Letter from the insurance company

Claudia got this letter from her health insurance company:

Dear Ms. ------,

Based on a recent review of your cholesterol panel of January 12, 2011, we feel that you should strongly consider speaking to your doctor about cholesterol treatment.

Reducing cholesterol values to healthy levels has been shown to reduce heart attack risk . . .

Okay. So the health insurer wants Claudia to take a cholesterol drug in the hopes that it will reduce their exposure to the costs for her future heart catheterization, angioplasty and stent, or bypass surgery. This is understandable, given the extraordinary costs of such hospital services, typically running from $40,000 for a several hour-long outpatient catheterization procedure, to as much as $200,000 for a several day long stay for coronary bypass surgery.

So what's the problem?

Here are Claudia's most recent lipid values:

LDL cholesterol 196 mg/dl
HDL 88 mg/dl
Triglycerides 37 mg/dl
Total cholesterol 291 mg/dl

By the criteria followed by her health insurer, both total and LDL cholesterol are much too high. Note, of course, that LDL cholesterol was a calculated value, not measured.

Here are Claudia's lipoproteins, drawn simultaneously with her lipids:

LDL particle number 898 nmol/L
Small LDL particle number less than 90 nmol/L (Values less than 90 are not reported by Liposcience)

LDL particle number is, by far and away, the best measure of LDL particles, an actual count of particles, rather than a guesstimate of LDL particles gauged by measuring cholesterol in the low-density fraction of lipoproteins (i.e., LDL cholesterol). It is also measured and is highly reproducible.

To convert LDL particle number in nmol/L to an LDL cholesterol-like value in mg/dl, divide by ten (or just drop the last digit).

Claudia's measured LDL is therefore 89 mg/dl--54% lower than the crude calculated LDL suggests.

This is because virtually all of Claudia's LDL particles are large, with little or no small. This situation throws off the crude assumptions built into the LDL calculation, making it appear that she has very high LDL cholesterol.

Do you think that Big Pharma advertises this phenomenon?

Healthy smoothies

I've now seen several people who have either caused themselves to be diabetic or to have other phenomena associated with excessive consumption of carbohydrates, all by innocently indulging in a carbohydrate-packed smoothie every morning.

Kay, for instance, has a smoothie of a half-pint blueberries, a banana, a scoop of whey, low-fat yogurt, a cup of milk every morning. The rest of her diet was fairly healthy: salads with oil-based dressing for lunch, salmon and asparagus for dinner, only an occasional carbohydrate indulgence outside of her morning smoothie ritual. Yet she had a HbA1c (a reflection of prior 60 to 90 days average blood sugar) at the near-diabetic range of 5.9%.

The mistake most people make when making smoothies is relying too heavily on carbohydrates like fruit. A smoothie like the one made by Kay can easily top 50, 60, or 70 grams carbohydrates per serving, more than sufficient to send blood sugars up to 150 mg/dl or more.

So what can you put in your smoothie and not send you over the edge to diabetes, small LDL, and all the other undesirable phenomena of excessive carbohydrates? Here's a list:

--coconut milk, unsweetened almond milk. Less desirable: milk, full-fat soymilk
--ground flaxseed
--oils: flaxseed oil, coconut oil (melted), extra-light olive oil, walnut oil
--dried coconut
--extracts: vanilla, almond, coconut, cherry, hazelnut
--spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger
--herbs: mint leaves, cilantro
--cocoa powder (unsweetened)
--nut or seed butters (peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter)
--exotic ingredients (ingredients you wouldn't expect in a smoothie): spinach, kale, cucumber

How do you sweeten a smoothie? This is what trips up most people. If you resort to fruit like bananas, pineapple, or apple, you will readily send your blood sugar skyward. Honey, agave syrup, and sugar, of course, all increase blood sugar and/or have the adverse effects of fructose. Be careful of yogurt, also, for similar reasons.

Therefore, to sweeten your smoothie, consider:

--Small servings of berries, e.g., 8-10 blueberries, 2 strawberries, a few wedges of apple, half a kiwi
--Non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia, Truvia, sucralose, xylitol, erythritol. Also, sugar-free (sucralose-based) syrups like those from DaVinci and Torani are useful. (Just be aware that non-nutritive sweeteners can increase appetite--use sparingly.)

Also, note that, if you have divorced yourself from wheat, cornstarch, and sugars, your desire for sweet should be much reduced. Foods other people find just right will taste sickeningly sweet to you. You might therefore find that foods like peanut butter or coconut milk have a mild natural sweetness; added sweetness is only minimally necessary.

