analysis uncovered a single cause: small LDL. 95% of all of Janet's LDL particles were in the small category. What was surprising was that this pattern occurred despite her slender build. Weight is a powerful influence on the small LDL pattern and the majority of people with it are overweight to some degree. But not Janet.

How did she get small LDL if she was already at or below her ideal weight? Genetics. Among the genetic patterns that can account for this pattern is a defect of an enzyme called cholesteryl-ester transfer protein, or CETP. This is the exact step, by the way, that is blocked by torcetrapib, the new agent slated for release sometime in future (The manufacturer, Pfizer, is apparently going to sell this agent only packaged in the same tablet as Lipitor. This has triggered an enormous amount of criticism against the company and they are, as a result discussing marketing torcetrapib separately.)

Also note that Janet had a severe excess of small LDL despite an HDL in the "favorable" range. (See my earlier conversation on this issue, The Myth of Small LDL at

With Janet, weight loss to reduce small LDL was not an option. So we advised her to take fish oil, 4000 mg per day; niacin, 1000 mg per day; vitamin D, 2000 units per day; use abundant oat bran and raw almonds, both of which suppress small LDL. This regimen has--surprisingly--only partially suppressed her small LDL pattern by a repeat lipoprotein analysis we just performed. We're hoping this may do it, i.e., stop progression or reduce her heart scan score.

The lesson: Small LDL is a very potent pattern that can be responsible for heart disease, even if it occurs in isolation. And, contrary to conventional thinking, small LDL can occur as an independent abnormality, even when HDL is at favorable levels.

Report from Washington II

Today's discussions at the Society for Cardiovascular Computed Tomography (SCCT) focused on atherosclerotic "plaque characterization".

As CT scanners get better and better at imaging the various components of plaque, some fascinating issues emerge:

--CT heart scans provide insights into what exactly is contained in an individual's atherosclerotic plaque that are not often provided even during heart catheterization. In other words, CT heart scanning is, in many instances, superior to heart catheterization, since it provides images of the artery wall, not just the internal contents.

--Progression (i.e., increase) in heart scan score is a powerful predicter of heart attack risk. Dr. Matthew Budoff of UCLA argued persuasively that the annual rate of increase in score is probably the most accurate measure of risk available, superior to cholesterol and calculated measures like the Framingham risk score.

--Coronary calcium scoring remains the best method to gauge total plaque throughout the entire coronary tree. In a person free of symptoms, the risk of a cardiac "event" (heart attack, death, procedures) is low and additional imaging (like CT angiography) is generally unnecessary.

Dr. Budoff, among the true thought leaders in CT heart scanning, also recounted his perspective on the history of heart scans. He noted that the questions asked through the years have evolved:

1995-2000 Should we do coronary calcium scans?

2000-2002 Do high or low risk patients benefit from coronary calcium scoring?

2003-2004 What is the better scanner, EBT or MDCT?

2006 How often should we perform coronary calcium imaging?

I believe that Dr. Budoff summarizes wonderfully where the Track Your Plaque programs fits into the overall scheme of things: Serial (repeated)CT heart scans to gauge progression or reversal is the wave of the future. We shouldn't just be interested in identifying persons at risk for heart attack. We should also be interested in showing the person at risk exactly how to reduce or eliminate that risk.

Report from Washington

I'm presently attending the Society for Cardiovascular Computed Tomography meetings in Washington, DC, along with 500 of my colleagues. It's exciting to see how interest in CT scanning for heart disease has balloonned in the past couple of years.

Several trends are noticeable today, based on the content and tone of the discussions:

--CT scanning of the heart, and imaging in general, is just getting started. In other words, the capabilities for CT scanners and other devices to detect heart disease (coronary and otherwise) are where the gasoline engine was in the 19th century. Scanning is getting faster, easier, safer, and more precise. Just as few people in 1905 could have predicted that automobiles would be computer-enhanced, high-speed, ubiquitous devices with several per household, the potential for CT imaging for heart disease is truly in its infancy.

--CT coronary angiography (so-called "64-slice CT scans") are not screening tests for hidden coronary disease in people without symptoms. I was grateful that this point has been made and reiterated by several speakers, as this is consistent with our views. Simple CT heart scans for coronary calcium scoring, in contrast, are screening tests. When the radiation exposure of CT angiograms are reduced to tolerable levels, then they may be used as screening tests. We are probably 3-4 years away from this point.

--Both stress testing and heart catheterizations will be partially replaced by CT scanning. In particular, over the next decade, you will see a dramatic drop in unnecessary catheterizations, i.e,, far less people saying "I had a heart cath but they told me that it was normal."

There has been heavy focus on applications of CT scanning for acute settings, particularly the emergency room and hospitals.

