Although medicine has long been fingering fats and cholesterol as the culprit in heart disease, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the true villain is largely our modern diet—specifically, anything that comes in a box with a long shelf life. Increasingly, the scientific research points to two things that are especially lethal to your heart: trans fats and refined sugar.
As Dr John Mansfield noted in his book, The Six Secrets of Successful Weight Loss, until the mid-19th century there was little obesity, diabetes or coronary artery disease (CAD) around. In fact, the very first recorded case of CAD was in 1912. What has changed since then? Very simply, the introduction in the mid-1950s of refined carbohydrates, including refined sugars, white flour and white rice, followed closely by the introduction of fake fats like margarine.
As Mansfield tells us, “In the 60-year period from 1910 to 1970, the proportion of traditional animal fat in the American diet decreased from 83 per cent to 62 per cent. Butter consumption plummeted from 18 lb (8 kg) per person per year to just 4 lb (less than 2 kg). Over the same period of time, the percentage of dietary vegetable oil in the form of margarine, shortening and refined oils increased 400 per cent . . . and the consumption of sugar and processed foods increased by about 60 per cent.”
But besides these deadly dietary mainstays of the modern diet, there are an additional seven risk factors for heart disease that are either completely unappreciated by modern medicine or still misunderstood.
If you’ve got heart trouble, look first to the following causes and correct them before resorting to statins or a highly restricted low-fat diet—both of which have been shown to be ineffective in the long run.
Insulin regulates glucose (sugar) in blood cells and helps to store it in other cells for use as fuel or for future use. Made by the pancreas, insulin is released into the blood when blood glucose levels rise after eating.
The body becomes insulin-resistant when it’s so bombarded with sugar and must produce so much insulin that it turns down insulin-receptor activity in an attempt to protect itself from the toxic effects of high insulin levels. As the body stops recognizing the presence of insulin, it produces more and more of it to regulate the amount of glucose in the blood.
This situation often heralds the ‘metabolic syndrome’ and type 2 diabetes, when the overworked pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin to control blood glucose levels.
Processed foods usually contain added sugar and refined carbohydrates, which quickly convert to excess glucose in the body; this overwhelms the pancreas, undermining its ability to produce adequate insulin to meet the demand.
Researchers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered a significant link between sugar consumption and heart risk when they analyzed the diets of more than 40,000 Americans. People who ate too much sugar put on weight and even became obese which, in turn, increased their risk of cardiovascular disease and death.1
In fact, some researchers are beginning to abandon the idea that LDL is the so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol. While it may indeed be clogging up our arteries, it’s doing so to repair the damage to the artery wall caused by inflammation, which happens in response to the physiological stress caused by sugar-laden processed foods.
Solution Clean up your diet. Get rid of all processed foods and the ‘white’ stuff—refined grains like white bread and white rice—and eat organic and cook from scratch instead. And watch out for secret sugars like dextrose, barley malt and high-fructose corn syrup, which are sugar by any other name.
2) Fake fats
Most processed and low-fat foods are deficient in essential fatty acids (EFAs) and can cause an imbalance by lowering ‘good’ HDL cholesterol while increasing triglycerides, the form of fat stored in the cells of your body.2 Among the most dangerous of these low-fat foods is margarine, made from hydrogenated oils.
Hydrogenation is a process, dating back to 1912, that enables the food industry to use polyunsaturated fats as a food spread instead of butter and lard. During hydrogenation, oils are heated to a high temperature and added hydrogen is then ‘forced’ to artificially bind with them. In the process, synthetic trans fatty acids (TFAs) are produced, but with a different molecular structure from the EFAs normally found in humans and other mammals. The process also creates synthetic ‘trans isomers’ of fatty acids, some of which are highly toxic.3
The amount of TFAs in processed foods can range from 5 to 75 per cent of the total fat content. Neither US nor British law requires manufacturers to state the amount of hydrogenated fat in a product—only whether or not it’s present. TFAs can have a “disastrous” effect on the body’s ability to use EFAs, says US nutritional expert Dr Leo Galland, author of Superimmunity for Kids (E.P. Dutton, 1988).