Coming next: I'll share a smoothie recipe or two of mine. Anyone want to share a recipe?

Insulin secretagogue

Dairy products have the peculiar property of triggering pancreatic release of insulin. The research group at Lund University in Sweden have contributed the most to documenting this phenomenon:

Mean (±SEM) incremental changes (?) in serum insulin in response to equal amounts of carbohydrate from a white-wheat-bread reference meal (x) and test meals of whey (?), milk (?), cheese (?), cod (?), gluten-low (?), and gluten-high (?) meals. From Nilsson 2004.

Note that it is the area under the curve (AUC), not the peak value, that assumes greatest importance.

Dairy products, especially milk, whey, and yogurt, are insulin secretagogues: they stimulate pancreatic release of insulin. The effect is likely due to amino acids and/or polypeptides in dairy products. (The effect is less prominent with cheese. Also see this study.)

By conventional wisdom, this may be a good thing, since the excess insulin will blunt the glucose rise after consumption. However, in my book, this is not such a good thing, since most of us have tired, beaten, overworked pancreatic beta cells from our decades of carbohydrate overconsumption. I fear that the effect of dairy products just take us a bit closer to beta cell failure: diabetes.

Good news: The effect is least with cheese.

Be gluten-free without "gluten-free"

While I've discussed this before, it is such a confusing issue that I'd like to discuss it again.

I advocate wheat elimination because consumption of products made from modern dwarf Triticum aestivum:

--Triggers formation of extravagant quantities of small LDL and LDL particle number (or apoprotein B)
--Triggers inflammatory phenomena like c-reactive protein, increases leptin resistance, and reduction of the protective adipocytokine, adiponectin.
--Encourages accumulation of deep visceral fat ("wheat belly") that is inflammatory and causes resistance to insulin
--Increases blood sugar more than nearly all other foods--higher than a Milky Way bar, higher than a Snickers bar, higher than table sugar.
--Is being linked to a growing number of immune-mediated diseases, including celiac disease (quadrupled over past 50 years), type 1 diabetes in children, and cerebellar ataxia and peripheral neuropathies.

This last group of wheat-related phenomena are primarily due to gluten, the collection of 50+ proteins found in each wheat plant. For this reason, people diagnosed with celiac disease are advised to eliminate gluten from wheat and other sources (barley, rye, triticale, bulgur) and to eat gluten-free foods.

Gluten-free has therefore come to be viewed as wheat-free and problem-free. It ain't so.

Among the few foods that increase blood glucose higher than wheat: cornstarch, rice starch, potato starch, and tapioca starch--Yup: the ingredients commonly used to replace wheat in gluten-free foods. They are also flagrant triggers of the small LDL pattern, along with increased triglycerides, reduced HDL, increased visceral fat, increased blood pressure. In short, gluten-free foods lack the immune and brain effects of wheat gluten, but still make you fat, hypertensive, and diabetic.

I tell patients to view gluten-free foods like jelly beans: Gluten-free pancakes, muffins, breads, etc. are indulgences, not healthy replacements for wheat. It's okay to have a few jelly beans now and then. But they should not be part of a frequent or daily routine. Same with gluten-free foods.

Diabetes: Better than hedge funds

Diabetes is where the action is.

While, for virtually all of history, type 2 diabetes was an uncommon condition of adults, the disease has spread so much to all levels of American society that even kids are now developing the adult form. Researchers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention predict that, by 2050, one in three adults will be diabetic.

The diabetes market is booming, handily surpassing growth of the oil industry, the housing market, even technology. It makes Bernie Madoff’s billions look like small potatoes. In health, few markets are growing as fast as diabetes—-not osteoporosis, not heart disease, not cancer.

Americans are getting fat from carbohydrate consumption, becoming diabetic along with it. While kids hanging around the convenience store gulp down 26 teaspoons of sugar in 32-ounce sodas and 56-grams-of-sugar in 16-ounce frozen ices, health-minded adults are more likely eating two slices of 6-teaspoons sugar-equivalent “healthy whole grain” bread, wondering why last year’s jeans are too tight.

The U.S. is not the only nation affected. Globally, 2.8% of the world’s population are diabetic, a number expected to double over the next 20 years.

Pharmaceutical companies boast double-digit growth for diabetes drugs, growth rates that keep profit-hungry investors happy. Merck’s Januvia, for instance, introduced in 2006, recently catalogued 30% growth in sales, with annual sales approaching $1 billion. Recently FDA-approved Victoza, requiring once-a-day injection, is expected to reap $4 billion in sales per year for manufacturer Novo Nordisk. Such numbers can only warm a drug company CEO’s heart.