What has surprised me is that there is virtually no conversation whatsoever about the preventive uses of CT heart scanning. So far, only Dr. Daniel Berman of UCLA has shown that he has "seen the light": CT scans are a crucial tool for identification of early coronary plaque, and this tells us whether prevention is necessary and with what intensity.

There has been, however, no discussion at all about quantification of plaque in a program of reversal. Perhaps that should come as no surprise, given the imaging-technology focus of this convention. For most of my colleagues, prevention is also not terribly interesting. Identification and treatment of acute disease like impending heart attack is.

Of course, applying the information from your CT heart scan to empower you in a program and reversal is what the Track Your Plaque program is all about. I hope you see the light. I admit that it's not always easy to follow what we are advocating here. Perhaps not too different than telling someone in his horse-drawn buggy that one day he'll be driving a sleek car with onboard computerized mapping, air-conditioning, and micro-chips to modulate engine performance. He's probably tell us we're nuts.

I'll continue to update if any news relevant to our interests crops up in these meetings.

What about the Track Your Plaque failures?

I’d love to tell you that the Track Your Plaque program track record is of 100% success. It’s not.

It is very successful. But we’ve had some people who have failed and failed BIG. These are the people who've undergone bypass surgery, received one or more stents, or had heart attacks. Lesser failures are the people who’ve had large, undesirable increases in heart scan scores of >30% in one year. (The expected rate of increase in your heart scan score without preventive efforts is 30% per year, on average.)

What can we learn from those failures? There were several characteristics that stand out among this small group:

· Non-compliance--meaning they just didn’t stick with it. They started out right but then rapidly lost interest in maintaining all the pieces of the program and neglected their fish oil, niacin, gain weight, etc. Matthew did this and ended up with three stents to his left anterior descending. His slow start was due to skepticism that the program worked and just plain forgetfulness.

· Extreme stress--One of our earliest failures was a 38-year old man whose heart scan score doubled in one year, despite doing everything right. But three family members, all close to him, died within the space of six months, including his mother and a brother. I regard this as one of those instances in which we were powerless, unfortunately, though it is a graphic example of the power of unresolved stress and grief.

· Having a “better way”--These are the couple of people who were convinced that they had a better way to control their heart scan score. David firmly believed that his two dozen supplements and exercise program would drop his score. Instead, they permitted a 42% increase. Lee relied exclusively on chelation, along with several supplements of his own design. Lee had three-vessel bypass surgery.

· Starting too late--Gerome started with a score of 1179, but also was having chest pressure with emotional stress. His stress test was abnormal, with the entire upper half of his heart not receiving blood with exercise on a stress nuclear study (“anterior ischemia”). Gerome received four bypass grafts. Unfortunately, Gerome never really had a chance to engage in the Track Your Plaque program, since his health and safety were in jeopardy as soon as he started.

Have we had any big failures of people who did everything right, were compliant, were not subject to extreme stress (more than just job stress, or financial worries), didn’t neglect the basic requirements of the Track Your Plaque program, and had sufficient time (at least 6 months to 1 year)? No, thankfully, we have not.

No one who has stuck to the program has had a big failure.

Be smarter than your cardiologist

“Do you need a stent?”

Sad to say, but that sentence condenses the wisdom of over 90% of practicing cardiologists.

Prevention of heart disease means take Lipitor or some other statin and cutting the saturated fat in your diet. That’s it. Maybe throw in exercise.

Regression of coronary plaque? That phrase has only entered the conversation since the AstraZeneca-supported trial of Crestor succeeded in achieving 8% regression of plaque (Track Your Plaque Members: See News) as demonstrated by intracoronary ultrasound.

In other words, in the minds of my colleagues, it can’t be true until a drug company tells them it’s true. It’s beyond me why this brainwashing of otherwise intelligent people has occurred, but it is blatantly evident in practice.

Fish oil is another example. The spectacular benefits of fish oil have been known for 20 years. But only recently has it become a “mainstream” practice to recommend fish oil, largely because a drug manufacturer has put a preparation through the rigors of FDA approval (Omacor) and is now marketing directly to physicians. All of a sudden, fish oil is a good thing? No, it’s just achieved legitimacy in the eyes of practitioners because it graces marketing literature.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely interested in coronary plaque regression using the only tool available for you to measure, track, and regress coronary plaque: CT heart scans. Intracoronary ultrasound will achieve the same goal, but it is an invasive procedure performed at heart catheterization, involves threading a wire and imaging probe all the way down the artery, involves real risk of tearing the inner lining of the artery, and is costly (around $14,000-$20,000 for the entire package). Do it every year? That’d be nuts.