TFAs are even more detrimental when heated, turning into something akin to polymers in plastic. Hydrogenated fats are found in fast foods like potato crisps and doughnuts, and in the vegetable oils used as shortening for baked goods like biscuits. They account for up to 10 per cent of the content of margarine, although some manufacturers, such as Van den Bergh Foods, which makes Flora, have now stopped hydrogenation entirely.
George V. Mann, a doctor in Nashville, Tennessee, who has researched and written extensively on the subject, argues that lipoprotein receptors in cells are damaged by TFAs. As this impairment prevents the body from processing LDL cholesterol, the body’s cells crank up their rate of cholesterol synthesis, eventually leading to high levels in the blood. Indeed, numerous studies show that blood cholesterol is quickly raised in people who consume TFAs.4
An eight-year study of 85,000 women by Harvard Medical School found that those eating margarine had an increased risk of coronary heart disease.5 The more TFAs you eat (and have stored as body fat), the greater your risk; one Welsh researcher found a strong link between TFAs in body fat and heart-disease fatalities.6
Solution Avoid fats that have undergone hydrogenation. This includes most fats in processed foods and margarines unless otherwise stated. Opt for butter or coconut oil instead.
3) Processed meats
New evidence has been pointing to preservatives in processed foods as another cause of high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries. Phosphates in foods like processed cheeses and in cola drinks can stimulate the production of fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF23), a bone-derived hormone that controls sodium (salt) and calcium levels in the body. When levels of FGF23 are high, the kidneys have to absorb more calcium, which leads to hardening or calcification of the arteries. High levels of the hormone also mean high levels of sodium and chronic kidney disease, say researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in Austria, and people with chronic kidney disease have an increased risk of cardiovascular problems.7
Processed meats have also been linked to heart failure, particularly in men. For every 50 g (1¾ oz) of processed meat (the equivalent of, say, a slice of ham) eaten every day, the risk of death due to heart failure rises by 38 per cent. Heavy eaters of processed meats are twice as likely to die of heart failure as men who eat small amounts of such meats infrequently.8
Solution Ditch processed ham, bacon, salami and other meats, processed cheeses and soft drinks.
4) The Role of Stress
Besides dietary issues, a major international investigation, the Interheart study, discovered that “psychosocial factors” such as persistent severe stress can increase the risk of heart attack by two and a half times.9
Chronic stress involves being constantly on fight-or-flight alert, which increases insulin production to provide energy for the response, and also causes the body to crave high glycaemic-index foods, which are quickly converted into sugar, for instant energy. As Marilyn Glenville wrote in her book Fat Around the Middle (Kyle Cathie Ltd, 2006), fatty or sugary foods eaten during bouts of stress usually end up getting deposited around the waistline “because it is close to the liver, where it can most quickly be converted back into energy if needed. Over time, too much sugar and too much deposited fat also cause the body to become insensitive
While all of us suffer from stress from time to time (such as when we’re rushing to catch a train or to meet a work deadline), the type that leads to heart disease is the chronic variety, when we feel powerless and socially isolated, with no end in sight to the problem.
Dr Malcolm Kendrick, author of The Great Cholesterol Con: The Truth About What Really Causes Heart Disease and How to Avoid It (John Blake Publishers, London, 2008), has listed the types of stress he believes cause heart disease. The main ones, in his view, include:
• bullying bosses
• long-term money worries
• poor social networks and feeling ‘dislocated’ from others
• an unloving or abusive partner.
Solution Join one or more groups of any sort—a book club or a church group, say—to provide some much-needed social and emotional support. If your job is the problem, try to find another one. Find a good stress reducer such as exercise, meditation, relaxation therapy using autosuggestion or the like, and practise it daily.