Most diabetics don’t just take one medication, but several. A typical regimen for an adult diabetic after a couple of years of treatment and following the dietary advice of the American Diabetes Association includes metformin, Januvia, and Actos, a triple-drug treatment that costs around $420 per month. Two forms of insulin (slow- and fast-acting), along with two or three oral medications, is not at all uncommon.

“Collateral” revenues from the other health conditions that develop from a diet rich in “healthy whole grains,” such as drugs for hypertension, drugs to slow the progression of kidney disease in diabetes, drugs for “high cholesterol,” and drugs for high triglycerides, and you have a pharmaceutical drug bonanza. You, too, would throw all-expenses-paid, fly-the-entire-sales-force-to-the-Caribbean sales meetings.

The global diabetes market has already topped $25 billion and is growing at double-digit rates. Forget the Internet, gold stocks, or solar energy—-diabetes is where the money is. This fact has not been lost on the very market-savvy pharmaceutical industry. As with any successful business, they have devoted substantial resources to develop and grow this booming business.

270 lb man in diapers

Alex is a big guy: 6 ft 4 inches, 273 lbs.

On 10,000 units per day of vitamin D in gelcap form, his 25-hydroxy vitamin D level was 38.4 ng/ml. One year earlier, his 25-hydroxy vitamin D level, prior to any vitamin D supplementation was 9.8 ng/ml.

According to the latest assessment offered by the Institute of Medicine (IOM):

Vitamin D need for a 13-month old infant: 600 units per day

Vitamin D need for a 6 ft 4 in, 273 lb male: 600 units per day

I paint this picture to highlight some of the absurdity built into the smug assumptions of the IOM's report. It would be like trying to fit a large, full-grown man into the diapers of a 13-month old. Few nutrients or hormones (in fact, I can't think of a single one) are required in similar quantity by an infant or toddler and a full grown adult. However, according to the IOM's logic, their vitamin D needs are identical, regardless of age, body size, skin color, genetics, etc. One size fits all.

Just as the original RDA assessment by the Institute of Medicine kept thinking about vitamin D somewhere in the Stone Age, so does this most recent assessment.

90% small LDL: Good news, bad news

Chris has 90% small LDL particles.

On his (NMR) lipoprotein panel, of the total 2432 nmol/L LDL particles ("LDL particle number"), 2157 nmol/L are small, approximately 90% (2157/2432).

Bad news: Having this severe excess of small LDL particles virtually guarantees heart attack and stroke in Chris' future.

Good news: It means that Chris potentially has spectacular control over his lipoprotein and lipid values, achieving statin-like values without statin drugs.

Typically, extravagant quantities of small LDL particles are accompanied by low HDL, high triglycerides, and pre-diabetes or diabetes. Chris' HDL is 26 mg/dl, triglycerides 204 mg/dl; HbA1c 5.9% (a reflection of prior 60-90 days average blood glucose; desirable 4.8% or less), fitting neatly into the expected pattern.

Chris' pattern tells me several things:

1) He overconsumes carbohydrates, since carbohydrates trigger this pattern.
2) He likely has a genetic susceptibility to this effect (e.g., a variant of the gene for cholesteryl ester transfer protein, perhaps hepatic lipase). Only the most gluttonous and overweight carbohydrate consumers can generate this high a percentage small LDL without an underlying genetic susceptibility.
3) Provided he follows the diet advised, i.e., elimination of all wheat, cornstarch, oats, and sugars, he is likely to have an extavagant drop in LDL particle number. Should he achieve the goal I set of small LDL of 300 nmol/L or less, his LDL particle number will likely be around 500 nmol/L. This translates to an LDL cholesterol of 50 mg/dl . . . 50 mg/dl.

In many people, this notion of taking statin drugs for "high cholesterol" is an absurd oversimplification. But it is a situation that, for many, is wonderfully controllable with the right diet.

The American Heart Association has a PR problem

The results of the latest Heart Scan Blog poll are in. The poll was prompted by yet another observation that the American Heart Association diet is a destructive diet that, in this case, made a monkey fat.

Because I am skeptical of "official" organizations that purport to provide health advice, particularly nutritional advice, I thought this poll might provide some interesting feedback.

