Cholesterol blues

Cholesterol blues

Cholesterol has become personal recently, and not in a good way. All of a sudden, this was not some issue plaguing middle-aged, overweight, out-of-shape candidates for Lipitor. No, this was my very own doctor reading my above-normal cholesterol scores to me.

She was shocked. I was floored.

I have always watched my diet, stayed in shape and never been overweight. How could my numbers possibly be so high?

After I got over the initial shock and vague feelings that I had failed in my efforts to maintain a healthful lifestyle, I began researching my options. There is an overwhelming amount of information about cholesterol and some disagreement among experts, but one thing is indisputable: The consequences of ignoring this sneaky, little artery-clogger can be deadly.

"There are people out there who are predisposed genetically," explains Dr. Kenneth Lightheart, cardiologist at Southern Oregon Cardiology. They can't metabolize cholesterol, and their numbers can be high — sometimes quite high — even if they're not a person with a bad diet or overweight: the kind of person you would not normally think of with high cholesterol."

The American Heart Association describes cholesterol as a "soft, waxy substance found among the lipids (fats) in the bloodstream." It comes from two sources: your body and the foods you eat. When the body has more cholesterol than it needs, it can build up in the arteries as plaque, inhibiting the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart, which increases the likelihood of heart disease.

"I would say that with the majority of today's people who have cholesterol problems, it's a dietary issue. We try to work with them to change their diets and exercise, but a lot of people are very resistant to doing that, so we end up treating them with medication," says Lightheart.

Some of the most commonly prescribed cholesterol-lowering medications are Crestor, Lipitor and Zocor. While these and other statin drugs are effective for many, they are not without side effects that can include nausea, gas, headache, dizziness, rash and sleep disturbances. There also is some evidence that statins can cause a muscle disorder producing muscle weakness, and occasionally pain, in about one in 1,000 patients.

"The guidelines for pediatrics now suggest checking cholesterol in kids, and part of that is just a reflection of America becoming more obese and much less active. High blood pressure and diabetes are occurring in epidemic proportions because when you're overweight, it makes all those things become more problematic," says Lightheart.

Nutritionist and diabetic counselor Cathy Miller says she has had great success at lowering cholesterol levels among her clients at the Body Analysis Clinic at Ventana Wellness in Medford.

"I tell people it's not only about what you limit in your diet; it's also about what you add in. I have them eliminate saturated and transfats as much as possible, and add in more soluble fiber and more beans, which are really good for cholesterol. I also have people include one tablespoon of flaxseed a day or 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams of fish oil," explains Miller.

Miller's guidelines include: "Red meat not more than twice a week, fish two to three times a week (including shrimp, as long as it's not fried or battered). Include more chicken and turkey. I recommend at least one or two vegetarian meals a week. That might be a bean burrito with fat-free refried beans and some lettuce, tomatoes and salsa. Or it might be bean soup or lentil soup. I recommend pasta once a week with just a marinara sauce. Not more than 1 ounce of cheese a day or an ounce of mozzarella."

Dr. Daniel Smith, of Bear Creek Naturopathic Clinic, says he approaches cholesterol problems holistically.

"As a naturopathic physician, we treat a symptom as a reflection of an imbalance. I believe that just looking at cholesterol levels by themselves is an outdated way of assessing cardiovascular risk, a narrow view of what's really going on with an individual's overall health," he says.

"We look at the whole patient and consider their environment or how they interact with the world around them that leads to whatever is going on with them," says Smith.

Although dietary changes alone may not be the solution for everyone, I was able to lower my overall score by 80 points in just 90 days. I had to be willing to forgo that grilled steak for chicken, and I no longer slather butter on potatoes or toast. But the success I have had through diet keeps me from having to take statin drugs, so for me it was well worth the changes.

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