By: Dr. Jay P. Vanden Heuvel PhD, IMD & Jayna Van De Hey – Certified Health Coach and Wellness Specialist

We all are aware of those who are being seen for or worried about their heart health. And we all should be concerned with circulation. But as history shows, sometimes we get the understanding of any system wrong. Take cholesterol for instance. Cholesterol is the word that has most people concerned and often confused. Well did you know that this naturally made molecule in the body is essential to our health and without it you would die?

So why is this necessary fatty substance all the focus? Ask anyone who has been informed that results considered outside of normal numbers, based on laboratory margins, they will most likely admit they are scared for a heart attack or stroke. But do we really know if abnormal cholesterol numbers are the sole cause of that concern?

Did you know roughly 75% of heart attack victims do not have high cholesterol levels, and 51% of people who have high cholesterol do not have heart disease (according to national heart health statistics).

In fact, the hypothetical link between elevated levels of total cholesterol and heart disease has NEVER been proven. There are even studies and books calling cholesterol a “myth”.

So, what is this about? Let’s start with the knowns. Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced by the liver that performs or assists in thousands of bodily functions such as building cell membranes (important to protect our cells from toxins), nerve sheaths, and much of the brain. It’s vital to hormone production and metabolizes all the fat-soluble vitamins. It is critical for synapse formation, i.e. the connections between your neurons, which allow you to think, learn new things, and form memories. One of the more common side effects noted in lowering cholesterol too much is memory loss. Books such as “The Cholesterol Myth” even suggest too low (from clinical studies) may increase your chance of cancer.

Another known: only 20% of total cholesterol comes from food. The liver produces the rest (see above functions). Meaning if you stopped eating foods containing cholesterol the body/liver would still produce it. So, if total cholesterol is not the culprit than what is?

We all know that cholesterol is made up of HDL and LDL particles and the HDL are “good” and the LDL are “bad”. But did you know it goes even deeper than that? The LDL are essentially made up of three particles; small LDL, medium LDL and large LDL. It’s the small particle LDL that can become oxidized that we must pay attention to. The other two are not a concern. Yet it is rare we are informed of these broken out particles.

So, what is oxidized or oxidation? Oxidation is the corrosive effect oxygen has on atoms and molecules. Think of rust. When our bodies have oxidation going on we are rusting or better yet, aging at the molecular level. Oxidation occurs because of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage cells. Some free radicals occur naturally with metabolism but generally we create free radicals in our bodies from things like stress, pollution, toxins and mostly a poor diet. Normally, the body can handle free radicals, when plenty of antioxidants from diet are available. But if antioxidants are unavailable, or if the free-radical production becomes excessive, damage can occur. The small particle LDL becomes oxidized and “sticky”. Thus, it is important to be getting plenty of antioxidants daily to help offset this insult.

Recent research strongly supports the use of polyphenols in the prevention of Cardiovascular disease. Polyphenols are strong antioxidants that work synergistically with other vitamins and enzymes in defense of oxidative stress. Polyphenols exert numerous biological activities and beneficial properties, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiviral, and hypoglycemic (blood sugar-lowering) effects. Polyphenols have been shown to regulate lipid and lipoprotein metabolism, improve dyslipidemia (abnormally high blood fat/cholesterol levels), decrease oxidative and inflammatory-induced vascular damage, enhance vascular function, and regulate blood pressure. Therefore, there is a correlation between higher intake of polyphenols and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

To help stop small particle LDL cholesterol from becoming oxidative, and becoming “sticky” in our arteries, we need to replenish polyphenols/antioxidants daily, since the human body doesn’t store them. It is also important to note that many polyphenols are made by microbes in our digestive tracts from fruits and vegetables. So, paying attention to a good microbiome and feeding them daily sources of polyphenols, is important in cardiovascular health.

One example of an antioxidant particularly helpful to the cardiovascular system is Bergamot. Bergamot is a powerful polyphenol that has been shown to inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Based on the results of human studies (Italy), bergamot extract, bears to significantly reduce coronary artery disease risk while also protecting against oxidative vascular damage. Again, by reducing the risk of oxidative LDL small particles.

