A curious case of coronary plaque regression and progression

John received a coronary stent in 2003 following a small heart attack. The artery causing the heart attack was a diagonal artery, a branch of the important left anterior descending coronary artery (in the front of the heart). His cardiologist at the time advised him, "Take Lipitor and we'll do stress tests every year. Come back if you have any more chest pain." That was the full extent of John's preventive care.

He came to me for a second opinion and, naturally, we enrolled him in our program. We began by obtaining a CT heart scan score, though we had to exclude the stented diagonal artery. His score: 471. At age 51 and physically active, John had 7 additional abnormal lipoprotein patterns identified. We counseled John on better approaches to food choices, his weight target, fish oil, and correction of all lipoprotein patterns.

Two years later, John's repeat heart scan score: 511 . John was initially disappointed with the increase. But a closer look yielded something entirely different: the right coronary artery and circumflex (no stents) showed 20-30% reduction in their scores. The increase in total score was entirely due to substantial increase in score just outside the stent, in the left anterior descending artery. In other words, all of the increase in score was due to growth of a plaque at the mouth of the stent in the diagonal artery.

This is curious: profound regression of plaque with a big drop in score in the "un-instrumented" arteries, but tremendous growth of plaque and an increase in score in the "instrumented", or stented, artery, all in the same person's heart.

I don't know how controllable this specific situation in the left anterior descending and stented diagonal will be, and I'm unaware of any specific strategies to impact on this situation. The whole world of tissue growth within or around stents is littered with high hopes followed by failures. The drug-coated stents have been the only partial solution to this problem, though that's precisely the sort of stent John received.

Is there a message here? The message I take from this is that you and I should work like mad to keep from receiving a stent. Once they're implanted, we have less control over our coronary future. We can indeed regress ("reverse") coronary plaque. But we may not be able to regress the sort of tissue that grows in response to a stent implantation.

When is a heart scan score of 400 better than 200?

Imagine two people.

Tom is a 50-year old man. Tom's initial heart scan score is 500--a bad score that carries a 5% or more risk for heart attack per year.

Harry is also 50 years old. His heart scan score is 100--also a concerning score but not with the same dangers of Tom's much higher score.

Tom follows a powerful heart disease prevention program like the Track Your Plaque program. He achieves the 60:60:60 lipid targets; chooses healthy foods; takes fish oil; raises his blood vitamin D level to >50 ng/ml, etc. One year later, Tom's heart scan score is 400, a 20% reduction from his starting score.

Harry, on the other hand, doesn't understand the implications of his score. Neither does his doctor. He's casually provided a prescription for a cholesterol drug by his doctor but nothing else. One year later, Harry's heart scan score is 200, a doubling (100% increase) of the original score.

At this point, we're left with Tom having a score of 400, Harry with a score of 200. That is, Tom has twice the score, or 200 points higher, compared to Harry. Who's better off?

Tom is better off. Even though he has a significantly higher score, Tom's plaque is regressing. It is therefore quiescent with its components being extracted, inflammation subsiding, the artery is in a more relaxed state, etc.

Harry's plaque, in contrast, is active and growing: inflammatory cells are abundant and producing enzymes that degrade supportive tissue, excessive constrictive factors are constantly causing the artery to pinch partially closed, fatty materials are accumulating and triggering a cascade of abnormal responses.

This is therefore a peculiar situation in which a higher score is actually better than a lower score. It reflects the power of adhering to a preventive program. It also demonstrates how two scans are better than one because they show the rate of increase given a particular preventive approach.

Warning: Your cardiologist may be dangerous to your health!

Warren had a moderately high LDL cholesterol for years and took a statin drug sporadically over the past 7 years. Finally retired from a successful real estate investment business, he had a CT heart scan to assess his heart disease status.

Warren's score: 49. At age 59, this put him in the lowest 25%, with an estimated heart attack risk of 1% per year or less--a relatively low risk. At this heart scan score, the likelihood of an abnormal stress test was less than 3%, or a 97% likelihood of a normal stress test. Most would argue that a stress test would be unproductive, given its low probability of yielding useful information. In other words, there would be a 97% probability of normal blood flow through Warren's coronary plaque, and less than 3% likelihood that a stent or bypass surgery would be necessary.

Warren was also without symptoms. He hiked and biked without any chest discomfort or breathlessness. A prevention program like Track Your Plaque to gain control over future coronary plaque growth was all that was necessary and Warren had high hopes for a life free of heart attack and major heart procedures.

Then why did he go through a heart catheterization?

Warren did indeed undergo a heart catheterization on the advice of his cardiologist. When I met Warren for another opinion, it became immediately obvious that the heart catheterization was completely unnecessary. Then why was this invasive procedure done? There can only be a few reasons:

--The cardiologist didn't truly understand the meaning of the heart scan score. "We need to do a 'real' test."