5) High levels of fibrinogen and c-reactive protein
Even conservative medical groups like the American Heart Association (AHA) are now recognizing the role of inflammation in heart disease, and several studies have confirmed the link. Inflammation is the body’s immune response to stress and infection. In medicine, the concept of stress refers to any ‘insult’ to the body, such as a poor diet of ‘fast’ or processed foods and exposure to environmental pollutants, as well as tension, depression or feeling alone, isolated and helpless.
One study found that the root of heart disease was not cholesterol per se so much as the combination of cholesterol and the blood-clotting factor fibrinogen, a protein marker of increased inflammation. Those who had high levels of both fibrinogen and LDL cholesterol were six times more likely to have cardiovascular disease. Conversely, people with low fibrinogen levels rarely go on to develop heart disease, even when their LDL levels are high.10
Men whose fibrinogen levels are in the top third were more than twice as likely to suffer from heart disease as those in the bottom third. And smokers seem to have high levels of fibrinogen, which confirms the long-held concerns about the link between smoking and heart attacks.
If heart disease truly was a disease of fat accumulation, as the cholesterol hypothesis suggests, then levels of liver-synthesized C-reactive protein (CRP) shouldn’t be able to accurately predict future heart problems—and yet they do, according to some reports. As a marker of increased inflammation, CRP levels are also highly accurate predictors of stroke, diabetes, heart attacks and cardiovascular death, even years before the event.11
Statin drugs appear to have the unintended benefit of lowering CRP levels, and patients with lower levels recover better from heart disease—even in cases where the drug fails to reduce LDL cholesterol.12 This again points to the importance of inflammation. In a study comparing 506 men who had suffered a heart attack with 1,025 healthy controls, inflammation was a significant indicator of heart disease. Men with the highest levels of CRP in their blood were more than twice as likely to have a cardiovascular problem.13
Solution Inflammation can be caused by environmental factors, including your gas cooker, but in the majority of cases, the culprit is your own idiosyncratic reaction to certain foods. See WDDTY February 2016 for ways to identify any food intolerances you may have.
New research indicates that cardiovascular risk may be increased by homocysteine, an amino acid found at higher levels in patients who have suffered strokes or other heart conditions. Its pathological involvement was first identified back in 1969, when extraordinarily high levels of homocysteine were found post mortem in patients with arteriosclerosis,14 yet any link with arterial lesions was dismissed and put down to rare metabolic effects in these particular people.
Years later, a review of 27 studies of homocysteine and vascular disease by the University of Washington confirmed that homocysteine was a strong predictor of heart attack risk and carotid artery obstruction.15 In fact, the biggest ever heart-health investigation, the US Framingham Heart Study, revealed that the higher the level of blood homocysteine, the greater the likelihood of carotid artery narrowing (stenosis).16
The influential Harvard-based Physicians’ Health Study of nearly 15,000 male doctors similarly found that the men with the highest homocysteine levels were three times more likely to have a heart attack than those with the lowest levels,17 while a study from Bergen in Norway found a graded relationship between homocysteine blood levels and overall death rates.18
This amino acid is the by-product of the normal breakdown of proteins in the body. The European Concerted Action Project on homocysteine and vascular disease, involving 22 collaborators across Europe, concluded that homocysteine interacts with cholesterol and triglycerides, and substantially increases the risk of heart disease even when cholesterol is normal or low.19
Solution Take a B-vitamin complex, shown to lower homocysteine levels. The supplement should include at least 1 mg of methylfolate, 100 mg of B6, 50 mg of thiamine (B1) and 400 mcg of B12. Start with 25 mg of niacin (chop a 50-mg tablet in half) taken with food, then increase it after a few days to 50 mg, and then slowly increase it to the optimal therapeutic daily dose of 400 mg.
