Vitamin D for winter blues?

Winter is now over and spring is in the air, even in Wisconsin.

In this part of the country, winter blues are commonplace. Sometimes called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) when it's severe enough to cause functional impairment, feelings of fatigue, lack of motivation, or the blues are very frequent when days are short and sunlight is in short supply.

I've been seeing many people in the last several weeks who were advised to add vitamin D to their program last fall. Christopher's experience was typical.

"You know, since you told me to take vitamin D, I didn't get sad and tired like I do every winter. This is the first time I can remember that happening. I didn't sleep as much and I didn't get that feeling of always being overwhelmed."

I've felt it myself this past winter. I think there's some real truth to this effect.

Dr. Bruce Hollis has published a small experience in treating people with SAD with vitamin D and showed measurable improvement in depression. (One recent study in older women failed to show any effect, however, when small doses of vitamin D of 800 units were administered. In my experience, this dose doesn't even come close to normalizing blood vitamin D levels.)

The best source for in-depth information on vitamin D is Dr. John Cannell's website, If you've read Dr. Cannell's discussion on the Track Your Plaque website, you know that he is an articulate spokesman for the benefits of vitamin D replacement. He also persuasively argues that vitamin D deficiency is rampant in northern climates and in people who don't get frequent sun exposure. Interestingly, we now have two studies of populations in Florida and one in Hawaii, both of which showed substantial percentages of people even in these tropical climates to be deficient in vitamin D (around 50% in Hawaii and 30% in Florida).

The dose we've used with much success is 2000 units per day in females, 3000 units per day in males. This yields normal blood levels of around 50 ng/dl in around 80-90% of people. Occasional people will require more, some less. The best way to do it is to check a baseline blood level and a level on therapy to determine the adequacy of your dose.

Dr. Cannell will tell you that it's very important to have your doctor check the right test: 25-OH-vitamin D3, not 1,25-diOH-vitamin D3. These are two very different tests of two different compounds.

In the Track Your Plaque program, we use vitamin D to reduce pre-diabetic tendencies, reduce blood pressure (vitamin D is an inhibitor of the pressure-raising hormone renin), shut down inflammation, and gain better control over coronary plaque (mechanism uncertain). In the process, you will sharply reduce risk of osteoporosis, colon and prostate cancer.

And maybe you'll be brighter when the winter blues come around again.

$4 per gallon gas is good for your health!

Gasoline is now approaching $4 per gallon in some parts of the U.S. But there's a silver lining in this dark cloud. In fact, I see this as a positive for your health.

How can higher gas prices possbily be good for health?

Imagine this trend continues: Fuel prices climb higher and higher. Driving your car will become increasingly more costly. What will be the fall-out?

Well, there will be a number of implications. But among the developments will be a broad impetus towards rejecting fuel-based sources of transportation. This may come as a shock to you, but humans legs were meant for walking!

Remember way back when, Mom would say "We need some milk"? In 1953, you wouldn't get in your car and zip to and from the supermarket. Instead, you would walk a quarter-mile, half-mile or more to the store. And you would carry your bags back. You might walk a mile or two to school and back. In 2006, this seems incomprehensible.

Higher fuel prices will prompt a gradual return to 1953--As transportation costs climb, your town may try and make it easier to walk as an alternative means of getting places.
Imagine that it was easy to walk three blocks to the grocery store, produce stand, work or school, walk along pleasant paths on the weekend, stroll to the home of friends. Drive or walk? Leave the car in the garage and save you and your family hundreds of dollars a month in gas bills.

In a few years, given the current fuel cost trends, there won't be a choice. But it will be in your favor for health.

Another Ornish casualty

Barry's lipoproteins were nearly all corrected to perfection: LDL 64 mg, HDL 57 mg, triglycerides 45 mg. He was approaching the Track Your Plaque goal of 60/60/60, the levels we find tip the scales heavily in your favor for achieving plaque reversal.

But one problem still prominently persisted: small LDL. Of Barry's 64 mg of total LSL, 90% of his LDL were small.

Barry was already on niacin (Slo-Niacin; Upsher Smith)1000 mg per day and fish oil, 4000 mg per day, both of which contribute to correction of this pattern. He had added occasional raw almonds and oat bran to his daily habits, both of which also help suppress small LDL. "I thought you told me that small LDL should go away if I did all this!" he lamented in frustration.

