Last month, we examined the mounting body of evidence suggesting that cholesterol isn't the heart-health villain that we've been led to believe. So if cholesterol isn't the cause of heart disease, what is?
The biggest culprit is inflammation. Injuries to the vascular wall (triggered by anything from high blood pressure to toxins) cause oxidized LDL particles to take up residence; the immune system sends inflammatory cytokines to the area, eventually resulting in plaque and an increased risk for heart disease. Without the initial inflammation, the arteries would be clear.
The following is my seven-point program for reducing inflammation and the risk of heart disease. Note that lowering cholesterol isn't on it. Pay attention to these seven items, and you might find that you don't need to worry so much about cholesterol after all.
- Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet. The plant kingdom is loaded with natural anti-inflammatories. Berries, apples, onions, and cherries are outstanding examples. Wild salmon contains anti-inflammatory omega-3s as well as astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant. And put green tea, pomegranate juice, and dark chocolate in heavy rotation on your menu.
- Cut back on Inflammatory Foods. For many people, grains-particularly wheat-can be highly inflammatory. Sugar contributes to heart disease by creating molecules known as AGEs (advanced glycosylated end-products) that promote inflammation in the artery walls. And omega-6 fats, while necessary for overall health, are pro-inflammatory, and we consume far too much of them. Refined vegetable oils (like soybean and corn oil) are loaded with omega-6s. Switch to olive oil for cooking, and be sure to balance your omega-6 intake with omega-3-rich fish oil and flaxseed oil.
- Choose Heart Smart supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids should be part of any heart-healthy supplement regimen. Ditto antioxidants such as vitamin C. Coenzyme Q10 is fuel for the heart, and it's also depleted by cholesterol lowering medications, so if you're on one of those, it's doubly important to supplement with CoQ10.
- Manage Your Stress. Stress hormones create inflammatory events. They also raise blood pressure, which in turn contributes to vascular injury. Lowering stress levels is a critical part of any heart health program. Whether you choose meditation, deep breathing exercises, or a warm bath, it's important to find some time each day for relaxation. Your heart will thank you for it.
- Exercise. There's probably no better thing you can do for your heart. Even brisk walking for 30-45 minutes at least 5 times a week can considerably reduce your risk for heart disease.
- Drink only in moderation. A moderate alcohol intake has been shown to be cardioprotective, but the key is knowing whether "moderation" is something you can really do. If it's not, don't start. If it is, then one drink a day for women and two for men is fine.
- Don't smoke. This seems obvious, yet it's impossible to overstate its importance. If you want to significantly reduce your risk of dying from heart disease-not to mention cancer-throw out your cigarettes.