It doesn't matter what I eat!

"How are your food choices?" I asked.

"What does it matter, doc? I take Lipitor. Doesn't that take care of it? I eat what I want!"

So declared Matthew. What he "wanted" was pretty much the diet of a teenager: pizza, cheeseburgers, soft drinks, snacks. His "beer belly" (visceral fat) gave it away. So did his blood work that showed flagrant lipoprotein abnormalities--small LDL, an HDL of 37 mg, and a severe after-eating flood of fat represented by increased "intermediate-density lipoprotein" (IDL).

Like many people, Matthew had been persuaded (or chose to believe) that LDL cholesterol was the sole cause for heart disease. Lipitor was therefore was all he needed. It must be great--how else could they afford all those slick TV commercials?

Well, it is definitely not true. In fact, with the persistence of Matthew's abnormal lipoprotein patterns, we should expect his heart scan score to continue to grow by 30%--the very same rate of increase as if he were taking nothing.

Specifically, Lipitor and drugs like it do not:

--Raise HDL.

--Correct or reduce the proportion of small LDL.

--Block after-eating flood of fat, nor do they accelerate clearance of unhealthy fats persisting in the bloodstream after eating.

Yes, what you eat does have real consequences, even if you take a statin drugs. In fact, the foods you ingest have a remarkably rapid and dramatic effect on what your blood contains. Any diabetic who checks his/her blood sugar knows this. They eat a slice of whole wheat toast and watch their blood sugar skyrocket.

Mind what you eat. Make it enjoyable, of course. But drugs do not provide impunity.

People with higher scores need to try harder

Sam is a 69-year retired physician. He was thoroughly enjoying retirement: golf, travelling, going out to dinner two or three times a week, spending weekends with his grandchildren. His lifestyle tended towards overindulgence, but he managed to stay fit and trim. At 6 ft 1 inch, he weighed 194 lbs and could still run 3 miles without too much difficulty. Not as good as his marathon-running days, but still not too bad for 69.

Sam's heart scan score in 2003 was a concerning 1983--extensive plaque. His doctor wasn't much help in interpreting the scan and so Sam simply chose to ignore it.

A chance conversation with a physician friend 18 months later made Sam think that perhaps this shouldn't be ignored. That's when he came to my office.

I find that sometimes the best way to motivate someone to take action is to demonstrate just how fast plaque grows if action isn't taken. So I advised Sam to get another scan first, since 18 months had passed. His score: 2441, or a 23% increase.

Sam was now starting to catch on. We made several changes in his prevention program (starting from virtually nothing). He did undergo a stress nuclear (thallium type) of test, which he passed without difficulty--normal blood flow in all heart territories despite the extensive plaque.

But, for some reason, Sam simply allowed himself to drift back to old habits: poor choices in food, overindulging in hard liquor, missing his fish oil and other supplements, and his medication, sometimes up to several days a week.

Sam started having unusual feelings in his chest. He described a sort of nervousness along with skipped heart beats. So we repeated a stress test. This time, a large area of reduced blood flow in the front of his heart ("anterior left ventricle") was detected. Sam ended up receiving three stents in a difficult procedure.

The moral: If you're starting out with a lower heart scan score of, say, 100 or 200, maybe you'll get by without trying too hard--maybe. But if your score is higher, say, several hundred or in the thousands, you got to try harder.

You're starting later in the process. Your disease will allow you very little slack. Let your guard down and it will get you. Control over your plaque is, indeed, very possible--we do it all the time. Score reduction is also possible. But your effort must be more serious and consistent.

Money can't buy health

Fallen Enron CEO, Kenneth Lay, was pronounced dead early this a.m. after suffering a heart attack.

Mr. Lay apparently had no history of heart disease and there's been no indication that symptoms provided any warning. His death was therefore classified as "sudden cardiac death".

Yet here's a man previously worth hundreds of millions of dollars with access to any test or medical system he desired--many times over. Even more recently, with his wealth reduced following his legal troubles, he and his wife managed to put away $4 million dollars to ensure an income from the interest through annuities, untouchable by the courts.

Detecting Mr. Lay's heart disease would have cost him around a few hundred dollars or whatever it costs for a CT heart scan in his city. This would have alerted his (hopefully knowledgeable) doctor that he was a time-bomb. Pile on all the stress he'd been suffering, whether deserved or no, and the diagnosis would have required little thought.

Instead, Mr. Lay has joined the thousands of Americans who will die this year because of failing to get a simple, 30-second test that costs one-tenth the cost of a stress test. Mr. Lay wasn't as lucky as former President Bill Clinton, whose doctors likewise blundered their way through and missed obvious levels of heart disease.

All Mr. Lay needed was better information: get a heart scan, then follow a program of prevention like the Track Your Plaque program. You may not have hundreds of millions of dollars, but you have the information on how to not follow in Ken Lay's footsteps. Track Your Plaque--and stay alive.

What's important, what's not in your plaque-control program

Sometimes it's hard to know what is really important in your plaque-control or plaque-reducing efforts.

There are, indeed, crucial make-it-or-break-it factors that are necessary to gain control over plaque. If you hope to stack the odds of reducing your heart scan score as much as possible in your favor, then fish oil, vitamin D, 60-60-60 in the way of standard lipids, elimination of small LDL, etc. -- all the elements of the Track Your Plaque program--are necessary.

But there's lots of things that sidetrack people. I spend much of my day fielding questions from patients about all the things that either provide very little benefit for plaque control, or provide none at all.

Among the things that we have found to be too weak or useless for plaque control, or are "non-issues", include:

--Caffeine--Go ahead and enjoy a couple cups a day (though not a pot). The effect is too trivial to make much difference.

--Hawthorne--Yes, it may dilate coronary arteries modestly, but not enough to make any difference.

--Garlic--with the possible exception of a specific preparation called Aged Garlic Extract (an acqueous, non-oil-based, extract from Kyolic), garlic's effects are too tiny to help, e.g., drop in blood pressure 1-2 points. Use it, but don't expect much. Aged Garlic Extract may be an exception, in that a single study from UCLA suggested specific effects on slowing coronary plaque growth. We await more info on this.

--Anti-oxidants--There is no shortage of extravagant claims about the benefits of anti-oxidants. Unfortunately, there's very little human exerience with pine bark extract, pycnogenol, grapeseed extract, and so on. Is the purported benefit from anti-oxidation or through some other means, e.g., enhancement of nitric oxide synthase? No data.

--Policosanol--If you've followed the Track Your Plaque Special Reports, you already know what a disappointment this agent has been, despite the too-good-to-be-true clinical data. It doesn't work.

--"No-flush niacin"--Unfortunately, no flush, no effect. This high-priced supplement is still sold widely in the U.S. despite its complete lack of efficacy. It does not work in humans. (It works great in rats!)

Track Your Plaque continues to try to be the arbiter of truth in what works, what doesn't in truly stopping or reversing your coronary plaque. The proof positive? Stopping or dropping your heart scan score.

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.