One of the most common complaints I see in the office is that of an elevated cholesterol. Not just in middle aged male executives, but even in otherwise fit twenty and thirty year old men and women. As part of today's routine medical exam, one of the "silent signals" we look for is the level of cholesterol in the blood stream. Let's take a better look at this potential enemy.
Levels of cholesterol are measured differently in US units and in metric ( for the rest of the world). They can even be different from one lab to another across town. So the best thing to do is to talk to your doctor, and review your own cholesterol panel. This includes the key elements of:
- HDL (or High Density Lipoproteins): the good cholesterol.
- LDL (or Low Density Lipoproteins): the bad cholesterol
- Total Cholesterol (the sum of the above two)
- Visible Cholesterol: If you stand naked in front of a mirror, start with your arms extended out to the sides at a 90 degree angle. Then slowly lower your arms to your sides. If they come to rest at 45 degrees, then you are wearing too much cholesterol. Even if your blood levels are normal, don't kid yourself that visible cholesterol or excess fat is ok. It is not!
Your doctor can review your own results with you, including the ratio of the good/bad kinds of cholesterol. But before you assume that all elevated levels need a drug and a "cholesterol-free" cookie, let's take a look at some caveats with these two options.
1. Drugs: Lipitor and Crestor are good drugs for their purpose, and indeed are perfectly suited to some cases of high cholesterols that are refractory to diet and exercise, or in cases where a serious family history of early heart attacks prevails. But take a look at their side effects before taking the plunge, and even then, make sure your doctor monitors your liver for its vital functions. (Probably for a lifetime). For more info, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crestor
2. "Cholesterol-Free" Foods: Usually, this means "full of white sugar" foods. All disease is based on cellular inflamation, and white sugar and white flour are the worst kinds of starches to cause inflamation throughout the body. When this inflamation involves the lining of the arteries, then the body tries to help by laying down a protective coating, same as the oyster does to create a pearl around an irritating grain of sand. Problem is in humans: we lay down cholesterol over the raw artery walls, not pearls. So beware the lure of "cholesterol free ice-creams, pastries, and fast foods. They can be a disaster.
When I see my patients for a review of their blood-work as part of their physical exam, I like to start with a simple protocol whenever we find abnormal levels of cholesterol.
1. Work on the visible fat, if any. Moderate overall fuel intake to match your calories burned. For this, the best measurement is actually the tape: follow your waist and hip measurements every week to see if you are truly slimming down properly. No point in losing a few pounds if all that happens is your rings and watches fall off, but your belt stays the same.
2. Fish: Omega 3 fatty acids are commonly found in Salmon, your new best friend at the table. (Note to beauty fans: Sophia Loren credits her daily few bites of salmon for keeping her skin young, in spite of no surgery!). If you are allergic to fish, or on days when you are not eating any, try capsules of fish oil from the vitamin shelves.
3. Flax: a natural plant, flax seeds are found pulverized as a powder, or made into tasty oil.
I often put the flax powder on oatmeal (another good cholesterol-fighting food) and top with a drizzle of flax oil. Also a good combo on natural applesauce, instead of a richer dessert. Again if you don't have access to the oil or the powder, try the capsules, readily available at most drug stores and grocery stores.
4. Shop the periphery, not the center; fresh produce is always found around the edges of a grocery store. The center is usually where the junk foods are kept. The profits are also generated mainly from the center, because junk food doesn't have much of a stale date...who ever heard of Twinkies and Oreos going stale?
5. Learn to cook, even a little bit. First of all, you will save money. Secondly, you will feel involved with your health, and certainly more in control. Don't be shy about watching chefs on the internet, or asking your grocer or butcher how to prepare their foods. Often a simple treatment with a healthy oil in a frying pan, or a bit of water in the steamer will create an amazing meal that is far healthier than processed or fast foods.
6. Retest: cholesterol levels should improve after four months of the above. If not, a full consideration should then be given to medications.
So don't rush to the pills, before trying the above. You may be surprised you can control a lot more of your health than you think.