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Beyond Cholesterol Testing: Cardiovascular Health

by Dr. Jason Barker May 21, 2015

Beyond Cholesterol Testing: Cardiovascular Health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, killing roughly 610,000 people, or 1 out of every 4 deaths each year. The biggest risk factors for heart disease include:

  • Diabetes
  • Overweight And Obesity
  • Poor Diet
  • Physical Inactivity
  • Excessive Alcohol Use

But if you’re reading this and concerned about heart disease, I highly doubt that most of the risk factors above are something you personally worry about. Yet, active and athletic people suffer from their share of heart disease. One of the main benefits of exercise is the dramatic effect it has on lowering cardiovascular disease risk - a 50% reduction in heart attacks, to be specific. However, athletes can still develop and succumb to heart disease.

One of the most common reasons for the disconnect between fitness and health comes when an athlete focuses on fitness, but disregards health. Health and fitness don’t necessarily go hand in hand like most would think. We’ve all met the people who do some form of (oftentimes intense) exercise daily, but then eat anything and everything they want, using their exercise regimen as an excuse to ‘reward’ themselves.

Problem is, they end up rewarding themselves at most meals, and lose the benefits of fitness on their health. A part of health is exercise, which gives us fitness, but doesn’t convey health unless we have other habits like eating a nutritious diet, sleeping, and managing stress, to name a few. A lifestyle of exercise, but poor diet or heavy drinking won’t protect against heart disease - in fact it may even promote it.  Exercising can’t and won’t fully prevent dietary-induced disease conditions, especially when it comes to the cardiovascular system! So, if you’re someone who eats whatever you want despite having good fitness, it’s time to rethink that plan.

Excessive training. Yep I said it; it’s true - too much exercise can cause serious cardiovascular problems. Unbeknownst to most of us are the legions of retired athletes who were forced to stop competing because of negative exercise-induced changes in their heart.  The heart is a muscle and as it becomes fitter, it grows much like any other muscle in the body. With too much growth, normal function may be obscured by pathological (disease-like) manifestations that make diagnosis more challenging. Perhaps the most common of these is a condition known as atrial fibrillation, when the heart’s electrical patterns become disorganized, so to speak. While this particular condition doesn’t make the news, sudden death in athletes certainly does.  A very well-written article by Lisa Rosenbaum of The New Yorker addresses the subject of excessive training and heart disease. 

In addition to the standard advice of good diet, regular exercise, minimizing alcohol intake and quitting smoking, your doctor will want to monitor your cholesterol levels. We’ve all been taught (brainwashed) that other than lifestyle, cholesterol levels are the end-all be-all monitor of cardiovascular health. However, there’s far more going on in your bloodstream that’s indicative of heart disease than basic cholesterol tests. 

Heart disease is a disease of inflammation - inflammation in the blood vessels. New thinking in cardiology posits that cholesterol serves as an anti-inflammatory repair molecule for damaged blood vessels. In this case, inflammation comes first, then cholesterol levels rise.  This is part of why we see so much heart disease in conditions like diabetes, where chronically elevated blood sugar levels lead to atherosclerotic changes.  You can measure and track other markers of inflammation in your blood, ideally before cholesterol begins to rise.

Markers of Inflammation In Your Blood

  • Hemoglobin A1c: This is a protein that “sticks” to your red blood cells, and basically serves as a historic measurement of blood sugar over the last 3 months. We measure this because it gives us an idea of how high your sugars have been - we want blood sugar to be as close to or under 100 for optimal health. An elevated A1c tells you that your blood sugar has been too high, and this serves as a warning to get your diet cleaned up before things like elevated cholesterol and insulin resistance appear.
  • Fibrinogen: A protein that tells us how readily your blood will clot. While clotting ability is important, too much isn’t a good thing as this means your blood is “sticky” and more prone to unnecessary clots - think heart attacks and strokes. 
  • Insulin:  A hormone that pulls sugar into the cells to be metabolized, elevated levels signify that your body is trying to cope with too much sugar, or foods that are rapidly absorbed as sugar in the bloodstream (white-flour foods like breads, pasta, bagels, cookies, crackers, etc). Insulin begins to elevate over time before we see chronic elevations in blood sugar - again this signifies the body is trying to metabolize sugar. While we want insulin to do this, it also means you may be setting yourself up for insulin resistance whereby the cells of the body are no longer receptive to insulin’s signal, leading to a whole host of problems known as metabolic syndrome.

In summary, being an athlete alone doesn’t protect you from heart disease. You’ve got to eat right, and probably better than most if your goal is to limit and reduce inflammation from sugary, high glycemic foods.

While limiting endurance exercise is probably a wise thing to do, we can’t say by exactly how much it should be reduced. It’s probably safe to say that excessive includes several-hours long races and training sessions, on a continual basis, year after year.

Next, monitor your own bloodwork. Check things like Hemoglobin A1c, fibrinogen and insulin along with cholesterol to monitor for developing metabolic factors in heart disease. 

Lastly, nutritional medicines can help keep inflammation and cholesterol levels in check should they start to rise. Here’s why we don’t like drugs like “statin” medications that are rampantly prescribed.

Cholesterol Formula is a comprehensive formula that contains several proven natural cholesterol lowering ingredients. It lowers LDL (the bad cholesterol) and raises HDL (the good cholesterol).

Niasafe is a non-flushing form of niacin.  Niacin lowers LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and triglycerides.

Omega-3 oils are well known for their ability to balance cholesterol levels and decrease inflammation.

Dr. Jason Barker
Dr. Jason Barker

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