If you’re thinking about coronary plaque regression, using fish oil, concerned about patterns like low HDL and small LDL, aware of the vitamin D deficiency issue as a coronary risk factor, etc., you are far more aware than the vast majority of practicing cardiologists. They are interested in what new brand of anti-coagulant to use during their heart catheterization (because the product representative gushes about the new agent—only $1200 a dose!). Or, they are interested in gaining the procedural skills to put in a new device like a biventricular pacemaker. Regress/reverse coronary plaque? What for?

You already know that a conversation about coronary plaque reversal will not be obtained in your cardiologist’s office. Your family practice doctor or internist? Fat chance! Knee arthritis, pap smears, pneumovax inoculations, sore throats, gout, back pain—they’re spread far too thin to know anything more than the most superficial amount about coronary plaque control. Most know nothing.

That’s where we come in. That’s our mission: Educate people about the extraordinary tools that you have available to you, all in the cause of control or reversal of coronary plaque.

Why am I here?

Frank came to the office for an opinion, sent by his (proactive) family physician.

"I really don't know why I'm here, to be honest."

Two years earlier, Frank had a heart attack, survived and received two stents to his circumflex coronary artery. He now took Zocor and his LDL cholesterol was a reasonably favorable 89 mg, total cholesterol 183 mg.

"I walk with my wife every other day. I've been avoiding fish fries. You'll never see me eat fast food."

Frank was correct: If we were going to engage in the conventional approach to coronary disease, Frank was on the right track. We would have postponed his next heart attack or procedure by a couple of years. Stroke, aneurysm, and other atherosclerotic manifestations would be set back, likewise, a few years.

Would Frank have profound control over his disease? Absolutely not. In fact, his disease had probably advanced a huge amount just in the two years since his stents were placed and he was on his "prevention" program. Without his current effort, his coronary plaque would be expected to grow 30% per year. On Zocor and his modest lifestyle efforts, plaque growth was probably in the 14-28% per year range.

So I explained the unique Track Your Plaque approach to Frank. First, we start with a CT heart scan to establish where he was starting. Although he had two stents in his circumflex artery, we still had two other arteries (LAD, right coronary) to score and track.

We then attempt to identify all hidden causes of his heart disease and then correct them.

Of course, Frank had multiple hidden causes:

--HDL too low at 38 mg/dl
--Small LDL-severe, in fact, with 95% of all LDL particles in the small category
--Triglycerides too high
--Excesses of several triglyceride-containing particles (VLDL, IDL)
--Pre-diabetes--Frank had both a borderline high blood sugar and a high insulin level. This is a sure-fire stimulus to coronary plaque growth.
--A severe deficiency of vitamin D (<20 ng/ml)
--An excessivelyhigh blood pressure during exercise--With a blood pressure of 190/102 on the treadmill.

There were others(!), but that was the bulk of the causes behind Frank's coronary disease.

Once Frank recognized that there was indeed a huge panel of hidden causes for heart disease, not just too much fat in his diet and LDL cholesterol, he jumped into the program head first.

The message: The conventional approach is absurdly oversimplified, a certain path to failure for the majority of people. Even if you don't have known coronary disease like Frank, but just have a heart scan score >zero, the same principles apply to you.

Catheterization to “define coronary anatomy”

Gary is an avid jogger. On an average day, he runs 5-6 miles at a good clip. On two occasions recently, however, Gary experienced an ache in his left shoulder at mile 4. It was a toothache-like feeling, but he kept on going without difficulty.

Gary also had a heart scan score of 370.

Upon hearing of Gary’s score and his shoulder sensation, the cardiologist who saw him advised a heart catheterization “to define coronary anatomy”. (This is a real incident.)

What exactly does that mean? Why would Gary’s cardiologist need to define it?

In my view, this is an absurd notion. No one needs to “define coronary anatomy”. This catch-all phrase is commonly used to justify heart procedures. I believe what the cardiologist is saying is that it’s the easiest (for the cardiologist) and perhaps most generously reimbursed method to determine whether Gary’s symptoms are warning of an impending heart attack or not.

The problem is that the question can also be answered quite well by doing a stress test. Though not perfect diagnostic tests, stress tests are useful when symptoms are present that are doubtful in nature. Gary’s left shoulder ache could have been related to his heart, but the likelihood was that it was not. A stress test would have answered the diagnostic question quite adequately.

Instead, this man was subjected to an invasive test that was likely unnecessary. This happens dozens, if not hundreds, of times per day just around here. Nationwide, it is an epidemic of malpractice.

There are, indeed, times when a person should proceed directly to a heart catheterization. This is commonly and appropriately performed when a person develops unstable heart symptoms, such as chest discomfort or breathlessness at rest while not doing anything physical, or if the frequency is increasing, or if a stress test shows an important abnormality. There is no question that heart procedures can be lifesaving at times.

The problem is that thousands of people every year are scared into these procedures inappropriately. Beware!