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Heart Health Update: Old Myths replaced with New Science

In the last few years, you may have become aware that some of the “rules” we have been following for heart health might be doing us more harm than good. Given the continually rising rate of heart disease in North America and around the world, it should not be surprising that the path we’ve been told to follow for the past 20 years (or so) is deeply flawed. If it wasn’t, the rate of heart disease would be going down, not up!

Here is the bottom line: Cholesterol is not “all that” when it comes to Heart Health. Fat is not bad. Salt is not the enemy. Stress does play a role in heart disease, as does blood sugar control, and the quality of collagen we produce. The delicate balance of oxidants vs. antioxidants is important, too.

Piqued your interest? Read on!

1) Cholesterol is not all that.

Cholesterol has been vilified, stamped on, and kept artificially low in patients with cardiovascular disease since the war on fat started in the 1980’s. However, we now know that high cholesterol is really only one piece of the puzzle.

In fact, elevated cholesterol is simply a or of heart disease. It becomes elevated when there is something wrong in the blood vessels and/or in the liver (with the exception of familial hypercholesterolemia). So, by lowering cholesterol, we are simply silencing the body’s attempt to let us know that something is wrong. We are, as the very articulate Janet Jacks said (in a talk I attended recently) “cutting the branches off of the tree, instead of getting to the root”. (Speaking of the root: we know that the root cause of cardiovascular disease is really about the health of our blood vessel walls, and about the level of inflammation in the body).

More than this, we know that lowering cholesterol using statin drugs (like Lipitor and Crestor) only decreases a person’s absolute risk of a cardiovascular event by 3%! Also, according to a national health study, 75% of heart attack victims had cholesterol !

Here are the things that stand true about cholesterol:

  • It creates plaque in arteries: but only when it is called into production by inflammation, high blood sugar, damaged collagen and insufficiency of antioxidants

  • The TYPE of cholesterol is important: even beyond just “bad” LDL vs “good” HDL. While having adequate HDL is protective, accurately assessing your risk factors requires looking into the size and shape of the cholesterol molecules floating around in your blood stream. As your Naturopathic or functional medicine Doctor about VAP testing.

  • Artificially lowering cholesterol (with statin drugs) can be ineffective at lowering heart disease risk, especially in women and elderly people (men and women older than 69 years of age).

For more information about Why Cholesterol May not be the Cause of Heart Disease, see Mark Hyman MD’s article here:

2) Fat is not bad.

Well, some fat isn’t. In fact, there are many fats that are downright good for you! The way to separate the good fats from the bad is this: do they increase or decrease inflammation in the body? In other words, do they heal or damage our cells and blood vessels?

Healing fats actually increase the quality of our cell membranes, make it easier for us to let fuel in and waste out. They also work as a satisfying, slow burning energy source, not to mention a fabulous skin food!

Fats that Heal:

  • fat from organic, grass fed animal products

  • pasture-raised chicken eggs

  • organic butter

  • organic butter ghee

  • fish and fish oil (or algae oil for a vegetarian alternative)

  • Coconut oil

  • Avocado

  • Raw and whole nuts and seeds (especially walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds)

  • Cold-expeller pressed plant oils from: olive, flax, pumpkin seed, avocado

Fats that cause damage impair communication between cells, and increase stress on the body and blood vessels.

Fats that cause Damage:

  • man-made trans-fats (like those in margarine, or any hydrogenated oils)

  • plant oils extracted using chemicals or heat

  • fat from conventionally grown animal products (including meat, eggs, butter, milk, cheese, yogurt)

3) Salt is not the enemy.

Lots and lots of low quality table salt or high-sodium processed foods are not doing us (or our hearts) any favours. On the other hand, a good quality, full spectrum salt can actually help to normalize high or low blood pressure. What is different about a “full spectrum” salt, is that is typically comes from a sea bed, and contains not only sodium, but magnesium, potassium, and many trace minerals that our bodies require to function optimally. These salts are not only not the enemy, they can be downright therapeutic! Examples of good quality salts are: Real Salt, Himalayan Salt, or Black Salt. Try adding some to your meals and keep track of your blood pressure.

4) The Role of Stress and Blood Sugar:

We now know that one of the most important risk factors for Heart Disease is high blood sugar. The reason for the increased risk? High blood sugar does two-fold damage to artery walls (or endothelium).

1. Glycation: makes artery walls stiff and sticky

2. Oxidation: creates nicks in walls

When artery walls are damaged, poor, under-appreciated cholesterol comes along and tries to clean up the mess (and smooth over the nicks in the walls). Also, the more sticky blood vessel walls are, the more likely excess cholesterol is to get lodged there. Lastly, if the arteries are stiff, they cannot relax and expand as they are meant to, and this increases blood pressure and creates turbulent blood flow.

When we eat high glycemic foods (foods high in sugar or simple carbohydrates), we increase our blood sugar. Most grains, any flour-based foods, refined sugar, and even high-sugar fruit fall into this blood sugar-raising category.

What does stress have to do with it?

Stress boosts blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood, and depletes antioxidants and other nutrients. In other words, stress increases things that can damage the blood vessels and decreases things that can repair them!

There are many ways to treat stress, including a mindfulness based medical program called MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction). In fact, MBS has been shown to decrease many cardiovascular disease risk factors (BP, BMI, stress, depression).

5) The Role of Collagen:

Collagen is the most abundant type of protein in the human body. It is the main component of arteries, and is essential for arterial flexibility. Collagen gets damaged by oxidation (caused by sugar, trans-fats, pollutants, etc!). Now read this: Any damage to vessel walls increases plaque production and heart disease risk. That’s right. ANY damage. Also, having enough good quality collagen can actually reverse plaque build-up, and heal vessel walls! So, we need to work hard to protect our collagen, as well as rebuild it. To rebuild collagen, we need it’s building blocks. We can get these building blocks from: Vitamin C, Lysine, Proline, Bone Broth and Gelatin.

6) The Role of Antioxidants:

Because oxidants (see above) cause blood vessel damage, and that increases plaque build-up and cardiovascular disease risk, we need plenty of oxidants to mop up the oxidants and neutralize them before they can wreak havoc on the body. Antioxidants have proven benefits for cholesterol, blood pressure, and vascular inflammation. Some valuable sources of antioxidants include: Pycnogenol, CoQ10, Sytrinol, Pomegranate Juice, Green, black and white tea and Hibiscus tea. All of these antioxidants have been studied specifically for heart health. Pomegranate juice can decrease plaque build-up by 35% over 3 years. Black tea has been shown to significantly decrease plaque build-up in women. The examples are almost endless!

So. After reading this update, I’m sure you’ll agree that cholesterol is only one piece of the puzzle, and that preventing and treating heart disease requires a full-body approach. Let’s keep those blood vessels healthy, and decrease heart disease!

If you have any questions, or would like to further explore a Naturopathic Approach to Heart Health, contact Emily Murphy ND at, or book your 15 minute introductory consultation online today at or .

Here’s to a Healthy Heart!

Emily Murphy ND

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