7) Gum disease
Research at Seoul National University College of Dentistry in South Korea involving 265 hospitalized, non-fatal, ischaemic stroke cases and 214 non-stroke controls found that those with periodontitis—characterized by inflammation and infection affecting not just the gums, but also the ligaments and bones supporting the teeth—were four times more likely to have suffered a stroke, which is double the risk than that posed by diabetes.20
Periodontal disease has been linked to atherosclerosis—hardening and narrowing of the arteries. In one small Italian study, people with carotid artery plaques (fatty deposits) had significantly poorer gum health than those without plaques, even after taking into consideration other established cardiovascular risk factors.21 What’s more, a review of 31 published reports found an association between gum disease and atherosclerosis, heart attack and cardiovascular disease.22 Clearly, there’s a connection between the health of our gums and the health of our heart.
Gum disease and heart disease are both consequences of a poor diet and deficiencies of nutrients like coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a vitamin-like enzyme found in practically every cell of the body. CoQ10 participates in cell energy production and makes cell membranes more resistant to oxidation damage. It’s abundant in the heart mostly because of the huge energy requirements of cardiac cells. Studies suggest that up to 96 per cent of people with gum disease may have below-normal levels of CoQ10.23
Vitamin C deficiency has also been linked to both gum disease and heart disease. One study of Finnish and Russian men found that those with periodontitis were more likely to have low blood levels of vitamin C—a well-known risk factor for heart attack.24
Omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in the health of gums. A recent study from Harvard discovered that “higher dietary intakes of DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] and, to a lesser degree, EPA [eicosapentaenoic acid], were associated with a lower prevalence of periodontitis” in more than 9,000 adults across the US.25 Omega-3 fats are well known for their anti-inflammatory properties and beneficial role in heart health.
Solution Take supplements of CoQ10 (60–200 mg/day), vitamin C (1–3 g/day) and omega-3 fats (1,000–1,500 mg/day) as either fish or flaxseed oil. Get your teeth cleaned at least every six months.
8) Are you too low in chromium
After studying thousands of patients over many years, UK nutritional pioneer Dr Stephen Davies discovered that, as patients age, their levels of chromium invariably fall, yet adequate amounts are needed for insulin receptors to work. At least 13 controlled trials have shown that increasing levels of chromium in the diet or as supplements up to 10 times what’s now the average in the standard diet can reduce insulin resistance and normalize blood sugar levels.26
Solution Take a trace-mineral supplement containing chromium.
9) Do you take too little exercise
The effect of not enough exercise is to degrade the body’s ability to regulate sugar. Boston-based researchers found that just a single bout of exercise increased the rate of glucose uptake by the working skeletal muscles.27 In fact, any exercise training can help correct insulin resistance by increasing glucose transport and so help prevent type 2 diabetes, when the pancreas can no longer generate the insulin necessary to maintain normal glucose levels in the body.
Solution Exercise for at least 20 minutes a day cumulatively. Best of all is simply a brisk walk.
The perio-cardio link
Researchers suspect that gum disease may not just cause inflammation in the mouth but may, over time, also contribute to systemic inflammation, now known to play a crucial role in a wide range of diseases not usually considered inflammatory, like cardiovascular disease. Indeed, the inflammation theory may explain why periodontal disease has been linked to other systemic disorders like diabetes,1 rheumatoid arthritis,2 Alzheimer’s disease3 and chronic kidney disease.4
As Italian research shows, treating gum disease can have beneficial effects in the rest of the body too. When the researchers examined the carotid arteries of 35 people who had mild-to-moderate gum disease but were otherwise healthy, they found high levels of inflammatory markers before treatment. A year after treatment, they found significantly lower levels of both oral bacteria and a reduction in the size of blood vessel walls associated with atherosclerosis.5
This article has been excerpted from WDDTY’s latest book Heart Disease: Drug-free Alternatives to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (Hay House, 2016, £9.99), edited by Lynne McTaggart. It’s available from bookshops and online from sites like Amazon as well as: http://www.hayhouse.co.uk/heart-disease-wddty#extract