The Nation's Health + life

Thirteen catheterizations later

When I first met her, Janet couldn't stop sobbing. She'd just been through her 10th heart catheterization in two years.

It started with chest pains at age 56, prompting her first heart catheterization that uncovered severe atherosclerotic blockages in all three coronary arteries. Her cardiologist advised a bypass operation.

Six months after the bypass operation, Janet was back with more chest pains, just as bad as before. Another heart catherization showed that two of the three bypass grafts had failed. The third bypass graft contained a severe blockage that required a stent, along with multiple stents in the two now unbypassed arteries.

In the ensuing 18 months, Janet returned for 8 additional catheterizations, each time leaving the hospital with one or more stents.

Janet's doctor was puzzled as to why her disease was progressing so aggressively despite Lipitor and the low-fat diet provided by the hospital dietitian. So he had Janet undergo lipoprotein testing (NMR):

LDL particle number: 3363 nmol/L
Small LDL particle number: 2865 nmol/L
HDL cholesterol: 32 mg/dl
Triglycerides: 344 mg/dl
Fasting blood glucose 118 mg/dl
HbA1c 5.8%

Unfortunately, Janet's doctor didn't understand what these values meant. He pretty much threw his arms up in frustration. That's when I met Janet.

From her lipoprotein panel and other values, it was clear to me that Janet was miserably carbohydrate-sensitive and carbohydrate-indulgent, as demonstrated by the extravagant quantity (2865 nmol/L) and proportion (2865/3363, or 85%) of small LDL, the form of LDL particles created by carbohydrate exposure. Janet struggled with depression over the years and had been using carbohydrate foods as "comfort" foods, often resorting to cookies, pies, cakes, breads, and other wheat-containing foods for emotional solace.

It took a bit of persuasion to convince Janet that it was low-fat, "healthy whole grains," as well as comfort foods, that had led her down this path. I also helped Janet correct her severe vitamin D deficiency, mild thyroid dysfunction, and lack of omega-3 fatty acids.

Since meeting Janet and instituting her new prevention program, she has undergone three additional catheterizations (performed by another cardiologist), all performed for chest pain symptoms that struck during periods of emotional stress. All showed . . . no significant blockage. (Apparently, the repeated "need" for stents triggered a Pavlovian response: chest pain = "need" for yet more stents.)

In short, correction of the causes of coronary atherosclerotic plaque--small LDL, vitamin D deficiency, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency, and thyroid dysfunction--and Janet's disease essentially ground to a halt.

Imagine, instead, that Janet had undergone 1) a heart scan to identify hidden coronary plaque 5-10 years before her first heart procedure, then 2) corrected the causes before they triggered symptoms and posed danger. She might have been spared an extraordinary amount of life crises, hospital procedures, expense (nearly $1 million), and emotional suffering.

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