Heart disease reversal is getting easier and easier

I've recently observed that more and more of our patients on the Track Your Plaque program seem to be stopping or reducing their heart scan scores. And they're doing it faster, in less time, and with larger drops in score.

I'm not entirely sure why the sudden surge in success. However, I do wonder if adding therapeutic levels of vitamin D--at least in our generally sun-deprived Wisconsin participants--is responsible. However, we've also gotten a lot smarter on how to correct the parameters that seems to have outsized effects on plaque growth, especially small LDL.

Yesterday alone, we had two people we added to our list of successes. One, an attorney, stopped his score in one year, with no change (compared to the expected increase of 30%). Another, a woman from the northeast, dropped her score 10% in one year. Her story is remarkable for beginning at a score >1000. In general, the higher your starting score, the longer it takes to stop or reduce it.

These are just two examples. It seems to be happening at an accelerating pace.

I can only hope that our surge in success (not 100%--yet!) will continue. But, every week, we're adding more and more people to our list of success stories.

A used car lot on every street corner

Imagine that, every day, a parade of used-car salesmen knock on your front door to sell you a special "deal". Day in, day out they knock, expecting you to hear about their offers openly.

Is there any doubt about their intentions or motives? Of course not. They're just trying to profit from selling you a car.

That's how it is in a medical office nowadays. Drug representatives, 5, 6, or more each and every day, promoting drugs. Except that the profits from drugs are far greater than a used automobile, and there's a third party involved in the transaction: you.

Today, a pushy representative came to my office. My staff and I tried to tell him that I was not interested in speaking to him. But he proved such a nuisance that I finally came out to tell him that I objected to the idea of drug reps just hanging around trying to hawk their wares.

He blurted, "Doctor, do you have patients with angina? Our new drug, ranolazine, is perfect. Forget about nitroglycerin, beta blockers, and all that. Here's the latest study proving it's better." He tried to shove a reprint of the study at me.

Getting to the bottom line, I asked, "What does it cost the patient?"

"Well, the co-pay is between $40 and $60. We're not yet well covered by insurance, so it'll cost patients around $200 a month."

Need I say more? Here's a drug that does little more than help relieve anginal chest pains. It doesn't reverse coronary plaque. It won't avoid heart attack, death, or procedures. It just modestly cuts back on the frequency of chest pain. And all for the cost of a single heart scan--a heart scan that could have prevented the entire cascade of symptoms/procedures/medication/hospitalization etc.

Hospitals, drug companies, medical device manufacturers. They're all businesses that thrive on your doctor's failure to detect and control your coronary plaque. Sometimes, even your doctor is part of this conspiracy to squeeze dollars out of human disease. Don't fall for it.

Heart disease reversal at age 77

I met Agnes 18 months ago after she underwent a heart scan that revealed a scary score of over 1100. Although in her mid-70s, this was still a very high score. (Recall that a score this high carries a risk for heart attack and death of 25% per year.) Poor Agnes was a wreck over this unexpected result. "I can't sleep, I can't stop thinking about it!"

She'd undergone the scan because her 44-year old son had a heart scan score of 2200! Unfortunately, he ended up with a bypass operation for very severe disease.

Despite having been seeing a cardiologist in Boston for the last 8 years for a murmur, we uncovered multiple hidden lipoprotein patterns, many of which she shared with her son. Her most notable abnormalities were a low HDL and small LDL. Nearly 100% of all LDL particles were, in fact, small. This pattern also caused her LDL cholesterol to be underestimated by over 40%.

18 months on the Track Your Plaque program and Agnes came into town to get a repeat scan. Her score was 10.2% lower. She'd learned to live with the idea that she had hidden heart disease missed by her doctor and cardiologist for many years. But knowledge of the substantial reversal she'd achieved in the 18 months on the program gave Agnes tremendous peace of mind.

Agnes left the office with a big smile.

If you need a reason to quit smoking...