--The cardiologist was terrified of malpractice risk for underdiagnosing or undertreating any condition, no matter how mild.

--The cardiologist wanted to make more money. Talking about heart disease prevention is a money-saving, not a money-making, approach.

Regardless of which of the three motivations was at work here, they're all inexcusable. A disservice was done to this man: he had an unnecessary procedure, incurred some risk of complication in the process, and gained nothing.

An ignorant or profit-seeking cardiologist is worse than the unscrupulous car mechanic who, when presented with an unknowing car repair customer, proceeds to replace the carburetor and rebuild the engine when a simple 5-minute adjustment would have taken care of the problem.

I estimate that no more than 10% of my colleagues follow such practices, but it's often hard to know who is in that 10%. Ask pointed questions: Why is the catheterization necessary? What is the likelihood of finding information useful to my health? What are the alternatives? (By the way, the emerging CT coronary angiograms can be a useful alternative in some situations like this.)

Track Your Plaque is your source for credible information. Be well armed.

I don’t have high blood pressure!

Art undeniably had high blood pressure.

At age 53, he had all the “footprints” of high blood pressure that’d been present for at least several years: abnormal patterns by EKG, abnormally thick heart muscle, and an enlarged aorta by an echocardiogram. These sorts of changes require many years to develop. Art’s blood pressure was 140/85 sitting quietly in the office.

“That’s about what my primary care doc gets, too. Whenever it’s high, he takes it again after a few minutes and it always comes down.”

Art tried to persuade me that his blood pressure was high today only because of the traffic on the way into the office. When I dismissed this as a cause, he insisted that stress he’d been suffering because of his teenage son was the cause. “I just know I don’t have high blood pressure!”

Who’s right here? Well, Art is not here to defend himself. But one fact is crystal clear: you cannot develop complications of high blood pressure unless you truly have high blood pressure!

In other words, Art’s abnormal changes in heart structure (thickened heart muscle and enlarged aorta) are serious changes that develop only with years and years of sustained blood pressure at least as high as the one in the office. His blood pressure almost certainly ranged much higher at other times, particularly during stressful situations like waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store, watching a suspenseful TV show, petty irritations at his job, and on and on.

Blood pressure does not have to be high all the time to generate complications of high blood pressure. It can be sporadic, variable, even occasional. Clearly, sustained high blood pressure is the worst situation that creates adverse consequences more quickly. But blood pressure that wavers from low to high only some of the time can still, given sufficient time, cause the very same unwanted effects.

Control of blood pressure is crucial to your coronary plaque control program. Blood pressure may be boring: not as exotic, say, as lipoproteins, and not as fun as talking about nutritional supplements. But neglect blood pressure issues and you will not gain full control over coronary plaque growth—-your heart scan score will increase.

Watch for an upcoming Special Report on the Track Your Plaque Membership website, a full detailed discussion of how to recognize when blood pressure is an important issue, along with a full discussion of nutritional methods to reduce it, often sufficient to minimize or eliminate the need for medication.

Are there any alternatives to niacin?

In the Track Your Plaque program, we tend to rely a great deal on niacin. When used properly, 90-95% of people will do just fine and achieve their lipid and lipoprotein goals with the help of niacin, along with their other efforts.

Unfortunately, around 5% of people simply can't take niacin without intolerable "hot flush" effects, or occasionally excessive skin sensitivity--itching, burning, etc.

Why does this happen? These 5% tend to be "rapid metabolizers" of niacin, i.e. they convert niacin (nicotinic acid, or vitamin B3) into a metabolite called nicotinuric acid. Nicotinuric acid is the compound responsible for the skin flush. Most people can slow or reduce the effects of nicotinuric acid by:

--Taking niacin with dinner, so that food slow tablet dissolution.

--Taking with plenty of water. Two 8-12 oz glasses usually eliminates the flush entirely in most people.

--Taking with an uncoated 325 mg tablet of aspirin in the first few weeks or months. Eventually, you will need to revert back to a better stomach tolerated dose of 81 mg, preferably enteric coated. But a full 325 mg uncoated can really help in the beginning, or when you have any niacin dose increases, e.g., 500 mg to 1000 mg.

But even with these very effective strategies, some people still struggle. That's when the question arises: Are there any alternatives to niacin?

Well, it depends on why niacin is being used. If you and your doctor are using niacin for:

Raising HDL--Then weight loss to your ideal weight; reduction of processed carbohydrates, especially wheat products; avoidance of hydrogenated ("trans") fats; a glass or two of red wine per day; dark chocolates (make sure first ingredient is chocolate or cocoa, not sugar), 40 gm per day; fish oil; exercise; other prescription agents (fibrates like Tricor; TZD agents for diabetes; cilostazol (Pletal)). Niacin is by far the most effective agent of all, but, if you're intolerant, raising HDL is still possible through a multi-faceted effort.

