System Alert!

You’ve heard the old saying, “Forewarned is forearmed”?
That’s ever so true when it comes to your heart–
and the early warning signs that could
spell big trouble ahead.

by Claire Sykes

February 2009

If you’re going to have car problems, it’s better to be warned. That’s the idea behind the little yellow “check engine” light. It tells you to get to the mechanic’s shop sooner than later—preferably before you’re left stranded on a lonely highway at midnight.

Your body often works the same way. If you need longer arms to read the paper lately, there may be a pair of reading glasses in your future. If you can’t grasp things as firmly as you once did, arthritis might be in the offing. And if you become breathless in cold weather or after climbing a flight of stairs, asthma could be brewing.

In the same fashion, circulation problems in your legs and elsewhere may signal the presence of systemic atherosclerosis (also known as polyvascular disease), in which plaque deposits in arterial walls constrict blood flow. “Plaque not only builds up in the heart arteries, but also across the entire 75,000 miles of blood vessels that we each have,” explains A.J. Adams, ND of the International Institute of Holistic Healing in Dallas, Texas. “Since circulation flows throughout the body, this condition can occur in any area of the body, with the most impact on the heart, brain, kidneys and their blood vessels.” That’s why dealing with atherosclerosis wherever it occurs not only eases existing circulation problems and improves your overall health but can also help protect your heart.

The scary part is that you may not even know you’ve got atherosclerosis until a heart attack or stroke proves it. “Most adults in the US are free of symptoms,” says Peter Ganz, MD, cardiology division chief at San Francisco General Hospital. By the time you do experience problems, your body may be treading on dangerous terrain. Symptoms reflect the location of the affected arteries—chest pain upon physical activity (heart); numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, or pain in the legs (a condition called peripheral arterial disease, or PAD); or a momentary problem with speech or movement (brain). Men may experience erectile dysfunction if the pelvic arteries are involved. In one study, patients with systemic atherosclerosis were 22% more likely to have a cardiovascular event—a rate that shot up to 38% among patients who had diabetes as well (American Heart Association meeting, 2007).

Plumbing Damage
Atherosclerosis is a chronic condition that typically starts in childhood. Deposits of fatty material, cholesterol, cellular waste, calcium and other substances thicken the innermost layer (endothelium) of your arteries, some more than others. Plaque beats up arteries so badly that blood cells called platelets may mobilize at the site of the plaque in an attempt to make repairs. However their presence causes inflammation, which results in even more plaque, further thickening the arterial walls. To compensate for the damage the body tries to widen the vessels, but by this point they can’t help but shrink.

Controlling Cholesterol

Like the little girl with the little curl, cholesterol can be very good—try building a decent cell membrane without it. But it can also be horrid—just ask the 37.2 million adults in this country who have total cholesterol levels of 240 mg/dL or more, putting them in the high risk category. (Another 69.5 million have borderline-high levels of between 200 and 239.) The primary concern is LDL cholesterol, the kind that can wind up in artery walls; the National Institutes of Health recommends maintaining a level below 100 mg/dL.

Conversely, levels of HDL, the kind that keeps arteries clear, should be at least 60 mg/dL.

A number of nutrients help promote healthy cholesterol levels. One of the best known is garlic, which also helps keep arteries flexible and blood free-flowing. Green tea is another oldie-but-goodie; according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, quaffing green tea daily is associated with reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Daily use of spiru­lina, a nutrient-rich algae often used in protein drink powders, has been linked with lowered cholesterol levels.

Natural cholesterol reduction has also seen the rise to prominence of new compounds, most notably the plant sterols (phytosterols). These substances, which closely resemble cholesterol in chemical structure, have been found in a number of studies to help lower levels of both total and LDL cholesterol. Another plant compound, oat beta-glucans, has not only reduced LDL but has also raised levels of HDL (to learn more, see Supplement Savvy on page 52).

While cholesterol reduction is crucial in reducing overall cardiovascular risk, it is most effective as part of a total heart-health program. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) helps keep LDL from becoming oxidized and promotes cardiac energy generation. Resveratrol, found in red wine, grape skins and a plant called Japanese knotweed, also protects LDL from oxidation and inhibits blood cells called platelets from clumping, a process that helps prevent the formation of artery-clogging clots.

