Heart scan book

There are only two books on heart scans available.

One, of course, is Track Your Plaque.

The other is the basic book on heart scans, What Does My Heart Scan Show?

Lost in the navigation column to the left on this blog is the link to get the electronic version of the book. In case you didn't know, we make this available for free.

If you're interested, just go here. This book can provide many basic answers to the questions that often arise regarding heart scans, such as the expected rate of increase in score, how your score compares to other people, when should a stress test be considered. Many heart scan centers use this book for educational purposes to help patients understand the importance of their heart scan scores.

(The sign-up for the book requires that an e-mail address be entered.)

The hard copy of What Does My Heart Scan Show? is available from Amazon, also, for $12.99.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

In the last Heart Scan Blog post, I discussed the question of whether statin drugs provide incremental benefit when excellent lipid values are already achieved without drugs.

But I admit that I was guilty of oversimplification.

One peculiar phenomenon is that, when plaque-causing small LDL particles are reduced or eliminated and leave relatively benign large LDL particles in their place, conventional calculated LDL overestimates true LDL.

In other words, eliminate wheat from your diet, lose 25 lbs. Small LDL is reduced as a result, leaving large LDL. Now the LDL cholesterol from your doctor's office overestimates the true value.

Anne raised this issue in her comment on the discussion:

I eliminated wheat - and all grains - from my diet nearly three years ago (I eat low carb Paleo). My fish oils give me a total of 1680 mg EPA and DHA per day, and my vitamin D levels since last year have varied between 50 ng/ml and 80 ng/ml. However, my lipid profile is not like either John's or Sam's:

LDL cholesterol 154 mg/dl
HDL cholesterol 93 mg/dl
Triglycerides 36 mg/dl
Total cholesterol 255 mg/dl

My cardiologist and endocrinologist are happy with my profile because they say the ratios are good, no one is asking me to take a statin. My calcium score is 0.

However, if we were to measure LDL, not just calculate it from the miserably inaccurate Friedewald equation, we would likely discover that her true LDL is far lower, certainly <100 mg/dl. (My preferred method is the bull's eye accurate NMR LDL particle number; alternatives include apoprotein B, the main apoprotein on LDL.)

So Anne, don't despair. You are yet another victim of the misleading inaccuracy of standard LDL cholesterol determination, a number that I believe should no longer be used at all, but eliminated. Unfortunately, it would further confuse your poor primary care doctor or cardiologist, who--still believe in the sanctity of LDL cholesterol.

By the way, the so-called "ratios" (i.e., total cholesterol to HDL and the like) are absurd notions of risk. Take weak statistical predictors, manipulate them, and try to squeeze better predictive value out of them. This is no better than suggesting that, since you've installed new brakes on your car, you no longer are at risk for a car accident. It may reduce risk, but there are too many other variables that have nothing to do with your new brakes. Likewise cholesterol ratios.

Aspirin, Lipitor, and a low-fat diet

Despite all the hoopla heart disease receives in the media, I continue to marvel at how many people I meet who still think that aspirin, Lipitor, and a low-fat diet constitute an effective heart attack prevention program.

It doesn't. No more than washing your hands prevents all human infections. It helps, but it is a sad substitute for a real prevention program.

Of course, aspirin, Lipitor, and a low-fat diet is the same recipe followed by the unfortunate Tim Russert and his doctors. You know how that turned out. Mr. Russert's experience is far from unique.

What is so magical about aspirin, Lipitor and a low-fat diet?

There is a simple rationale behind this approach. Aspirin doesn't reduce atherosclerotic plaque growth, but it inhibits the propagation of a blood clot on top of a coronary plaque that has "ruptured," thereby reducing likelihood of heart attack (which occurs when the clot fills the artery). So aspirin only provides benefit if and when a plaque ruptures.

Lipitor and other statin drugs reduce LDL cholesterol, promote a modest relaxation of constricted plaque-filled arteries (normalization of endothelial dysfunction), and exerts other effects, such as inflammation suppression.

A low-fat diet is intended to reduce saturated fat that triggers LDL cholesterol formation and to encourage intake of whole grains that reduce cardiovascular events and LDL cholesterol.