Reduction of small LDL--The list of effective strategies is the same as for raising HDL, but add raw almonds (1/4-1/2 cup per day), oat bran and other beta-glucan rich foods like oatmeal. Reduction of processed carbohydrates is especially important to reduce small LDL.

Reduction of Lipoprotein(a)--This is a tricky one. For men, testosterone and DHEA are effective alternatives; for women, estrogen and perhaps DHEA. Hormonal preparations of testosterone and estrogen are stricly prescription; DHEA is OTC. I have not seen the outsized benefits on lipoprotein(a) claimed by Rath et al by using high-dose vitamin C, lysine, and profile, unfortunately. We are clearly in need of better alternatives to treat this difficult and high-risk disorder.

Reduction of triglycerides/VLDL/IDL--I lump these three together since they all respond together. If you're niacin intolerant, maximixing your fish oil can be crucial for reduction of these patterns using doses above the usual starting 4000 mg per day (providing 1200 mg EPA+DHA). Reduction of processed carbohydrates, eimination of processed foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup, and weight loss to ideal weight are also very effective. "Soft" strategies with modest effects include green tea (>6 cups per day) or theaflavin 600-900 mg/day; raw nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pecans; exercise; soy protein.

Reduction of LDL--Lots of alternatives here including oat bran (3 tbsp per day), ground flaxseed (3 tbsp per day), soy protein (25 grams per day), Benecol butter substitute (for stanol esters), soluble fibers like pectin, psyllium, glucomannan; raw nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pecans.

In future, should torcetrapib become available (by prescription), this will add to our available tools for these areas when niacin can't be used. Until now, the alternatives to niacin depend on what you and your doctor are trying to achieve. In the vast majority of cases, HDL, small LDL, triglyceride, etc. goals for heart scan score control can be achieved, even when niacin is not well tolerated.

Is flaxseed oil a substitute for fish oil?

This question comes up so frequently that it's worth going over.

Flaxseed oil is a wonderful oil rich in linolenic acid, which may provide health benefits all by itself. Some authorities have speculated that the substantial reduction in heart attack seen in the Lyon Heart Study, the study that demonstrated the healthy power of the Mediterranean diet, is due to linolenic acid.

Flaxseed oil is also rich in monounsaturates and low in saturates, both desirable qualities. Of course, I'm talking here about flaxseed oil, to be distinguished from flaxseed , which are the intact seeds. The seeds themselves also contain the same oils, but contain other components, specifically lignan, a plant fiber with suspected health benefits like reduction in cancer risk.

Despite all flaxseed oil's wonderful properties, it is definitely not a substitute for fish oil. Why do we use fish oil for our coronary plaque control program (trying to reduce your heart scan score)? Several reasons. Fish oil:

--Dramatically reduces triglycerides, usually by 50% or more.
--Dramatically reduces specific lipoprotein classes like VLDL
--Dramatatically reduces, often eliminates, abnormal postprandial (after-eating) lipoprotein patterns, like IDL (intermediate-density lipoprotein)
--Has been conclusively shown to reduce risk of heart attack and death from heart attack (GISSI Prevenzione Trial).
--Has been shwon to reduce risk of stroke.
--Modifies blood clotting parameters, particularly a 20% reduction in fibrinogen.

Flaxseed oil, or linolenic acid concentrate for that matter, do not accomplish any of these effects, all crucial if you are to gain control over your coronary plaque.

Flaxseed oil and flaxseed remain wonderful nutritional agents for their own reasons. But they will not substitute for fish oil in your program. Only fish oil--the real thing--does the job.

If you have coronary artery disease . . . do you know why?

This conversation is aimed primarily at non-followers of the Track Your Plaque program, because if you were a follower, you’d already know the answer!

I saw a woman in the hospital today. She’d just survived her second heart attack one week earlier. At 51 years old, she was understandably shaken, perhaps terrified. She felt that her future was uncertain and, in fact, had discussed with her husband what he should do to prepare for a future without her.

One week earlier, she’d received three stents that successfully aborted her heart attack. But, as is always the case, the modest delays of ambulance transport, the emergency room preliminaries, then of mobilizing an available cardiologist and catheterization laboratory team, totaled nearly two hours before her stent procedure. Inevitably, a moderate amount of damage had been done to her heart.

Her first “event” had been very similar: very little warning, then 911 and the flurry of activity. Both times, the cardiologists (two different physicians) complimented the patient on her prompt action. Both also called her heart attacks “close calls”.

