The New Science of Heart Disease
Cholesterol and Sunshine May be Saving Your Heart
By Elizabeth Rowan, DSOM, LAc
Let’s begin by dispelling a tenacious myth: “Cholesterol is bad for your heart.”
Although cholesterol does play a role in heart disease, it is not the culprit. In fact, the human body unceasingly produces cholesterol because it is essential to survival. Without cholesterol our bodies would be unable to produce cortisol, sex hormones, and neurotransmitters. Without cholesterol, our immune systems and digestion would be compromised. 20% of the body’s cholesterol is contained in the white matter of our brains. Without it, our brain function would cease!
Masai warriors, eating nothing but cultured milk and beef from age 14 to 35, have half the cholesterol level of American men when they reach age 55. Vegans with no dietary cholesterol intake can have higher cholesterol levels than omnivores because cholesterol levels tend to increase with carbohydrate intake. Only a fraction of the cholesterol present in the blood stream, or adhered to arterial walls, comes from dietary cholesterol.
There are undeniable risks that accompany high blood triglyceride levels in the presence of high LDL/low HDL cholesterol. However, the medical establishment has missed the root cause of this disease trifecta. For decades, they’ve championed an oversimplified model of heart disease that highlights saturated fat and cholesterol as the cause of clogged arteries, chest pain, and ultimately heart attack. They’ve focused on reducing cholesterol by prescribing statin drugs and promoting a low-fat, high carbohydrate, low-cholesterol diet. A trillion-dollar industry has performed countless surgeries to keep those arteries clear. However, when we look at the science, the popular theory of cardiovascular disease does not actually account for the observable facts and compliance with American Heart Association recommendations does not prevent disease progression. As a result, heart disease continues to be a leading cause of death in our country.
In the largest study ever done involving autopsies of people who had died of heart attacks, only 41% exhibited arterial blockage sufficient to cause a heart attack. Furthermore, when careful measurements are taken during heart attack, there are no signs of oxygen deprivation. It is also widely observed that when the major arteries fill with plaque, the body creates new vasculature to provide adequate blood flow. So, if the heart is not deprived of oxygen due to all the arterial plaque, why are so many people having heart attacks?
Cardiologist Thomas Cowan recently published an insightful answer. Rather than focusing on cholesterol and the coronary arteries, Cowan emphasizes the way the body functions under stress. Stress engages our nervous system in preparation for rapid action. This is great if you’re running from a bear, but it creates problems if the body is unable to return to rest once the danger is gone. When any muscle is pressed to perform without resting, the cells become starved of oxygen. Eventually, the cells fatigue and resort to a less efficient form of energy production which creates lactic acid accumulation in the muscle tissue. This phenomenon is what causes muscle soreness after intense exercise. The heart is a muscle that requires tremendous energy and oxygen. Unlike other muscles, the heart cannot rest even as lactic acid accumulates. This creates an acidic environment which inhibits nerve conduction. Without nerve conduction, portions of the heart muscle are unable to move and this causes chest pain. Eventually, if a profound acute stress is layered upon the chronic stress within this system, the heart muscle will seize, resulting in tissue death and heart attack. Researchers are just starting to understand the important mechanisms at play.
Another fascinating alternative theory about cardiovascular disease has emerged. A group of MIT researches published a paper explaining how arterial plaque may be serving a necessary function, compensating for a deficiency that you’ve likely never heard about: cholesterol sulfate. Cholesterol sulfate is a compound, similar to vitamin D3 sulfate, that is created in the skin upon exposure to sun. Unlike other forms of cholesterol and vitamin D, these substances are water soluble and easily travel through the bloodstream. Cholesterol sulfate provides bioavailable sulfate anions which are crucial for many essential body functions including blood circulation and maintenance of vascular tissue. Although arterial plaque is associated with long-term health problems, it successfully provides the raw material necessary to ensure a steady supply of cholesterol sulfate into the bloodstream. Again, we’re invited to see the inherent complexity of the human body, instead of forcing it to conform with simplistic linear cause and effect. To prevent heart disease, it now appears that we must emphasize optimal nutrition and sun exposure.
Myth number 2: “Sun exposure is harmful.”
A 2016 review in the journal Dermato-Endocrinology concluded that although the various benefits of non-burning sun exposure are insufficiently understood, exposure to sunshine is essential for health.
“This review of recent studies and their analyses consider the risks and benefits of sun exposure which indicate that insufficient sun exposure is an emerging public health problem. This review considers the studies that have shown a wide range health benefits from sun/UV exposure. These benefits include among others various types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer disease/dementia, myopia and macular degeneration, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. The message of sun avoidance must be changed to acceptance of non-burning sun exposure sufficient to achieve serum 25(OH)D concentration of 30 ng/mL or higher in the sunny season and the general benefits of UV exposure beyond those of vitamin D.”
Most people believe that sun exposure causes skin cancer, but this is only part of the truth. Excessive exposure is correlated with cancer, but moderate exposure is healthy. There are things you can do to prevent cancer while enjoying the benefits of time in the sun. Consuming a diet containing high levels of anti-oxidants and omega-3 fatty acids will provide protection from sun damage. These foods have overarching health benefits as well because they protect against internal oxidative stress. Summer fruits, like berries and watermelon, are especially beneficial. Avoid sugar, processed grains, and vegetable oils because they promote oxidation and contribute to sun damage.
As a doctor of holistic medicine, it is my practice to remove obstacles while nurturing innate healing. Unfortunately, our own beliefs and drives often create those obstacles. One of the biggest impediments to longevity is the belief that it’s possible to get away with poor lifestyle and dietary choices. Most of us learn to ignore or suppress symptoms rather than seeking to understand why our body is not functioning properly. Pharmaceutical companies enable this behavior by providing pills labeled for nearly every discomfort. Meanwhile, the disharmony creating those symptoms continues to quietly manifest disease. There are no pills that can compensate for a lifetime of poor choices. Taking full responsibility for personal wellbeing is a time consuming commitment that feels like a luxury most of us can’t afford. Instead we’ve bought into a healthcare system that focuses on late stage disease and then hands out pills without considering the long-term consequences. Unfortunately, the longer we ignore the symptoms, the more entrenched the problem becomes.
Imagine that you have two jars. One is health and the other is disease. If you deposit a coin for each corresponding action you take, which jar would fill up faster? The numerous little choices we make each day add up to our larger picture of health. If you are already experiencing symptoms of discomfort, your body is asking you to make changes. Contact me if you’d like support.