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Are You Heart Healthy?

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Are You Heart Healthy?

The answer is in your genes.
Pamela  McDonald
Pamela McDonald More by this author
Mar 04, 2011 at 09:00 AM

“You’re one fit guy, Rick,” Dr. Humphrey told my husband. “You have the cholesterol results of a nineteen-year-old.”  After his annual physical exam with all the standard and necessary blood tests, including a screening cholesterol panel, this was welcome news. But Rick, age 47, wondered, “Am I truly free of disease?” He wanted more definitive proof, real peace of mind about his health. He wondered if the screening cholesterol test told him all he needed to know. 

Rick had good reason to question the test results. When he was 12, he watched his father be transformed from a healthy, active man to one who was bedridden with a heart condition and diabetes. The heart disease meant he could no longer be physically active, which led to his gaining a great deal of weight around his midsection. This in turn led his body to express Type 2 diabetes, which, in a vicious circle, worsened his heart disease. To make matters much worse, he was also battling colon cancer.  Rick’s sadness and grief over his father had never left him.

One of his most vivid, and terrifying, childhood memories was witnessing his father have a heart attack, after watching his health degenerate over a matter of months.  It motivated Rick to keep himself as healthy as possible; he didn’t want his children to watch him die young or to suffer these same health problems. For years, he had followed a low-fat diet and a strenuous exercise regimen, believing the experts who said this was the best way to keep his heart in good shape.  Still, he had his doubts. So even with excellent results from his cholesterol screening, he asked what other tests he could take. Dr. Humphrey didn’t believe any further testing was necessary, but in the face of Rick’s determination, he recommended a heart scan. I decide to join him.

A few weeks later, Rick and I went for heart scans near our home in Walnut Creek, California. Mine showed no evidence of heart disease. When Rick’s scan was complete, he hopped off the table, eager to see his results. We were stunned.  His heart scan revealed coronary plaque, the beginnings of artery disease. Rick was silent on the ride home, and when we arrived, he disappeared. I found him sitting on the edge of our bed and crying, terrified about the condition of his heart. “Am I going to die?” he asked. In reply, I promised I would do everything possible to solve this mystery.

It’s true that arterial inflammation can be stopped and reversed, but 50 percent of people who have heart attacks also have normal cholesterol levels and no other apparent reason for the heart attack.  When Dr. Humphrey heard Rick’s results, he was also surprised. How could someone apparently as fit and healthy as Rick—someone who had religiously followed the recommended guidelines for maintaining a healthy heart—have coronary heart disease? 

For three weeks, I scoured the scientific literature to find the answer to that question. What I discovered about the genetic heart disease risk factors and the Apo E genotype not only changed Rick’s health for the better but also broadened my work with heart disease and began leading to improved outcomes for many of my patients.  In brief, Rick was eating the wrong foods for his Apo E genotype. His low-fat diet did not provide enough long-term fuel in the form of fats, which, combined with his strenuous exercise routine, meant he was not eating enough of the right foods for his genotype, placing harmful levels of stress on his body’s systems.

He was eating the wrong kind of protein for his genotype—too much animal protein and not enough from plant sources, which turned on a genetic pattern related to LDLcholesterol production that increased his arterial plaque production by 50 percent. Furthermore, the small amount of fat he was eating came mostly from meat containing saturated fat, which increases arterial inflammation. And finally, in a double whammy, his high intake of carbohydrate foods elevated his insulin level, which also has been shown to encourage arterial plaque.  Rick began eating correctly for his genotype: more non-inflammatory fat in the form of olive oil and nuts, soybeans and avocados; fewer high-glucose carbohydrates; and more plant protein, including beans, soy nuts, and lentils. His LDL cholesterol normalized, his percentage of body fat decreased, and his insulin resistance—a precursor to Type 2 diabetes—resolved. He also cut back on exercise.  Despite following the guidelines touted in recent decades as being the best, and perhaps only, way to prevent heart disease, Rick was actually killing himself by following them.

To be fair, genetic testing was not available when the guidelines were developed. However, in light of what we now are learning about the Apo E genotypes, simply evaluating total cholesterol in terms of LDL and HDL is not enough. It is also important to evaluate 13 other kinds of total cholesterol. Finally, to complete the picture, it is necessary to determine a person’s Apo E genotype, which will reveal the correct diet and exercise regimen that will truly maintain heart health and also help prevent serious illness such as vascular diseases and Alzheimer disease.

About Author
Pamela  McDonald
Pamela McDonald is a leading integrative-medicine nurse-practitioner who has devoted her life to the prevention of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and chronic illness. She has had special training in surgery, women’s health care, adult primary ca Continue reading