I asked:

The American Heart Association is an organization that:

The responses:
Tries to maintain the procedural and medication status quo to benefit the medical system and pharmaceutical industry for money
240 (64%)

Doesn't know its ass from a hole in the ground
121 (32%)

Is generally helpful but is misguided in some of its advice
79 (21%)

Accomplishes tremendous good and you people are nuts
6 (1%)

Worrisome. Now, perhaps the people reading this blog are a skeptical bunch. Or perhaps they are better informed.

Nonetheless, one thing is clear: The American Heart Association (and possibly other organizations like the American Diabetes Association and USDA) have a serious PR problem. They are facing an increasingly critical and skeptical public.

Just telling people to "cut the fat and cholesterol" is beginning to fall on deaf ears. After all, the advice to cut fat, cut saturated fat, cut cholesterol and increase consumption of "healthy whole grains" in 1985 began the upward ascent of body weight and diabetes in the American public.

Believe it or not, my vote would be for something between choices 1 and 3. I believe that the American Heart Association achieves a lot of good. But I also believe that there are forces within organizations that are there to serve their own agendas. In this case, I believe there is a substantial push to maintain the procedural and medication status quo, the "treatments" that generate the most generous revenues.

I believe that I will forward these poll results to the marketing people at the American Heart Association. That'll be interesting!

The formula for aortic valve disease?

I've discussed this question before:

Can aortic valve stenosis be stopped or reversed using a regimen of nutritional supplements?

I had a striking experience this past week. Don has coronary plaque and began the Track Your Plaque program. However, discovery of a murmur led to an echocardiogram that measured his effective aortic valve area at 1.5 cm2. (Normal is between 2.5-3.0 cm2.)

Because of his aortic valve issue, I suggested that, in addition to the 10,000 units of vitamin D required to increase his 25-hydroxy vitamin D level to 70 ng/ml, he also add vitamin K2, 1000 mcg per day, along with elimination of all calcium supplements. (I asked Don to use a K2 supplement that contained both forms, short-acting MK-4 and long-acting MK-7.)

One year later, another echocardiogram: aortic valve area 2.6 cm2--an incredible increase.

This is not supposed to happen. By conventional thinking, aortic valve stenosis can only get worse, never get better. But I've now witnessed this in approximately 10% of the people with aortic valve stenosis. The majority just stop getting worse, an occasional person gets worse, while a few, like Don, get better.

Aortic valve stenosis is to the aortic valve as degenerative arthritis is to your knees: A form of wear-and-tear that leads to progressive dysfunction. When the aortic valve becomes stiff enough (i.e., "stenotic"), then it leads to chest pains, lightheadedness or losing consciousness, heart failure, and, eventually, death. Bad problem.

Aortic stenosis typically starts in your 50s with calcification of the valve, getting worse and worse until the calcium makes the valve "leaflets" unable to move. The treatment: a new valve, a major undertaking involving an open heart procedure.

What if taking vitamins D and K2 and avoiding calcium do not just reverse or stop aortic valve stenosis once established, but prevents it in the first place? Tantalizing possibility.

Pressures on my time being what they are, I've not had the freedom to put together a prospective study to further examine this fascinating question. But it is definitely worth pursuing.

Blood glucose 160

What happens when blood glucose hits 160 mg/dl?

A blood glucose at this level is typical after, say, a bowl of slow-cooked oatmeal with no added sugar, a small serving of Cheerios, or even an apple in the ultra carb-sensitive. Normal blood sugar with an empty stomach, i.e., fasting; high blood sugars after eating.

Conventional wisdom is that a blood sugar of 160 mg/dl is okay, since your friendly primary care doctor says that any postprandial glucose of 200 mg/dl or less is fine because you don't "need" medication.

But what sort of phenomena occur when blood sugars are in this range? Here's a list:

--Glycation (i.e., glucose modification of proteins) of various tissues, including the lens of your eyes (cataracts), kidney tissue leading to kidney disease, skin leading to wrinkles, cartilage leading to stiffness, degeneration, and arthritis.
--Glycation of LDL particles. Glycated LDL particles are more prone to oxidation.
--VLDL and triglyceride production by the liver, i.e., de novo lipogenesis.
--Small LDL particle formation--The increased VLDL/triglyceride production leads to the CETP-mediated reaction that creates small LDL particles which are, in turn, more glycation- and oxidation-prone.
--Glucotoxicity--i.e., a direct toxic effect of high blood glucose. This is especially an issue for the vulnerable beta cells of the pancreas that produce insulin. Repeated glucotoxic poundings by high glucose levels lead to fewer functional beta cells.

A blood glucose of 160 mg/dl is definitely not okay. While it is not an immediate threat to your health, repeated exposures will lead you down the same path that diabetics tread with all of its health problems.