We probed Barry's diet choices more closely. "I eat really healthy foods, just like an Ornish program." Uh oh.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"For breakfast, I have two slices of whole wheat toast--no butter or margarine, of course! I'll have Shredded Wheat with skim milk. That's it. My typical lunch is low-fat turkey--no mayonnaise!--on whole wheat. I'll add some low-fat whole wheat crackers or pretzels. That's pretty much my habit."

"How about dinner?"

"Dinner varies a lot. I'll usually have a low-fat meat like chicken or turkey, never beef, a vegetable, and a potato. I love rolls but I try to make them whole wheat. I don't use gravy. I love ice cream, so I've been having low-fat frozen yogurt instead. I guess that's about it."

Barry had indeed been counseled on how we approach nutrition. We, of course, do not endorse the low-fat approach of the Ornish program. Low saturated and hydrogenated fat, yes, but not the super-strict low-fat, "all fat is bad" approach of Dr. Dean Ornish.

Barry's diet is typical of someone on a low-fat restriction. When I asked him why he was eating this way, he admitted that he'd seen Dr. Ornish on a TV program in which he persuasively proclaimed that he reversed heart disease in his patients over the past nearly 20 years using this low-fat approach.

That explained it. Barry's nearly pure carbohydrate diet was triggering high blood sugar responses after meals, causing his insulin to skyrocket and magnifying the small LDL pattern.

I advised Barry to dramatically reduce his carbohydates like breads, pretzels, low-fat yogurt, crackers, etc. Instead, he could increase his lean proteins like eggs, egg whites, Egg Beaters, raw nuts and seeds, low-fat (yes, low-fat!) dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese (both high protein), and healthy oils.

I've seen this happen with many people over the years: A severe low-fat restriction becomes a high-carbohydate diet. It's not uncommon for many people to have more than 70% of calories from carbohydrates on these programs.

The low-fat approach worked in the era of high-fat diets in the 1980s. In 2006, where convenience foods made with carbohydrates, especially wheat, predominate and pack 80% of supermarket shelves, low-fat is now a distorted nutritional mistake that leads to problems like Barry's uncontrolled small LDL, and often pre-diabetic or overt diabetes.

Should you take Plavix?

A question I get fairly frequently nowadays is, "Should I take Plavix?"

For the few of you who've managed to miss the mass advertising campaign for this drug on TV, USA Today, etc., Plavix is a platelet-blocking drug, known chemically as clopidogrel, that "thins" the blood and helps prevent blood clot formation in coronary arteries and carotid arteries, thus potentially reducing heart attack and stroke risk.

What if you have a heart scan score of, say, 450--should you take Plavix?

In general, no. First of all, aspirin and Plavix (generally taken together, since the effect of Plavix is incremental to that of aspirin) only block blood clot formation. They have no effect whatsoever on the rate of plaque growth. Aspirin and Plavix will neither slow it or increase it.

What they do is when a plaque ruptures like a little volcano and exposes its internal contents (inflammatory cells, fat, etc.--like a raw wound), a blood clot forms on top of the ruptured surface. If the clot is big enough, it can occlude the vessel and causes heart attack. Or, if it's a carotid artery, debris from the clot can break off and find its way headward to the artery controlling your speech or memory center. Aspirin and Plavix simply help inhibit clot formation once a plaque ruptures. That's it.

Interestingly, if you view any of Sanofi Aventis' commercials for Plavix, you'd think they came up with a cure for heart disease. It ain't true.

When is Plavix helpful? It's clearly an advantage after someone receives a coronary stent, drug-coated or uncoated;, after coronary bypass, particularly if certain metal punch devices are used to create the grafts in the aorta; and during and after heart attack. These are all situations in which blood clot formation is a forceful process. Blocking it helps.

In general, in asymptomatic people with positive heart scan scores at any level, we do not recommend taking Plavix. The Plavix people are extremely aggressive pushing their drug (hang around any medical office and see!) and, I believe, have gone overboard in promoting its benefits. Rarely, in someone with a very high heart scan score, say 2000 or more, we'll use Plavix for a period of a few months until lipids/lipoproteins and other risk measures are addressed, just as an added safety measure. But, in general, the great majority of people with some heart scan score or another do not receive it and I don't believe that they should.