If you've read Track Your Plaque, you already know my feelings about smoking and coronary plaque. Smoke, and you will lose the battle for control over coronary plaque growth--it will grow and grow until catastrophe strikes.

Nonetheless, this is not sufficiently motivating for some people.

If you need more motivation to quit smoking, just take a look at your heart scan sometime, accompanied by either one of the doctors or technicians at the scan center you choose. After you've had an opportunity to look at your coronary arteries, take a look at the lungs. The heart is in the middle and the lungs are the two large black areas on either side of the heart. (They're not really black; that's just the way the images are color-coded.)

Smokers will see large cavities in their lungs--literally, half-inch to one-inch wide holes that contain only air. Many of them. These represent remnants of lung tissue, digested away and now useless from the damage incurred through smoking.

Non-smokers should see uniform lung tissue without such cavities.

What surprised me early on in my heart scan experience was how little smoking exposure was required to generate these cavities. A 40-year old, for instance, who smoked a half-pack per day for 10 years would have them. Heavier smokers, of course, showed far more extensive cavities.

Officially, these cavities are called "emphysematous blebs", meaning the scars of the lung disease, emphysema.

When I've pointed out these cavities or emphysematous blebs to patients, 9 out of 10 times they immediately become non-smokers. Commonly, they'd exclaim, "I had no idea I was really damaging my lungs!" Most admitted that they were awaiting some bona fide evidence that they were truly doing some harm to their bodies. Well, that's it.

Give it a try if you're struggling.

Vitamin D for winter blues?

Winter is now over and spring is in the air, even in Wisconsin.

In this part of the country, winter blues are commonplace. Sometimes called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) when it's severe enough to cause functional impairment, feelings of fatigue, lack of motivation, or the blues are very frequent when days are short and sunlight is in short supply.

I've been seeing many people in the last several weeks who were advised to add vitamin D to their program last fall. Christopher's experience was typical.

"You know, since you told me to take vitamin D, I didn't get sad and tired like I do every winter. This is the first time I can remember that happening. I didn't sleep as much and I didn't get that feeling of always being overwhelmed."

I've felt it myself this past winter. I think there's some real truth to this effect.

Dr. Bruce Hollis has published a small experience in treating people with SAD with vitamin D and showed measurable improvement in depression. (One recent study in older women failed to show any effect, however, when small doses of vitamin D of 800 units were administered. In my experience, this dose doesn't even come close to normalizing blood vitamin D levels.)

The best source for in-depth information on vitamin D is Dr. John Cannell's website, www.vitaminDcouncil.com. If you've read Dr. Cannell's discussion on the Track Your Plaque website, you know that he is an articulate spokesman for the benefits of vitamin D replacement. He also persuasively argues that vitamin D deficiency is rampant in northern climates and in people who don't get frequent sun exposure. Interestingly, we now have two studies of populations in Florida and one in Hawaii, both of which showed substantial percentages of people even in these tropical climates to be deficient in vitamin D (around 50% in Hawaii and 30% in Florida).

The dose we've used with much success is 2000 units per day in females, 3000 units per day in males. This yields normal blood levels of around 50 ng/dl in around 80-90% of people. Occasional people will require more, some less. The best way to do it is to check a baseline blood level and a level on therapy to determine the adequacy of your dose.

Dr. Cannell will tell you that it's very important to have your doctor check the right test: 25-OH-vitamin D3, not 1,25-diOH-vitamin D3. These are two very different tests of two different compounds.

In the Track Your Plaque program, we use vitamin D to reduce pre-diabetic tendencies, reduce blood pressure (vitamin D is an inhibitor of the pressure-raising hormone renin), shut down inflammation, and gain better control over coronary plaque (mechanism uncertain). In the process, you will sharply reduce risk of osteoporosis, colon and prostate cancer.

And maybe you'll be brighter when the winter blues come around again.

$4 per gallon gas is good for your health!