Hawthorn has been employed as a cardiac tonic for centuries; modern researchers have found that this vernerable herb increases the heart’s pumping action and allows coronary arteries to dilate, bringing more blood to cardiac tissues. Bilberry helps capillaries, the body’s tiniest blood vessels, stay strong and healthy, while horse chestnut supports veins, the vessels that bring blood back to the heart, and helps reduce the ankle swelling that often accompanies venous malfunction in the legs.

The minerals calcium and magnesium are essential for proper heart rhythm. Vitamins B6 and B12, along with folic acid, help reduce homocysteine, elevated levels of which have been linked with cardiovascular disease. (If you have high cholesterol or heart disease speak with a health practitioner before starting a supplementation program.)
—Lisa James

Now blood huffs and puffs through the vessels like water through corroded pipes, carrying too little oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells. This reduction in oxygen can cause a blood clot, which can break off and head straight to the brain (resulting in stroke) or the heart (heart attack). Or the plaque itself might rupture, causing a clot to form at the site.

The older you get, the more likely you are to develop atherosclerosis, which typically hits men ten years earlier than women, according to Ganz. A family history of premature (before age 60) cardiovascular disease, especially in your parents or siblings, also means an increased risk.

Cause of the Clog
A number of conditions hasten the process by which plaques build up on artery walls. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol) and low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the “good” kind) in the blood play a role in plaque development (see box on previous page).

Compounds in tobacco smoke, either from lighting up or through secondhand exposure, speed the disease’s progression in the aorta, the body’s main artery, and in the arteries of the heart and legs. Obesity taxes the major organs and can lead to diabetes, itself a major cardiovascular risk factor. According to researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine, “there is increasing evidence that type 1 and type 2 diabetes are associated with an enhanced inflammatory state and that inflammatory cells contribute to atherosclerotic lesion initiation and lesion disruption (the process by which a plaque bursts)” (Circulation Research 10/10/08).

While getting older is definitely an issue in atherosclerosis development, the way you’ve spent those years can make a big difference. Adams says that increasing age is a risk factor for individuals “who have lived a life ingesting white flour products, dairy products, nightshade plants (particularly white potatoes, bell peppers and tomatoes), alcoholic beverages, processed table salt, processed and pre-packaged foods, and foods grown and processed with pesticides, preservatives, antibiotics or hormones.” You can add the use of caffeine and other stimulants, along with recreational drugs and, of course, tobacco to the list.

There is another factor, one which traditional healers zeroed in on a long time ago: inflammation. For example, in Chinese medicine, which views the body quite differently than Western medicine does, “the root of [the problem] is systemic inflammation, or ‘heat,’” explains Leon Hammer, MD, clinic director at Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine in Gainsville, Florida. “Excess ‘heat’ accumulates in the tissues. In order to save the vital organs, the body wants to eliminate the ‘heat’ (through the urine, bowels or skin); store it in the blood; balance it by cooling it with the accumulation of ‘damp,’ or fatty acids (lipids); or, as a last resort, divert it to the joints, muscles and fascia. But over time, the fluid in the body is depleted and the vessel walls dry out, resulting in possible atherosclerosis. The relationship between this disease and systemic inflammation has been known and treated accordingly for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”

Conventional medicine has finally caught up. The American Heart Association now recognizes research suggesting that not only does the body respond to injury by producing inflammation, but that the inflammation itself can lead to the formation of artery-jamming blood clots.
But what causes the inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis? Certainly low-level infections, such as those associated with dental woes, play a role. (For more on oral health and heart disease, see Malady Makeover on page 20.) But don’t discount stress. “The primary sources of ‘heat’ in the vessels come from daily, moderate repression of emotion involving an internal conflict, or slowly growing anger and resentment that you can’t express directly; and any activity that makes an organ (most likely in the digestive system) work beyond its capacity,” says Hammer.

Again, Western medicine is catching up. “We certainly recognize that there are psychosocial contributors to heart disease,” says Richard Becker, MD, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine. He says that Duke scientists have investigated how anxiety and hostility influence the development of atherosclerosis. The conclusion they reached, Becker says, is that “the body’s responses to what’s considered threatening, which is both genetically and environmentally determined, likely contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes and surges in adrenalin.”