As always, look beyond the marketing. The purpose of marketing is to increase profits, not to educate.

Dr. Ornish goofed

"I don't think I need the Track Your Plaque program. I've been doing the Ornish program, so I think that my plaque has already regressed."

So proclaimed Bruce, a recent patient I saw in consultation. Having suffered a heart attack three years earlier, he was thoroughly convinced that he was now cured following the Ornish program.

Indeed, back in the 1980s, many of us existed on greasy, high-fat diets of cheeseburgers, French fries, fried chicken, plenty of butter or margarine, mayonnaise, and the like.

Along came Dr. Dean Ornish, who wrote a book called "Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease Without Drugs or Surgery". This book struck a chord during this era and has been a hot-seller ever since it was published.

Does it work? In my experience, no, it does not.

Dr. Ornish claimed that sharply curtailing fat intake reverses heart disease. Closer to the truth is that, in people who start with high fat intakes, a low-fat restriction is indeed an improvement. This will lead to a modest improvement in blood flow in the coronary arteries due to a phenomenon called "endothelial dysfunction." This means that arteries will dilate modestly when specific changes are made. Thus, you will see minimal improvements in the measures he used (stress testing with nuclear imaging.)

What it does not mean is that plaque has regressed, certainly not "reversed".

In fact, our experience (over 10 years ago, when we first used the Ornish approach) was that the majaority of people did worse on this low-fat program: HDL dropped, triglycerides increased, blood sugar increased, inflammatory measures like C-reactive protein increased. Some people even magnified diabetic or pre-diabetic patterns.

It's almost certain that Bruce has not reversed his coronary plaque. In fact, I would bet that his plaque has grown substantially. Bruce started three years earlier from a diet high in unhealthy fats. If the expected rate of coronary plaque growth is 30% per year, perhaps he slowed it--to 20% or so. Since he didn't have a heart scan score at the time of his heart attack, we'll never know if he truly did reduce the quantity of coronary plaque he had.

But when I met him on his Ornish program, Bruce showed disturbing patterns that included an HDL cholesterol of 38 mg, 70% of all LDL particles were small, triglycerides measured 209 mg, and C-reactive protein was high at 2.8 mg/l. In other words, Bruce's plaque causes were far from corrected. Perhaps they were worse.

The Ornish program, despite it's ambitious claims, has outlived its usefulness. In 2006, it is an antiquated relic of a time past when lifestyle habits and technology were different.

Warning: This product may contain wheat!

Jerry experienced a peculiar sensation in his chest one evening while watching TV with his wife and kids. He squirmed in his chair and experienced a little breathelessness. But he kept it to himself and didn't say anything to his wife.

Fortunately, the feeling passed. But it concerned Jerry enough that he called a local heart scan center and scheduled a CT heart scan.* Minutes later, Jerry had a heart scan score of 112. At 46 years old, this placed him in the 90th percentile compared to other men in his age group.

Jerry came to my office for consultation. Among the first steps we took was to perform lipoprotein testing. Jerry showed striking abnormalities that included an HDL cholesterol of 38 mg, triglycerides of 210 mg, an unimpressive LDL of 133 mg but comprised of 99% small LDL, and excessive IDL (meaning that he was unable to clear dietary fats after eating).

At 5 feet 10 inches, Jerry weighed 190 lbs. He showed a slight excess bulge at the tummy, but hardly obese.

Jerry's history was remarkable, however, for the amount of carbohydrates he ate. "I'm addicted to bread. I love it! If I smell a loaf of fresh baked bread, I sometimes eat the whole loaf!"

Jerry also admitted to over-indulging in bagels (whole wheat), pretzels, low-fat snack chips, Raisin Bran cereal, Cheerios, and noodles. In fact, many days he'd have 5 or 6 servings of any of these foods. He also complained of an extraordinary amount of bowel gas and cramping. "Sometimes, I'm afraid to go to a group function. I might embarass myself."

I suggested an experiment: For a 4 week period, completely eliminate wheat-containing products--breads, pretzels, breakfast cereals, pasta, etc. In their place, increase intake of protein foods like eggs, raw almonds and walnuts, low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, chicken, fish, and use healthy oils (olive, canola, grapeseed, flaxseed) more liberally.

