We are all aware that certain diseases may “run in our family”, but what we don’t account for is how big or how small a role family history, or more specifically, genetics, play in developing that disease.
Family history really plays more of a role in the habits and rituals that dictate behavior. For example, if your mom always used extra butter, then you are likely to use extra butter as a family tradition.
But genetically speaking,
it is the environment working on your genes that determines your risk. This is called “Epigenetics.” In other words, it is the way you eat, how much you exercise, how you deal with stress and the effects of environmental toxins (ii) that are the underlying causes of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar and how your specific genetic make up handles those issues (in most cases.) That is what determines your risk of heart disease, not a lack of medication.
– Dr. Mark Hyman, 2014
Preventing heart disease is more involved than simply lowering cholesterol. Medical professionals and patients alike tend to think we are treating the causes of heart disease by lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, lowering blood sugar with prescription medication. But the real treatment comes when we ask what causes high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar in the first place? (i)
To disregard the underlying causes of cardiovascular disease and treat only the risk factors is essentially like mopping up the floor around an overflowing sink instead of turning off the faucet.
To disregard the underlying causes and treat only the risk factors is essentially like mopping up the floor around an overflowing sink instead of turning off the faucet. Which is why medications for these factors have to be taken for a lifetime. When the underlying lifestyle causes are addressed, patients are able to stop taking medication and even avoid surgery.
The research clearly shows that a change in lifestyle is a much more powerful intervention for preventing heart disease than any medication. The “EPIC” study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine studied 23,000 people’s adherence to 4 simple behaviors:
- Not smoking
- Exercising 3.5 hours a week
- Eating a healthy diet [fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and limited amounts of meat],
- Maintaining a healthy weight (BMI <30)
In those adhering to these behaviors, 93% of diabetes, 81% of heart attacks, 50% of strokes, and 36% of all cancers were prevented. (iii)
And the INTERHEART study, published in the Lancet in 2004, followed 30,000 people and found that changing lifestyle could prevent at least 90% of all heart disease. (iv)
These studies are among a large evidence base documenting how lifestyle intervention is often more effective in reducing cardiovascular disease, hypertension, heart failure, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and deaths from all causes than almost any other medical intervention. (v)
There are three main biological functions that lead to disease (and the real reasons we are sick):
- Changes in gene expression (which modulate inflammation)
- Oxidative stress – an imbalance in your body’s ability to detoxify itself resulting in damaged cells, systems, even DNA.
- Metabolic dysfunction – when your bodily functions can’t work effectively.
The good news is that fixing the problem at its root leads to positive, non-disease promoting benefits against most chronic disease with no side effects, while improving your overall quality of health and life.
Prevent the Development of Cardiovascular Disease
- Adopt a Healthy Diet
This broken record won’t quit. Improve your diet and change your health. Some easy ways to start:
- Eat more plant-based foods.
- Include cold-water fish (like salmon, sardines, herring) for healthy fat and protein
- Eat a protein-rich breakfast (eggs, nut butters, protein smoothies, etc.)
- Eliminate processed/packaged foods
- Make Lifestyle and Exercise Changes
Imagine a murky, stagnant pond of water. It’s a pool for harmful growth when there’s no movement. Plus it’s sad. Now think of your body in the same way. Get your blood pumping and oxygen flowing. Exercise also improves your mental and emotional state. So go!
- Thirty to 45 minutes of cardiovascular exercise at least five times a week. AKA Cardio.
Anything that will raise your heart rate. Go for a walk, skip around a park, do some jumping jacks, dance, you name it. Just do it.
- Strength training will also improve your muscle tone and help your body burn calories more efficiently.
Exercise is a necessity, not a luxury, in preventing almost all chronic disease, from heart disease to cancer, from dementia to diabetes, from osteoporosis to osteoarthritis. You cannot age successfully without it. Period.
Stop Stressing Out Your Heart
Scary but true: Stress alone can cause a heart attack. What’s interesting about stress is that it is all perceived. Which means that even though stressors come from all around us, it’s how we react and internalize these stressors that cause the blood pressure to rise how stress becomes a beast.
Therefore, finding ways to manage stress, to relax, and to find the pause button is essential for dealing with nearly all chronic health conditions, including high cholesterol.
- Deep breaths. From spilled milk to road rage…deep breaths truly help
- Exercise. It releases chemical endorphins and improves the mood
- Try relaxing exercise, like Yoga. It helps you slow down, breathe deep, and relieve tension that’s held in your body.
- Meditate. It can be difficult, but it’s important to clear your mind. Try an app, like HeadSpace.
- Do something fun. What else are all those cute cat videos good for?
(i) Mozaffarian D, Wilson PW, Kannel WB. Beyond established and novel risk factors: lifestyle risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Circulation. 2008;117(23):3031-3038.
(ii) Menke A, Muntner P, Batuman V, Silbergeld EK, Guallar E. Blood lead below 0.48 micromol/L (10 microg/dL) and mortality among US adults. Circulation. 2006 Sep 26;114(13):1388-94.
(iii) Ford ES, Bergmann MM, Kroger J, Schienkiewitz A, Weikert C, Boeing H. Healthy living is the best revenge: findings from the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition-Potsdam study. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Aug 10;169(15):1355-1362.
(iv) Yusuf S, Hawken S, Ounpuu S, et al; INTERHEART Study Investigators. Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study. Lancet. 2004;364(9438):937-952.
(v) American College of Preventive Medicine. Lifestyle Medicine–Evidence Review. June 30, 2009. Available at: http://www.acpm.org. Accessed September 18, 2009.