If that is the extent of your heart disease prevention program, you will have a heart attack, bypass surgery, or stent--period. It may not be tomorrow or next Friday, or even next month. Aspirin, Lipitor, and a low-fat diet may delay your heart attack or procedure for a few years, but it will not stop it.

Some flaws in the aspirin, Lipitor, low-fat program:

--Aspirin can only exert so much blood clot-blocking effect. It can be overwhelmed by many other factors, such as increased blood viscosity, increased fibrinogen (a blood clotting protein that also triggers plaque), and plaque inflammation.
--Lipitor reduces LDL, but does not discriminate between the relatively harmless large LDL and the truly plaque-triggering small LDL--it reduces all LDL, but small LDL can still persist, even at extravagant levels since neither aspirin nor Lipitor specifically reduces small LDL, while a low-fat diet increases small LDL.
--Low-fat diet--A diet reduced in fat and loaded with plenty of "healthy whole grains" will trigger increased small LDL (an enormous effect), c-reactive protein, high blood sugar, resistance to insulin, high blood pressure, and an expanding abdomen ("wheat belly").

Aspirin, Lipitor and a low-fat diet do not address:

--Vitamin D deficiency
--Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency and the eicosanoid path to inflammation
--High triglycerides
--Small LDL particles
--Distortions of HDL "architecture"
--Lipoprotein(a)--the worst coronary risk factor nobody's heard of
--Thyroid status

In other words, the simple-minded, though hugely financially successful, conventional model of heart disease prevention is woefully inadequate.

Don't fall for it.

Statin drugs for everybody?

Who is better off?

John takes Crestor, 40 mg per day:

LDL cholesterol 60 mg/dl
HDL cholesterol 60 mg/dl
Triglycerides 60 mg/dl
Total cholesterol 132 mg/dl

Or Sam:

LDL cholesterol 60 mg/dl
HDL cholesterol 60 mg/dl
Triglycerides 60 mg/dl
Total cholesterol 132 mg/dl

who obtained these values through vitamin D normalization (to increase HDL); wheat elimination (to reduce triglycerides and LDL); and omega-3 fatty acids (to reduce triglycerides).

Believe the drug industry (motto: If some statin is good, more statin is better!), then John is clearly better off: He has obtained all the "benefits" of statin drugs. They refer to the "pleiotropic" effects of statin drugs, the presumed benefits that extend outside of cholesterol reduction. The most recent example are the JUPITER data that demonstrated 55% reduction in cardiovascular events in people with increased c-reactive protein (CRP). Media reports now unashamedly gush at the benefits of Crestor to reduce inflammation.

However, on Sam's program, elimination of wheat and vitamin D both exert anti-inflammatory effects on CRP, typically yielding drops of 70-90%--consistently, rapidly, and durably.

So which approach is really better?

In my experience, there is no comparison: Sam is far better off. While John will reduce his cardiovascular risk with a statin drug, he fails to obtain all the other benefits of Sam's broader, more natural program. John will not enjoy the same cancer protection, osteoporosis and arthritis protection, relief from depression and winter "blues," and increased mental and physical performance that Sam will.

If our goal is dramatic correction of cholesterol patterns and reduction of cardiovascular risk, for many, many people statin drugs are simply not necessary.

No BS weight loss

If there's something out there on the market for weight loss, we've tried it. By we, I mean myself along with many people and patients around me willing to try various new strategies.

Maybe you say: "Well that's not a clinical trial. How can we know that there aren't small effects?"

Who cares about small effects? If a weight loss strategy causes you to lose 1.2 lbs over 3 months--who cares? Sure, it may count towards a slight measure of health in a 230 lb 5 ft 3 inch woman. But it is insufficient to engage that person's interest and keep them on track. That little result, in fact, will discourage interest in weight loss and cause someone to return to previous behaviors.

What I'm talking about is BIG weight loss--20 lbs the first month, 40 lbs over 4 months, 50-60 lbs over 6 months.

Right now, there are only three things that I know of that yield such enormous effects:

1) Elimination of wheat, cornstarch, and sugars

2) Thyroid normalization (I don't mean following what the laboratory says is "normal")

3) Intermittent fasting

Combine all three in various ways and the results are accelerated even more.