Gasoline is now approaching $4 per gallon in some parts of the U.S. But there's a silver lining in this dark cloud. In fact, I see this as a positive for your health.

How can higher gas prices possbily be good for health?

Imagine this trend continues: Fuel prices climb higher and higher. Driving your car will become increasingly more costly. What will be the fall-out?

Well, there will be a number of implications. But among the developments will be a broad impetus towards rejecting fuel-based sources of transportation. This may come as a shock to you, but humans legs were meant for walking!

Remember way back when, Mom would say "We need some milk"? In 1953, you wouldn't get in your car and zip to and from the supermarket. Instead, you would walk a quarter-mile, half-mile or more to the store. And you would carry your bags back. You might walk a mile or two to school and back. In 2006, this seems incomprehensible.

Higher fuel prices will prompt a gradual return to 1953--As transportation costs climb, your town may try and make it easier to walk as an alternative means of getting places.
Imagine that it was easy to walk three blocks to the grocery store, produce stand, work or school, walk along pleasant paths on the weekend, stroll to the home of friends. Drive or walk? Leave the car in the garage and save you and your family hundreds of dollars a month in gas bills.

In a few years, given the current fuel cost trends, there won't be a choice. But it will be in your favor for health.

Another Ornish casualty

Barry's lipoproteins were nearly all corrected to perfection: LDL 64 mg, HDL 57 mg, triglycerides 45 mg. He was approaching the Track Your Plaque goal of 60/60/60, the levels we find tip the scales heavily in your favor for achieving plaque reversal.

But one problem still prominently persisted: small LDL. Of Barry's 64 mg of total LSL, 90% of his LDL were small.

Barry was already on niacin (Slo-Niacin; Upsher Smith)1000 mg per day and fish oil, 4000 mg per day, both of which contribute to correction of this pattern. He had added occasional raw almonds and oat bran to his daily habits, both of which also help suppress small LDL. "I thought you told me that small LDL should go away if I did all this!" he lamented in frustration.

We probed Barry's diet choices more closely. "I eat really healthy foods, just like an Ornish program." Uh oh.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"For breakfast, I have two slices of whole wheat toast--no butter or margarine, of course! I'll have Shredded Wheat with skim milk. That's it. My typical lunch is low-fat turkey--no mayonnaise!--on whole wheat. I'll add some low-fat whole wheat crackers or pretzels. That's pretty much my habit."

"How about dinner?"

"Dinner varies a lot. I'll usually have a low-fat meat like chicken or turkey, never beef, a vegetable, and a potato. I love rolls but I try to make them whole wheat. I don't use gravy. I love ice cream, so I've been having low-fat frozen yogurt instead. I guess that's about it."

Barry had indeed been counseled on how we approach nutrition. We, of course, do not endorse the low-fat approach of the Ornish program. Low saturated and hydrogenated fat, yes, but not the super-strict low-fat, "all fat is bad" approach of Dr. Dean Ornish.

Barry's diet is typical of someone on a low-fat restriction. When I asked him why he was eating this way, he admitted that he'd seen Dr. Ornish on a TV program in which he persuasively proclaimed that he reversed heart disease in his patients over the past nearly 20 years using this low-fat approach.

That explained it. Barry's nearly pure carbohydrate diet was triggering high blood sugar responses after meals, causing his insulin to skyrocket and magnifying the small LDL pattern.

I advised Barry to dramatically reduce his carbohydates like breads, pretzels, low-fat yogurt, crackers, etc. Instead, he could increase his lean proteins like eggs, egg whites, Egg Beaters, raw nuts and seeds, low-fat (yes, low-fat!) dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese (both high protein), and healthy oils.

I've seen this happen with many people over the years: A severe low-fat restriction becomes a high-carbohydate diet. It's not uncommon for many people to have more than 70% of calories from carbohydrates on these programs.

