When a doctor sits you down to explain something with a Latin name, you don’t expect good news. So despite optimistic attempts like “Maybe he’s just showing off?”, I knew this would suck. And it did, because he told me that I had fairly advanced atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is the build up of plaque in your arteries. The advanced form is quite the serial killer. In the U.S. for instance, it’s the main cause of death for men over 45. In short, it’s what causes most heart attacks and strokes worldwide. I could go on, but the short video at the bottom of this article explains it better.
I may need to clarify something first. Most adults have a certain degree of atherosclerosis. For example, it’s found in 80-90% of Americans over 30. Mostly that’s no big deal, because if you have a bit of arterial plaque, your (elastic) arteries react by stretching. Thus there is no effect on the blood flow. Most people actually don’t notice the progression of atherosclerosis, until it results in an infarction (like a stroke or heart attack).
Luckily I haven’t had an infarction. So why then do I already know that I suffer from atherosclerosis? The thing is that if you cruise through life, you don’t really notice it. But I’m not the cruising type, I occasionally really get my blood pumping; cycling, gym, karting, skiing. And in my daily life, I use a mountain bike to race from A to B.
Shanghai and Amsterdam
Some 1.5 years ago, when I lived in Shanghai, I noticed a sharp drop-off in my fitness level. Shanghai is a rather unhealthy city with an often toxic air quality. My lungs didn’t agree with the local air, and considering that I got out of breath much faster, I initially thought it was a lung thing. In retrospect, it was a liver problem though. It’s difficult to say what exactly went wrong then. The high percentage of PM2.5 in the air definitely didn’t help, but whether it was a virus, gutter oil, food poisoning or liver disease, I don’t know. But something sent my cholesterol through the roof. And once your cholesterol is seriously high, the smallest infections may start creating arterial plaques.
By the time I moved back to Amsterdam, I got an overall health check and had my blood thoroughly tested. There seemed to be nothing wrong, because by then my liver had recovered and my cholesterol was back to normal. So I was told that it was probably just a normal part of aging…
I refused to accept my condition as normal. I mean, after a “medium” workout, my muscles would be acidified, my heart would race, I would be exhausted, lightheaded and out of breath. It felt like I had aged 2 decades in the last 2 years.
At some point, it dawned on me that the transport of oxygen through my body must be obstructed. So I looked up a cardiologist, had a heart CT scan and the atherosclerosis was finally discovered.
I’m no health freak, but my lifestyle makes me an unlikely candidate to have this much plaque in my arteries. There is a family history of atherosclerosis though, so once I developed liver trouble, my genetics may have sped things up. Especially this family history was why I was prescribed statins, a cholesterol-lowering medicine. The doctor told me that the statins would slow down the atherosclerosis, but that there was no way of stopping or reducing it. So that same evening, I started googling…
No cure? That’s not what the researchers say…
Obviously I’m aware that anyone with a website can write whatever they want. So I filtered out all non-scientific articles, but the results were still astounding. I researched reports by the British Journal of Cardiology, US National Center for Biotechnology, universities of Oxford, Utrecht, Havard, etc, etc, and drew my conclusions.
First of all, I changed my diet. I already had decent eating habits, but you can always do better. For instance, the average cheese is a bad boy, because of its high saturated fat content. I like cheese, so I still eat it, but only a quarter of what I ate before. Furthermore I found a tasty 20+ cheese instead of the regular 48+ (fat content is 48% of dry weight ), thus reducing my saturated fat intake from cheese by some 90%. And there were more such “tricks” to improve my diet, plus I added some interesting supplements…
After my research, I added the following supplements to my daily diet:
– 2 x 90 mcg Vitamin K2 (MK-7)
– 4 x 500 mg of Niacin
– 100 mg of DHEA
– 2 grams of plant sterols
– 1 or 2 glasses of cranberry juice
– 1 or 2 glasses of beet juice
These aren’t the only “smart” things in my diet, but it’s what I added.
The reports don’t really agree on whether Vitamin K2 only reduces the risk of developing arterial plaque or whether it can actually reverse calcification. Either way, it’s an absolute no-brainer. It helps binding calcium to the bones, which also makes it an excellent agent against ostheoprosis. In short K2 helps the calcium in your blood reach your bones, and thus prevents its deposition in the arteries. Taken at the right dosage (which for many people is less than my 180 mcg), no real side-effects of K2 intake have been reported.