Now, back to the cardiovascular system. Did you know your heart pumps about 2,000 gallons (7,571 Liters) – worth of blood through a body every day? The body has about (6 quarts) of blood which circulates through the body three times every minute. In one day, the blood travels a total of 12,000 miles (consider micro circulation to the “mm” and it has been noted as high as 60,000 miles). Most of the time when we think about our cardiovascular system we picture the main veins and arteries only. What most of us don’t realize is 75% of our circulation is microcirculation, tiny little threads of capillaries. A capillary is only 5-10 micrometers in diameter and only one cell thick, that’s tiny. Endothelium, which is the outer covering of our blood vessels, needs to be kept soft, pliable, and have elasticity, to function properly.

When this endothelium layer becomes brittle it can cause “nicks or breaks”. When this happens, the body’s natural defense is to send cholesterol in general, to heal these leaks. But if combined with sticky oxidized cholesterol our arteries start to clog. The opening in the vessel closes over time. Now do you now see why scientists assumed high cholesterol was at first the only culprit? When really the cause started as inflammation (red hot, irritated, and leaky) and patched with fatty natural substances.

When body tissues become damaged, inflammation is the natural biological response. Normally, the body does this acutely to help heal on its own, but when this isn’t completed, tissues then become chronically inflamed. A slow process of deterioration ensues. Almost any chronic disease can be attributed back to inflammation. And you can probably assume what causes our body to become damaged; poor diet, stress, environmental factors, stress, etc. Meanwhile unchecked free radical activity is causing more and more cells to become damaged further spreading the inflammation. So, what helps keep our endothelium from becoming brittle and inflamed? Or reduce the clogging? You guessed it, antioxidants, polyphenols, and non-oxidized LDL.

Now we have a better clearer picture of this most deadly sometimes silent killer. That chronic inflammation can be a major predictor of coronary artery disease. Studies show elevated levels of CRP (c-reactive protein or inflammation) puts you at twice the risk of dying from cardiovascular-related problems as those with high cholesterol. One can ask the doctor to order a CRP blood test, and while results may vary by lab you generally want a reading below one. One of the key factors in reducing inflammation is to eat the right kinds of antioxidants and good fats (essential). Supplementing with these often-missing foods is also a benefit.

Essential fatty acids are also key importance for all systems of the body to function normally, including your skin, respiratory system, circulatory system, brain, and organs. There are two fatty acids, termed essential fatty acids (EFA) that your body does not produce on its own and they must be ingested, omega-3 fatty acid and omega-6 fatty  acid. These EFA’s are essential for brain development, immune system function, and blood pressure regulation. Ideally, we would like a 1:1 up to 1:4 ratio of Omega-3’s and Omega-6’s, but today’s average is closer to 1:20 due to our world of fast food, frozen entrees, and high calorie snacks. The right ratio of essential fatty acid helps reduces inflammation. Therefore, most people supplement with a quality Omega since the Standard American Diet (SAD) is lacking in heart/brain healthy good fats.

Hopefully by now a different understanding of cholesterol, heart concerns, and longevity appear. Inflammation and oxidative stress do go hand in hand. It is not just a cholesterol number. An adequate daily level of antioxidants will help reduce both oxidative stress and inflammation. While most of us would like to think we get enough of these through our diet, we as a nation are just not consuming enough fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. How many of you ate the rind of a bergamot fruit today?

Finding an antioxidant supplement, especially containing bergamot extract (very powerful antioxidant) would be a wise daily choice to “up the ante” so to speak. Same with getting a superior quality Omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Most of us are not consuming the good fats that are essential to us. Now that we have a better understanding of our cholesterol and heart health, we can make the logical connection that it is extremely important to eat healthy and take high quality supplements. When we give the body what it needs, it will have the ability to heal, regulate, and balance itself.