Self-directed health is ALREADY here

It can't happen.

People are too stupid/ignorant/lazy or simply don't care.

It is irresponsible. People will misuse, abuse, misdiagnose, fail to recognize all manner of medical conditions.

It's all true. Most of the medical establishment believes it. And it is self-fulfulling: If you believe it, it will happen.

But it's not true for everybody. If readers of this blog, for instance, were to view the conversations we have in our Track Your Plaque Forum, you would immediately recognize that we have a following that is more sophisticated and knowledgeable about coronary heart disease than 90% of cardiologists. That is really something. Perhaps they can't put in a stent or defibrillator, but they understand an enormous amount about this disease we are all trying to control and reverse, sufficient to seize control over much of their own healthcare for this process and related conditons.

Anyway, self-directed health is already here. And it's happening on an incredible scale.


--Nutritional supplements--Now a $21 billion (annual revenues) phenomenon, booming sales of nutritional supplements are a powerful testimonial to the enthuasiasm of the public for self-directed health treatments. Sure, there are plenty of junk supplements out there, but there are also many spectacularly effective products. Information, not marketing, will help tell the difference. Over the long-run, the truth will win out.

The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act has allowed the definition of “nutritional supplement” to be stretched to the limit. "Nutritional supplements" includes obviously non-nutritional (though still potentially interesting) products like the hormones pregnenolone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and melatonin to be sold on the same shelf as vitamin C. There are also amino acids, polysaccharides, minerals and trace minerals, herbal preparations, flavonoids, carotenoids, antioxidants, phytonutrients.

In fact, I believe that the nutritional supplement pipeline is likely to yield far more exciting and effective products than the drug research pipeline! And you will have access to all of it--without your doctor's involvement.

--Self-ordered laboratory testing--In every state except New York and California, an individual can obtain his or her own laboratory testing. New services are appearing to service this consumer segment. As more people become frustrated with the silly gatekeeping function of their primary care physician and as more people gain more control over some of their healthcare dollars through medical savings accounts, flex-spending, and high-deductible health insurance, more are shopping for cost-saving, self-ordered lab testing. Even at-home lab tests are becoming available, such as ZRT Lab tests we make available through Track Your Plaque.

(In California, a doctor's order, or an order from a health professional allowed to prescribe, is still required which, for most people, is just a formality. Just ask your doctor to sign the form with the tests you'd like. Only the most cretinous of physicians will refuse, in which case you should say goodbye. New York is the only state in the U.S. that still dunks women to see if they float, divines the entrails of sacrificial cows, and prohibits lab self-testing.)

--Self-ordered medical imaging--Heart scans, full body scans; ultrasound screening for abdominal aneurysms, carotid disease, osteoporosis such as that offered by LifeLine Screening (who does a great job). There's plenty of room here for entrepreneurial types to develop new services, though there will also be battles to fight with hospitals, radiologists, and others invested in the status quo. But it is happening and it will grow.

(By the way, since I've previously been accused of making bundles of money from medical imaging: I have never--NEVER--owned and do not currently own any medical imaging facility.)

So the question is not "will it happen?" It is already happening. The question is how fast will it grow to include a larger segment of the public? How much more of conventional healthcare can it include? How can we develop better unbiased information sources, untainted by marketing, that guide people through the maze of choices?

Fire your stockbroker, fire your doctor

Is it yet time to fire your doctor?

I advocate a model of self-directed health, a style of healthcare in which individuals have the right to direct his or her own healthcare with only the occasional assistance of a physician or healthcare provider.

Healthcare would not be the first industry that converted to such a self-directed model. Remember travel agents? Only 15 years ago, making travel plans meant calling your travel agent to book your arrangements. This was a flawed system, because they worked on commission, thereby impairing incentive to search for the best prices. You were, in effect, at their mercy.

The investment industry is another such example, though on a larger scale.

Up until the 1980s, individual investment was managed by a stockbroker or other money manager. Stockbrokers, analysts, and investment houses commanded the flow of investment in stocks, options, futures, commodities, etc. Individuals lacked access to the methods and knowledge that allowed them to manage their own portfolios. Individuals had no choice but to engage the services of a professional investor. This was also a flawed system. Like travel agents, stockbrokers worked on commission. We've all heard horror stories in which stockbrokers churned accounts, making thousands of dollars in commissions while their clients' portfolios shrunk.