The low-fat approach worked in the era of high-fat diets in the 1980s. In 2006, where convenience foods made with carbohydrates, especially wheat, predominate and pack 80% of supermarket shelves, low-fat is now a distorted nutritional mistake that leads to problems like Barry's uncontrolled small LDL, and often pre-diabetic or overt diabetes.

Should you take Plavix?

A question I get fairly frequently nowadays is, "Should I take Plavix?"

For the few of you who've managed to miss the mass advertising campaign for this drug on TV, USA Today, etc., Plavix is a platelet-blocking drug, known chemically as clopidogrel, that "thins" the blood and helps prevent blood clot formation in coronary arteries and carotid arteries, thus potentially reducing heart attack and stroke risk.

What if you have a heart scan score of, say, 450--should you take Plavix?

In general, no. First of all, aspirin and Plavix (generally taken together, since the effect of Plavix is incremental to that of aspirin) only block blood clot formation. They have no effect whatsoever on the rate of plaque growth. Aspirin and Plavix will neither slow it or increase it.

What they do is when a plaque ruptures like a little volcano and exposes its internal contents (inflammatory cells, fat, etc.--like a raw wound), a blood clot forms on top of the ruptured surface. If the clot is big enough, it can occlude the vessel and causes heart attack. Or, if it's a carotid artery, debris from the clot can break off and find its way headward to the artery controlling your speech or memory center. Aspirin and Plavix simply help inhibit clot formation once a plaque ruptures. That's it.

Interestingly, if you view any of Sanofi Aventis' commercials for Plavix, you'd think they came up with a cure for heart disease. It ain't true.

When is Plavix helpful? It's clearly an advantage after someone receives a coronary stent, drug-coated or uncoated;, after coronary bypass, particularly if certain metal punch devices are used to create the grafts in the aorta; and during and after heart attack. These are all situations in which blood clot formation is a forceful process. Blocking it helps.

In general, in asymptomatic people with positive heart scan scores at any level, we do not recommend taking Plavix. The Plavix people are extremely aggressive pushing their drug (hang around any medical office and see!) and, I believe, have gone overboard in promoting its benefits. Rarely, in someone with a very high heart scan score, say 2000 or more, we'll use Plavix for a period of a few months until lipids/lipoproteins and other risk measures are addressed, just as an added safety measure. But, in general, the great majority of people with some heart scan score or another do not receive it and I don't believe that they should.

As always, look beyond the marketing. The purpose of marketing is to increase profits, not to educate.

Dr. Ornish goofed

"I don't think I need the Track Your Plaque program. I've been doing the Ornish program, so I think that my plaque has already regressed."

So proclaimed Bruce, a recent patient I saw in consultation. Having suffered a heart attack three years earlier, he was thoroughly convinced that he was now cured following the Ornish program.

Indeed, back in the 1980s, many of us existed on greasy, high-fat diets of cheeseburgers, French fries, fried chicken, plenty of butter or margarine, mayonnaise, and the like.

Along came Dr. Dean Ornish, who wrote a book called "Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease Without Drugs or Surgery". This book struck a chord during this era and has been a hot-seller ever since it was published.

Does it work? In my experience, no, it does not.

Dr. Ornish claimed that sharply curtailing fat intake reverses heart disease. Closer to the truth is that, in people who start with high fat intakes, a low-fat restriction is indeed an improvement. This will lead to a modest improvement in blood flow in the coronary arteries due to a phenomenon called "endothelial dysfunction." This means that arteries will dilate modestly when specific changes are made. Thus, you will see minimal improvements in the measures he used (stress testing with nuclear imaging.)

What it does not mean is that plaque has regressed, certainly not "reversed".

In fact, our experience (over 10 years ago, when we first used the Ornish approach) was that the majaority of people did worse on this low-fat program: HDL dropped, triglycerides increased, blood sugar increased, inflammatory measures like C-reactive protein increased. Some people even magnified diabetic or pre-diabetic patterns.