She defied the odds with two near-death events. So, when I met her a week after her last heart attack, I asked an obvious question: “Has anyone told you why you’re having these heart attacks?”

She looked completely puzzled at first. She then said, “No, not really. I just assumed it was genetic. My mother went through the same thing when she was my age. But she didn’t get as far as I have, since they didn’t have these procedures back then.”

To me, this seems inexcusable: This woman had experienced two brushes with death and no doctor had established a cause. Could this woman’s belief be true, that it’s just genetic?

While there are, indeed, genetic causes for heart disease, the vast majority of these genetic causes are 1) identifiable, and 2) correctable. Genetic does not necessarily mean hopeless. It just means that the usual equation of heart disease risk management (heart disease = LDL cholesterol = need for Lipitor) has limited value. It would be like giving penicillin to people for any and all infections. It will work occasionally, but it will fail miserably in a great many cases. Treating LDL cholesterol with statin drugs is just like that.

Perhaps this woman has lipoprotein(a), a serious genetic trait that predicts heart disease at a young age and is largely unaffected by statin drugs. Or, she may have a severe excess of small LDL, only partially suppressed by statins. If she has the combined pattern of lipoprotein(a) and small LDL, that means she has two statin-unresponsive and significant genetic traits. But they respond to niacin, specific nutritional strategies, and several other agents.

The message: If you have coronary disease, you need to insist on knowing why. “It’s genetic” is not an acceptable answer. “There’s no proof of any heart disease causes beyond cholesterol” is also nonsense. “Everyone gets heart disease, or “hardening of the arteries”, eventually. You just got it a little before everyone else” is also patently ridiculous.

Identifying the causes of your coronary disease (or coronary plaque if you’ve had a CT heart scan) is the first step in developing a program of treatment that provides you with control over this disease.

Have you tried inulin yet?

If you haven't yet tried it to facilitate weight loss, it's really worth giving the new inulin-containing product, Fiber Choice "Weight Management", a try.

Recall (from a prior Heart Scan Blog) that inulin is a vegetable-based fiber found in celery, green peppers, etc. that, when exposed to water, expands to many times original volume. This simple phenomenon yields satiety--a feeling of fullness.

The manufacturer of the product has also added green tea, which has been shown in two small clinical studies to enhance weight loss, though by a different route.

We've been advising patients to chew two of the strawberry flavored tablets one hour before every meal (or with breakfast if you eat immediately in the morning). You'll be satisfied with less food and you'll experience less intense food cravings.

Though no one so far has achieved a huge drop in weight, it does seem to enhance a slow, gradual weight loss larger than achieved by diet and exercise alone. And it's very safe and inexpensive. If you give it a try to help you lose weight, let us know what kind of results you've obtained.

Fish oil update on Life Extension

An article of mine came out in Life Extension Magazine and is available on the online version at:


This is an update on the heart health applications of fish oil.

Or, go to to www.lef.org and put fish oil into your on-site search and you'll come back to it in future.

Of course, it comes with Life Extension's promotion of its supplements.

Although it's not yet available online, the hard copy version of an article I wrote on homocysteine is available in the October, 2006 Life Extension Magazine. If you're not a member of their program, they'll send you a free copy just for signing up for it without obligation. Go to the home page of www.lef.org to do so. Or, Life Extension is available at newstands if you're in a rush or don't want to sign up for a free copy.

More on Vitamin D

If you haven't done so already, you should subscribe to Dr. John Cannell's free newsletter on vitamin D issues. His newest issue is available at:


A sign-up to subscribe is available on the same page.

I continue to be shocked and amazed at the prevalence and magnitude of vitamin D deficiency in the people I see every day. It's been a beautiful summer with very little rain. Most days have been in the 70-80 degree range--very comfortable to be outdoors in the sun and getting skin expoxure to activate vitamin D in the skin.

Yet, in the vast majority of people I see, summer blood levels of vitamin D are virtually indistinguishable from winter levels. Both hover around the 30 ng/ml range. Summer levels in Wisconsin people seem to be no more than 10 ng/ml higher than winter levels. This remains true even in people who spend a lot of their day outdoors gardening, walking, etc. wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, i.e. with plenty of skin surface area exposed.

I'm at a loss to explain precisely why. Yes, it is Wisconsin. But a direct sun overhead, 75 degree day should be providing plenty of sun. My suspicious is that a combination of factors are at work: people are not spending as much time outdoors as they claim; they often seek shade; use sunscreen; and they're overweight. (Excess weight decreases vitamin D blood levels dramatically, yet another reason not to get fat!)

Read more about vitamin D by checking out Dr. Cannell's insightful comments on the unfolding vitamin D story. He holds nothing back.