That has all changed.

Today, the process has largely converted to discount brokers and online services used by individuals trading and managing their own portfolios. Stockbrokers and investment houses continue, of course, but are competing for a shrinking piece of the individual investment market. Independent investors now have access to investment tools that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. Companies like E-Trade and Ameritrade now command annual revenues of approximately $2 billion each.

Travel agents, stockbrokers . . . is healthcare next? Can we convert from the paternalistic, “I’m-the-doctor, you’re the patient” relationship to what in which you self-direct your own healthcare and turn to the healthcare system only in unique situations?

I believe that the same revolution that shook the investment industry in the 1980s will seize healthcare in the future. In fact, the transition to self-directed health will dwarf its investing counterpart. It will ripple more broadly through the fabric of American life. Health is a more complicated “product,” with more complex modes of delivery, and more varied levels of need than the investment industry.

I predict that the emergence of health directed by the individual, just as the emergence of self-directed investment, will dominate in the coming years.

While I hope you've already fired your stockbroker, and I doubt that anyone on the internet still uses a travel agent, I wouldn't yet fire your doctor altogether. But I believe that we are approaching a time in which you should begin to take control over your own health and begin to reduce reliance on doctors, drugs, and hospitals.

Blast small LDL to oblivion

Here's a graphic demonstration of the power of wheat elimination to reduce small LDL particles, now the number one cause for heart disease in the U.S.

Lee had suffered a stroke due to an atherosclerotic plaque in a brain artery. She also had plenty of coronary plaque with a heart scan score of 322.

Lee began with an LDL particle number (the "gold standard" for measuring LDL, far superior to conventional calculated LDL) of 2234 nmol/L. This is exceptionally high, the equivalent of an LDL cholesterol of 223 mg/dl (drop the last digit). Of this 2234 nmol/L, 90% were abnormally small, with 1998 nmol/L of small LDL particles.

Lee eliminated wheat products from her diet, as well as cutting out sugars and cornstarch. Six months later, her results:

LDL particle number: 1082 nmol/L--a 52% reduction from the starting value and equivalent to an LDL of 108 mg/dl. Small LDL: zero--yes, zero.

In other words, 100% of Lee's LDL particles had shifted to the more benign large LDL simply with elimination of these foods---NO statin drug. (In addition to wheat elimination, she was also taking vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids at our recommended doses.)

While not everybody responds quite so vigorously due to genetic variation, nor does everyone try as hard as Lee did to eliminate the foods that trigger small LDL, her case provides a great illustration of the power of this strategy.

Buy local, get a goiter

The notion of buying food locally--"buy local"--i.e., food produced in your area, state, or region, is catching on.

And for good reason: Not only do you support your local economy, buying locally saves energy, since food doesn't have to be transported from South America or other faraway locations.

But what about those of us in the Midwest, particularly around the Great Lakes basin, i.e., the region previously known as the "goiter belt"? In the early 20th century, up to a third of the residents of this region had enlarged thyroid glands, or goiters, due to iodine deficiency. Lack of iodine causes the thyroid to enlarge, or "hypertrophy," in an effort to more efficiently extract any available iodine in the blood.

Well, there's been a resurgence of iodine deficiency nationwide with 11.3% of the population severely deficient, representing a four-fold increase since the 1970s.

Why an iodine deficiency? Because more people are avoiding iodized salt, the principal source of iodine for Americans since the FDA introduced its voluntary program for iodization of table salt back in 1924. Approximately 90% of the patients I ask now declare that they use very little iodized table salt. While a few take multimineral or multivitamin supplements that contain iodine, the majority do not. The globalization of the food supply--eat global--however, has softened the blow, since we eat tomatoes from Mexico, blueberries from Argentina, lettuce from the Salinas Valley of California.

Now, we have the growing trend to eat local. In the Midwest, it means that the vegetables, fruits, and meats grown locally will also be iodine depleted, since the soil is also iodine-poor, being so far from the sea.

Ironically, two healthy trends--avoiding salt and eating local--will be accounting for a surge in unsightly neck bulges in the Midwest, as well as an increase in thyroid disease.