Diabetes and the Heart

Type 2 diabetes, the kind related to poor diet and little exercise, is a major heart hazard. The numbers are grim: Among all people with type 2 diabetes, 75%—three out of every four—will die of cardiovascular disease. In fact, researchers writing in the New England Journal of Medicine found that having diabetes results in the same heart attack risk as a nondiabetic who has already had an attack. What makes things worse is that high blood sugar often accompanies other cardiac risks, such as high cholesterol and blood pressure.

Now for the good news: A number of supplements have shown a knack for keeping blood sugar on an even keel. The banaba tree (Lagerstroemia speciosa) contains a substance called corosolic acid that helps shepherd glucose into cells. Another tropical plant, bitter melon (Momor­dica charantia), has been long valued in natural medicine for its anti-diabetic effects, while gymnema (G. sylvestre), an Indian native, is actually known as “sugar destroyer” in Sanskrit. The popular spice cinnamon has attracted recent research attention for its ability to moderate blood sugar levels, as has fenugreek, another plant that does double duty as both spice and traditional remedy. Chromium, a trace mineral found in wheat germ, brewer’s yeast, eggs and meat, has not only helped some people with diabetes reduce their medication levels but has been linked with reductions in cardiovascular risk among diabetics. Alpha lipoic acid (ALA), best known for battling diabetic nerve damage, has also shown an ability to lower glucose levels.

If you can use some help in putting together your own diabetes treatment plan, a certified diabetes educator (CDE) can help you negotiate the tricky little ins-and-outs of dealing with this disease. To find one, contact the American Association of Diabetes Educators by visiting www.diabeteseducator.org or calling 800-338-3633.—L.J.

Don’t forget environmental pollutants. “We’re surrounded by toxicity, the biggest source from hydrocarbons,” says Hammer. He has also found, in people under 30, “significant amounts of radiation,” coming mainly from cordless phones, iPods, computers and microwaves. He believes that, in Chinese medicinal terms, these devices are “drying out the blood vessels.”

Clearing the Pipes
If leg pain or other symptoms indicate that you might have atherosclerosis, see your health practitioner. He or she should ask you about any known risk factors before ordering any needed tests; in addition to cholesterol, glucose and pressure checks, testing should include a check for C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for underlying systemic inflammation. For a different take on testing, you could visit a practitioner who uses the traditional Chinese approach to diagnosis.

“Through Chinese medical diagnostic techniques,” says Hammer, “especially pulse diagnosis, it’s possible to detect the process of atherosclerosis almost from its inception, decades before [it] becomes symptomatic.”

To prevent atherosclerosis from narrowing your arteries, Adams urges you to opt for a healthier, preferably organic, diet, one that focuses on fresh produce and whole grains flavored with sea salt and such natural sweeteners as stevia, which doesn’t affect blood sugar. Adams advises you to drink raw goat milk or that made from rice or nuts. Coconut and grape seed oils are “among the few oils that don’t become toxic when heated,” she says. Adams also advises drinking from two to three quarts of pure, filtered water every day and sleeping at least seven to eight hours each night.

Complement your diet with 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Aerobic effort, such as walking, will improve circulation and cardiovascular fitness while resistance exercise, such as weight lifting, will condition your muscles so they’ll use oxygen more efficiently. A good workout also encourages the growth of new blood vessels, which can detour around vascular obstructions. In one study of 156 people with PAD, regular walking improved both endurance and quality of life (JAMA 1/14/09). In addition, exercise can help you manage stress; other stress-busters include deep breathing, meditation and yoga.

Making dietary and lifestyle changes can help you get a handle on heart-harming inflammation, as can a number of specific nutrients. For instance, omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in fish and flax seed oils, promote the release of the body’s own anti-inflammatory substances. Grape seed extract contains oligo­meric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), which help strengthen blood vessels and protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation. Two spices—ginger, used in Asian cuisines, and turmeric, a curry component—have been found to fight inflammation. Another kitchen staple, pineapple, yields bromelain, which is also a recognized as an anti-inflammatory (and which is available in supplement form). If inflammation persists, ask your practitioner about being tested for food allergies. Such common allergens as wheat and dairy products may goad your immune system into releasing substances that promote an inflammatory response.

So if warning signals such as peripheral arterial disease arise, pay close attention. “Your body is designed to heal itself,” says Adams. Why wait until you know you’ve got atherosclerosis before you do something about it? Don’t let past mistakes compromise your future health. Making wise choices today will let you take control of your vascular—and cardiac—well-being for years to come.

Search our articles:

ad

ad

adad

ad

ad
ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad

ad