Just four weeks later, Jerry came to the office a new man: 8 lbs lighter, brighter, with bursts of energy he hadn't had in years. And no gas!

Lesson: Wheat-based carbohydrates can be the culprit behind many lipoprotein patterns, especially low HDL, high triglycerides, small LDL, and others. Wheat can also be responsible for a myriad of abdominal symptoms, even joint pains and rashes. In its most extreme form, it's called "celiac disease". But experiences like Jerry's are quite common--not as obvious and dramatic as full-blown celliac disease, but smouldering and destructive, nonetheless.

Track Your Plaque expert, Dr. Loren Cordain of Colorado State University, tells us that, in his reconstruction of the history of human illness, there was an extraodinary surge in disease just about the time when humans began cultivating wheat around 8000 B.C. (Track Your Plaque members: Read Dr. Cordain's fascinating interview at

Do you need to eliminate wheat products entirely from your diet? It's something to think about, particularly if you share any of the difficulties that Jerry had.

*In general, I do not recommend heart scanning as a self-prescribed tool for chest pain or other symptoms. Symptoms should always be discussed with your doctor.

Hospital Administrators' Wish List

I've known enough hospital administrators over the years to understand what most of them want.

Of course, most of them want to deliver high quality care to patients in a safe, efficient setting. They want to comply with national standards of performance, attract quality physicians to use their facilities, and appeal to patients as a desirable place to obtain care.

But one fact is hard for many administrators to ignore: 30% of a hospital's revenues and 50% of their profits come from heart services.

So, if your hospital administrator had a wish list, I believe that among their wishes would be:

--More heart catheterizations, angioplasties, stents, and bypass surgery.
--More pacemaker and defibrillator implantations.
--More heart attacks.
--More heart failure with need for intravenous infusions, defibrillators, and bi-ventricular pacemaker implantations.
--More heart valve surgery.

Highly successful hospitals do more of these procedures than less successful hospitals.

Are you getting the picture? Heart care is a business. It's not very different than Target, Home Depot, or McDonalds--businesses eager to sell more of their product. Yes, there is attention to detail, quality, and competitiveness, but the bottom line is "sell more product, make more profit."

Keep this in mind the next time you catch one of the many TV or newspaper ads, radio spots, physician "interviews", or other media pitches in your town. Does Target run ads for the public good or to generate profitable sales? Does your hospital run ads to broadcast its contribution to public welfare or to generate profitable "sales"? Pretty clear, isn't it?

Poor, neglected vitamin D!

We now routinely check blood levels of vitamin D in all our patients. I am reminded everyday that, if you're a resident of a northern climate (as we are in Wisconsin and similarly in Michigan, Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc.), the overwhelming likelihood is that you are deficient in vitamin D. And not just a little deficient, but severely deficient.

As humans, we're meant to obtain vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. This was how humans evolved. We are all ill-equipped to get vitamin D through nutritional sources. The average (Wisconsin) patient we see has vitamin D blood levels of 17-30 ng/dl. Most authorities would agree that a level of 30 ng or less would constitute severe deficiency. An ideal level is probably around 50 ng, what many (but not all) residents of southern climates like Florida, Texas, and Hawaii have if they get frequent sun exposure.

When vitamin D levels are normal, bone health is maximized (inhibiting osteoporosis); prostate, uterine, breast, and colon health is heightened and cancer risk diminished; pre-diabetic and diabetic patterns are suppressed and blood sugar reduced; blood pressure drops 10 mgHg, on average;and inflammatory measures like C-reactive protein are substantialy reduced. But, of greatest interest to us, coronary plaque is easier to regress.

Although our experience in the last several hundred people is still anecdotal, I believe that I'm seeing a dramatic increase in the amount and rapidity of coronary plaque regression. People we've struggled with are suddenly regressing. People with higher heart scan scores (e.g., >500) are regressing more readily.

We're accumulating our data and it will take a couple more years to develop it in a scientifically-useful format. But, in the meantime, adding vitamin D to your program or having your vitamin D level checked may be among the most important steps you can take to gain control over coronary plaque. Be sure to ask your doctor to get the right blood test: it must be 25-OH-vitamin D3. (The wrong test is the 1,25-OH2-vitamin D3; though they look and sound the same, they measure very different parts of the vitamin D pathway.) Also, Track Your Plaque members: read Dr. John Cannell's tremendous summary of the vitamin D experience on the Track Your Plaque website.