Several trials suggest that eating two grams of plant sterols daily will lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by 9% to 20%. This isn’t dramatic, but it’s a nice bonus. There are fairly strict warnings against eating more then 2 grams per day. So don’t! Unilever’s Pro Activ products may be a good way to get your daily fix of plant sterols. In Europe, Pro Activ is mostly marketed under the Becel brand, but the brand is also known as Flora, Promise or Fruit D’Or. There is some dispute about plant sterols though, so I use them now to lower my LDL, which is my doctors’ main concern, but I may quit them later.
Beet and cranberry juice
Beet juice and cranberry juice belong in the no-brainer category. As you can read in an earlier article, beet juice improves arterial health and oxygen transport through your body.
Cranberry juice has been researched several times over the last few years, and helps keep your arteries flexible, which helps improve the blood flow. The benefits of either juice haven’t been expressed in rock hard percentages yet. But since they’re full of antioxidants and other goodies anyway, I can’t think of a reason not to drink them.
DHEA is pretty popular for fitness purposes, but it has more uses. It’s a pre-hormone that is abundant in humans, but production decreases with age. So DHEA supplementation has been researched with many promising results, like its protective effect against atherosclerosis. DHEA also has anti-inflammatory effects, and as you can see in the video below, atherosclerosis normally starts with an inflammation in the artery. So again a no-brainer for me.
Niacin a.k.a. Vitamin B3, or Nicotinic Acid has the most potential of the lot. It actually has several, highly beneficial effects. Niacin can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, it can raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower your overall cholesterol. Plus here’s the big one: it can reduce atherosclerosis. In the last few decades there have been several human and animal trials, autopsies and blood scans where atherosclerosis regression was proven, and almost all of the successful treatments included Niacin.
So why isn’t Niacin the drug/supplement of choice in the treatment of atherosclerosis? The side effects of Niacin aren’t under control yet, and they’re pretty annoying. One of the things that Niacin does, is dilate the arteries, allowing blood to flow more freely. But there’s a downside to this, and it’s called the Niacin Flush, and apparently I’m sensitive to it. Because once a day for about an hour, I get warm, get a bright red blush all over my body, my scalp gets itchy, my skin tingles and I get a dry mouth. It kind of sucks. But here’s the thing: So what?
I’m trying to get healthy again, and fend off life-threatening infarctions. Besides, I hate how the speeds that I could pedal for an hour 2 years ago, have become hard to maintain for 5 minutes. I want my blood to flow better again. So if it helps, I’ll gladly take the Niacin Flush.
There are no-flush versions of Niacin, but multiple research has proven that the extended-release (or time-released or no-flush) version has little, or no effect at all. So if you try to avoid the discomfort by taking the no-flush version, you’re wasting your time, money and health.
Of course, if possible, I’d rather not deal with the discomforts of the Niacin Flush. For instance, last week I was having lunch on an outdoor terrace, when the flush kicked in. So there I sat in my T-shirt among people in coats, red as a stoplight. It’s a bit awkward.
So I sometimes take an effervescent (fizzy) Aspirin 10 – 15 minutes before my first Niacin capsule of the day. The drinkable version is easier on the stomach and faster-acting than the regular tablet. And I must say; Aspirin helps reduce the side-effects.
But what about the “Big Pharma Conspiracies”?
Medical research has a reputation of often saying what the pharmaceutical industry wants to hear, because Big Pharma often sponsors the research. But regardless, I trust the research that I examined, because all the supplements that I’m taking are exactly that; supplements. They’re not medicine, they’re freely available, they’re what the “Big Bad Pharma People” wouldn’t want you to know about. If any reports were corrupted, it would be those on statins, not the positive ones on competing supplements.
So what about statins? I’ve stopped taking them. My first cardiologist told me “Don’t think that a change in diet will help much”, and maybe he’ll be proven right. But I don’t want to start off with a pretty serious medicine, that consistently gives me headaches. I prefer to start off with a good diet and see how much, if any, extra medicine is needed.
Any results yet?
After 3 months of self-treatment, I’m definitely starting to feel better and more energetic. I don’t quickly run out of breath anymore, my heartbeat is more regular, my blood pressure is good. Plus my cycling is going measurably faster. Recently my average speeds have been much better than in the 1.5 years before.
Update: The first blood test results are in. So after 3 months of this self-treatment, my LDL (bad) cholesterol is down 36% to 2.1 (which is pretty close to perfect). My total cholesterol is down 25% to 3.6, which is really good too. Nice!
And today I saw my cardiologist, who was open-minded about it. Based on the results of my blood test, a strong exercise ECG and a carotid artery sonogram, he advised to keep doing what I’m doing now. So I don’t need statins or any other medicine. Things are definitely going in the right direction.
Drawings from the Deathmatch series by BoomStudios!