It's almost certain that Bruce has not reversed his coronary plaque. In fact, I would bet that his plaque has grown substantially. Bruce started three years earlier from a diet high in unhealthy fats. If the expected rate of coronary plaque growth is 30% per year, perhaps he slowed it--to 20% or so. Since he didn't have a heart scan score at the time of his heart attack, we'll never know if he truly did reduce the quantity of coronary plaque he had.

But when I met him on his Ornish program, Bruce showed disturbing patterns that included an HDL cholesterol of 38 mg, 70% of all LDL particles were small, triglycerides measured 209 mg, and C-reactive protein was high at 2.8 mg/l. In other words, Bruce's plaque causes were far from corrected. Perhaps they were worse.

The Ornish program, despite it's ambitious claims, has outlived its usefulness. In 2006, it is an antiquated relic of a time past when lifestyle habits and technology were different.

Warning: This product may contain wheat!

Jerry experienced a peculiar sensation in his chest one evening while watching TV with his wife and kids. He squirmed in his chair and experienced a little breathelessness. But he kept it to himself and didn't say anything to his wife.

Fortunately, the feeling passed. But it concerned Jerry enough that he called a local heart scan center and scheduled a CT heart scan.* Minutes later, Jerry had a heart scan score of 112. At 46 years old, this placed him in the 90th percentile compared to other men in his age group.

Jerry came to my office for consultation. Among the first steps we took was to perform lipoprotein testing. Jerry showed striking abnormalities that included an HDL cholesterol of 38 mg, triglycerides of 210 mg, an unimpressive LDL of 133 mg but comprised of 99% small LDL, and excessive IDL (meaning that he was unable to clear dietary fats after eating).

At 5 feet 10 inches, Jerry weighed 190 lbs. He showed a slight excess bulge at the tummy, but hardly obese.

Jerry's history was remarkable, however, for the amount of carbohydrates he ate. "I'm addicted to bread. I love it! If I smell a loaf of fresh baked bread, I sometimes eat the whole loaf!"

Jerry also admitted to over-indulging in bagels (whole wheat), pretzels, low-fat snack chips, Raisin Bran cereal, Cheerios, and noodles. In fact, many days he'd have 5 or 6 servings of any of these foods. He also complained of an extraordinary amount of bowel gas and cramping. "Sometimes, I'm afraid to go to a group function. I might embarass myself."

I suggested an experiment: For a 4 week period, completely eliminate wheat-containing products--breads, pretzels, breakfast cereals, pasta, etc. In their place, increase intake of protein foods like eggs, raw almonds and walnuts, low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, chicken, fish, and use healthy oils (olive, canola, grapeseed, flaxseed) more liberally.

Just four weeks later, Jerry came to the office a new man: 8 lbs lighter, brighter, with bursts of energy he hadn't had in years. And no gas!

Lesson: Wheat-based carbohydrates can be the culprit behind many lipoprotein patterns, especially low HDL, high triglycerides, small LDL, and others. Wheat can also be responsible for a myriad of abdominal symptoms, even joint pains and rashes. In its most extreme form, it's called "celiac disease". But experiences like Jerry's are quite common--not as obvious and dramatic as full-blown celliac disease, but smouldering and destructive, nonetheless.

Track Your Plaque expert, Dr. Loren Cordain of Colorado State University, tells us that, in his reconstruction of the history of human illness, there was an extraodinary surge in disease just about the time when humans began cultivating wheat around 8000 B.C. (Track Your Plaque members: Read Dr. Cordain's fascinating interview at http://www.cureality.com/library/fl_04-005cordaininterview.asp.)

Do you need to eliminate wheat products entirely from your diet? It's something to think about, particularly if you share any of the difficulties that Jerry had.

*In general, I do not recommend heart scanning as a self-prescribed tool for chest pain or other symptoms. Symptoms should always be discussed with your doctor.