Leave the greatest legacy to your children

Phyllis was dumbfounded when she learned of her heart scan score of 995. At age 56, this placed her solidly in the 99th percentile--a score that grouped her with the worst 1% of scores for women her age. Track Your Plaque followers know that scores of 1000 (just days away, given the expected 30% increase in score per year!) pose a risk of heart attack, symptoms leading to stent or bypass, or death of 25% per year.

But after Phyllis gathered her thoughts and thought it over, her first question was "What about my children?"

A natural response for a mother. Phyllis' "children" actually ranged in age from 26 to 37. We talked about how, given her high score, she'd probably been creating plaque in her coronary arteries for 20 years. This triggered her mother's concern for her kids.

This is probably the #1 most useful lesson for all of us. If we learn of our own risk for heart disease, we can pass our concerns on to our children. Imagine how much more well-equipped you could be if you started out with the advice and experience of a parent who'd identified and then conquered their heart disease risk.

Pass your awareness and knowledge on to your children, particularly if they are 30 years old or more.

Interestingly, my own personal experience with my 14-year old son taught me a lesson or two. I had previously assumed that, at age 14, how could he be even remotely interested in these issues? (I have a terrible family history of heart disease and I have a high heart scan score myself.) When my son asked that we check his lipid values (I talk about this more than I'd like to admit!), we did a fingerstick lipid panel in my office. Lo and behold, his HDL (good) cholesterol was a shocking 31 mg--exceptionally low for a teenager. His risk for heart disease over the long-term is very high.

Much to my surprise, this awareness has triggered a genuine interest in healthy eating. It's not uncommon to see him examine food labels and to report to me that "Hey, Dad. Can you believe that this yogurt has 43 grams of carbohydrates?"

Pass on the lessons you've learned to your children and to the important people in your life. This is probably the most crucial lesson you can take from the Track Your Plaque experience.

Half effort will get you half results

Greg walked into the office.

"Just back from a 10-day Caribbean cruise, Doc. It was fabulous."

"Yes, but I see you're 14 lbs heavier. What happened?"

"Well, you know, a 24-hour a day open brunch. Anything and everything you wanted. But I only had dessert twice."

"Did you exercise?"

"Come on, Doc! It was vacation!"

With this serious indiscretion, Greg gained 14 lbs in 10 days. That's a total surplus of 49,000 calories Greg put in his body over that period. 49,000!

Greg had started the cruise 40 lbs overweight. Now, he's 54 lbs overweight. The pre-diabetic tendency he showed earlier was now full diabetes. All associated lipoproteins blossomed with it--small LDL, a drop in HDL of 5 points, triglycerides skyrocketing to 320.

He blew it.

Can Greg turn back? Yes, he most likely can, given a serious and rapid effort to lose the weight he gained on the cruise and more.

But can he do it? I doubt it.

Someone who allows himself to gain an extraordinary quantity of weight, completely neglects exercise, then blows it off as having some fun will never succeed.

In all honesty, this is someone who shouldn't waste his time in the Track Your Plaque program. He will fail--period. By failure I mean he will experience explosive plaque growth over the next few years and then end up with stent(s), heart attack, bypass surgery. Some people will die. He will also--should he survive--experience the long-term complications of diabetes, such as retinal disease, kidney impairment, loss of sensation to his feet and legs, and on and on. His life will be substantially abbreviated.

To me, there's no choice. But Greg and many people like him are fooling themselves if they believe that a half-hearted effort will allow them to succeed in controlling or reversing heart disease. Maybe we'll come up with some magic supplement or prescription medication that will erase his heart disease in a few days.

Don't count on it. I'll make no bones about it. Controlling and reversing heart disease requires a commitment--a full commitment to eat and live healthy, to follow the advice we give, and not engage in serious indiscretions that erode your efforts. If you believe that taking 40 mg of Lipitor is all you're going to need to regress heart disease, plan on your first stent or heart attack within a few years. And you'll hobble to the doctor's office in the meantime.