The lesson: Avoid salt, eat local, but mind your iodine.

Self-directed thyroid management

Is there an at-home test you can do to gauge thyroid status?

Yes. Measure your temperature.

Unlike a snake or alligator that relies on the sun or its surroundings to regulate body temperature, you and I can internally regulate temperature. The hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid glands are the organs involved in thermoregulation, body temperature regulation. While the system can break down anywhere in the sequence, as well as in other organs (e.g., adrenal), the thyroid is the weak link in the chain.

Thus, temperature assessment can serve as a useful gauge of thyroid adequacy. Unfortunately, temperature measurement as a reflection of thyroid function has not been well explored in clinical studies. It has also been subject to a good deal of unscientific discussions.

How should temperature be measured? The temperature you really desire is between 3 am and 6 am, while still asleep. However, this is difficult to do, since it would require your bed partner to surreptitiously insert a thermometer into some body orifice without disturbing you. A practical solution is to measure temperature first upon arising in the morning, before drinking water, coffee, making the bed, etc.--immediately.

While traditionalists (followers of Dr. Broda Barnes, who first suggested that temperature reflects thyroid function) still advocate axillary (armpit) temperatures, in 2009 it is clear that axillary temperatures are unreliable. Axillary temperatures are inconsistent, vary substantially with the clothing you wear, vary from right to left armpit, ambient temperature, sweat or lack of sweat, and other factors. It also can commonly be 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit below internal ("core") temperature and does not track with internal temperatures through the circadian rhythms of the day (high temperature early evening, lowest temperature 3-6 am).

Rectal, urine, esophageal, tympanic membrane (ear), and forehead are other means to measure body temperature, but are either inconvenient (rectal) or require correction factors to track internal temperature (e.g., forehead and ear). For these reasons, we use oral temperatures. Oral temperatures (on either side of the underside of the tongue) are convenient, track reasonably well with internal temperatures, and are familiar to most people.

Though there are scant data on the distribution of oral temperatures correlated to thyroid function, we find that the often-suggested cutoff of 97.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 36.4 C, seems to track well with symptoms and thyroid laboratory evaluation (TSH, free T3, and free T4). In other words, oral temp <97.6 F correlates well with symptoms of fatigue, cold hands and feet, mental fogginess, along with high LDL cholesterol, all corrected or improved with thyroid replacement and return of temperature to 97.6 F.

But be careful: There are many factors that can influence oral temperature, including clothing, season, level of fitness, "morningness" (morning people) vs. "nightness" (night owls), relation to menstrual cycle, concurrent medical conditions.

Also, be sure that your thermometer can detect low temperatures. Just because it shows low temperatures of, say 94.0 degrees F, doesn't mean that it can really measure that low. If in doubt, dip your thermometer in cold water for one minute. If an improbable temperature is registered, say, 97.0 F, then you know that your device is incapable of detecting low temps.

A full in-depth Special Report on thermoregulation will be coming soon on the Track Your Plaque website.
Heart scan curiosities #5

Heart scan curiosities #5

Despite the controversy over drug-coated stents, I maintain that the best stent is no stent at all.

Yes, there are indeed times when such things are necessary, but not with the frequency that they are implanted nowadays.

Another reason why stents are an undesirable phenemenon is that they muck up your heart scan. Take a look:

The long white object in the center is a stent in the left anterior descending artery of this 60 year old man. Just beyond the stent (at about 1 o'clock from the stent) is a plaque that could be scored. However, you can see that, with the presence of the stent, the bulk of this artery is no longer "scorable". If this man wishes to "track his plaque", he will have to be content with tracking only the circumflex and right coronary arteries, the other two arteries without stents.

The stainless steel or similar metallic materials of current stents simply prevent us from seeing through them for plaque scoring purposes. It's best if you can simply avoid getting one for this and other reasons.

Track Your Plaque Members: Watch for the upcoming editorial by our Heart Hawk on drug-eluting stents.

Comments (1) -

  • Jeff

    1/9/2007 10:56:00 AM |

    New 64 slice CT scan makes invasive angiogram obsolete. Check out today's post at http://wordworks2001.blogspot.com