High Cholesterol and Heart Disease
Heart attack, high blood pressure and the threat of stroke or sudden death are a huge fear for many Americans. After decades of being told that eating salt and saturated fat is the cause of heart disease, it still holds the title as the number one cause of death in the USA. Furthermore, cholesterol-lowering drugs have done little to change this situation or to mitigate our fear. Since the ideas and efforts of modern science have done so little to help in this area it is of extreme value to look to other medical traditions for guidance. Chinese medicine has a deep understanding of the natural function of our human being-ness and can describe the reasons for health disruptions.
To begin, I find that most patients do not understand what cholesterol is, they simply believe that it is bad, or that there are bad and good varieties of it, and that we ingest it with saturated fat. So let me give you a broader picture of cholesterol.
Around 90% of cholesterol in circulation in our blood is produced by our liver. Cholesterol is called “the building block of life” in some western medical literature. This is recognition of its great importance. It is the raw material required for the body to create every single cell membrane and every hormone. Healthy cells in all tissues require cholesterol. Hormones are the second global signaling system in the body operating in tandem with the nervous system to regulate all functions. They are really important!
It is a dubious assumption then that cholesterol, a vital substance produced by the body, is either a mistake or the cause of heart disease. Since it is present in arterial blockages and heart disease, why is it there? This is where another system for understanding how the body works, Chinese medicine in this case, can provide the answers.
In the case of heart problems, heart attacks are caused when arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become blocked by accumulations called plaque that build slowly over time. There is some understanding in western medicine that these accumulations are caused by inflammation, but instead of considering the cause of the inflammation, quantitative science has concluded that because cholesterol is present at these sites, IT is the cause of the problem. Hence the domination treatment of statin drugs to disrupt a chemical pathway in the body to turn off the production of cholesterol by the liver. Turning off this same chemical pathway also turns off the production of sex hormones, so many men taking these drugs can then, among other things, become testosterone depleted.
There are two measurements in western medicine that actually do apply to all human beings—body temperature and pH. For all chemical processes to function optimally, both of these are maintained within very close tolerances. Although in western science there is no recognition of the “temperature” of blood, it too operates in a very narrow range. Increased temperature of the blood is the cause of heart disease.
As defined by Chinese medicine, sugar is a heat toxin. This means that it is pure yang energy, very hot. With every American now eating an average of 150 lb of sugar per year their blood sugar levels are constantly high. A heat toxin in the blood means the blood is too hot and the walls of arteries begin to be scorched. As with any burn on the skin, the body reacts to cool these internal burns. On the exterior, thin fluid is the coldest substance to be mobilized which makes water-filled blisters. On the interior, thick fluid is the coldest substance to be mobilized, cholesterol being the most readily available, forming the accumulations (internal blisters) known as plaque. As long as the blood is too hot from sugar, this cool, thick fluid continues to be delivered to the site. Cholesterol is therefore our savior—it prevents holes from forming in the walls of our arteries. Unless the heat toxin is withdrawn, it continues to scorch so accumulations continue to grow and eventually block the vessel causing a heart attack.
An equal contribution to blood heat is our emotional state. Chinese medicine describes that our emotions are contained in our blood. Heart equals blood equals emotions. When we are unable to express challenging and difficult emotions they remain in the blood and, just like sugar, are heat toxins. The same blood vessel damage with subsequent patching with cholesterol occurs.
In today’s world we are faced with a constant barrage of expectations, demands, fear-mongering and rage. We feel helpless in the face of our harsh world with its interpersonal divides driven by technology and politics. We feel anger and frustration about being manipulated and abused by corporations in our consumerism-driven society. We feel fear and sadness about job insecurity and not being valued in our quest to earn a living for our family. And we’ve been taught not to fight back against these challenges, to sit there, be quiet and take it, instead of losing a job. And we find it increasingly challenging to discern fact from fiction since lying is an accepted part of our power structure. We eat down and hold inside all of these feelings and they become hot rage which we still can’t express. This is toxic heat in our blood that can cause heart disease.
Estimates are that 70% to 90% of all heart attacks are experienced by men. It is logical to conclude that this difference is due to the message men have gotten in our culture that they need to be tough, suck it up, and not express their feelings. Men are heartbroken by the loss of job security, meaningful and fairly compensated work, and the sense of failure they feel as a result. All of this is heat in the blood.
Calcification of arteries is another inflammatory condition of the blood vessels. As with cholesterol, the accumulation of calcium is a protective response of the body to damaging heat. As long as the heat is present due to sugar consumption and suppressed emotions the body continues to contain the damage it inflicts.
Heat is another word for inflammation and/or acidity. There are two medical measurements that confirm heat in the blood. C-reactive protein (cardiac reactive protein) measures a protein released when there is inflammation . A CRP test is a very sensitive gauge of inflammation. Calcium scans are not recognized as inflammation indicators, but the only reason the body would accumulate calcium anywhere other than bone is to cool heat. Why is calcium a cooling agent? Calcium is alkaline. With a pH greater than 7.5, it neutralizes acidity, substances with pH less than 6.5. Once again the body mobilizes the cold substance calcium from bone to cool hot (acidic) blood and patch vessel damage. Both bone loss and accumulation of calcium in the arteries ensue. This is not a mistake, it is a RESPONSE to contain life-threatening damage.
What are we to do to minimize the accumulation of both cholesterol and calcium in our blood vessels and thus lessen our fear of heart and blood vessel disease? There are two areas to pay attention to.
First, your emotional life. Cultivating the ability to express what you currently feel is a key way to move towards expressing old, heat-causing emotions. The primary cultivation method I use is journaling. This quiet and private realm is a place where we can begin to express feelings to ourselves. This takes practice over time, it does not happen with one day, one week or one month of effort. You are learning a new skill so the more you practice the easier it becomes. This is a skill for ongoing use in life because as long as we are alive the experience of life demands that we process what we feel and express it. Expression eliminates emotional heat.
The second area of cultivation is your belief system about food. Western medicine, with its focus on disease rather thant health, has unfortunately taught us to believe that the food we eat does not matter, it is all just calories. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We are miraculously and perfectly designed to produce energy from food and oxygen with the amazingly efficient processes of digestion and respiration. We are part of our planet’s biome and are genetically equipped to digest its naturally occurring plants and animals. Food-like substances, those products of industry we call processed food, are fragmented recombinations of whole foods. The body does not just pull calories out of these substances but instead views them as confusing and toxic. It then wisely reacts to protect us from these toxic substances with its powerful and alert immune system. This reaction is called the inflammatory response. Inflammation is never a mistake.
The closer we adhere to eating food that does not create a protective immune reaction the less chance there is of calling on the other protective responses of cholesterol and calcium accumulation in our blood vessels. Simply put, a non-inflammatory diet does not include foods that trigger this response.
Items that do incite an inflammatory response include sugar, wheat, cold and raw food, milk products, and excessively heating delights like garlic, onions, coffee, chocolate, chilies and nightshades.
Cultivating a new emotional life and a new way of eating are not convenient endeavors. This creative work of change does however hold great potential to transform your experience of life and your physical health.