Letter To My Mother Regarding Her Heart Trouble

by Claudius J West

Hi Mom,

I did some research this morning about arterial plaque. I’d guess your condition is likely to turn out to be atherosclerosis. When you visit with the doctor, you’ll want to be sure of the names he gives you, because atherosclerosis is also known as arteriosclerotic vascular disease, both of which sound a lot like arteriosclerosis.

“The following terms are similar, yet distinct, in both spelling and meaning, and can be easily confused: arteriosclerosis, arteriolosclerosis, and atherosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is a general term describing any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of medium or large arteries; arteriolosclerosis is any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of arterioles (small arteries); atherosclerosis is a hardening of an artery specifically due to an atheromatous plaque. The term atherogenic is used for substances or processes that cause atherosclerosis.”

Atherosclerosis_diagramThe really good news is that atherosclerosis can be reversed with diet. It wouldn’t be as simple as eating an extra celery stick, but rather, cutting out the foods that cause inflammation (sugar and refined starches) and supplementing with omega-3s, fiber, and vitamins.

Not too bad, really. You’d have to give up Coke, but you know you shouldn’t be drinking Coke any more than a smoker should be smoking. If you did smoke, that is the first thing that would have to go, which is a lot harder to give up than changing your diet, so consider yourself lucky.

If you adopt a thorough and heartfelt change (rather than an unenthusiastic, grudging and ultimately temporary change), not only could healthier eating habits clear up your problems and sidestep worse to come, but they potentially would add years and years to your lifespan along with the vigor to enjoy those extra years to their fullest.

I predict that your doctor will immediately put you on statins. My preliminary research show that statins are actually effective at reducing plaque. I am skeptical, just as I am skeptical of claims of statins being safe. If statins do work as advertised, and the side effects aren’t too bad, I would agree it would be correct to use them to make quick gains in reducing plaque. But, however effective statins may be at reducing plaque, they won’t address the underlying causes of the plaque buildup.

Who cares what’s causing the problem as long as the plaque gets cleaned up? If it were me, I would care. I would care enough to address the underlying causes, such as inflammation and what’s causing the inflammation. Statins just can’t do that.

statins show me the money t-shirt Taking statins isn’t the solution for living healthfully and vigorously for the next two decades. (Maybe you don’t want to live twenty more years. Maybe you just want to live ten more years, maybe just five, maybe just two—but, I doubt it. Be careful that you aren’t signing up for the two-year plan.)

Better to stop putting the bad stuff into your body that is causing illness and disability in the first place than it is to be constantly putting out fires (inflammation) and who knows what else. You know it’s the right thing to do.

Fatty streaks: plaque is called fatty streaks but that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with fat, oils, lipids—-it’s simply a descriptive phrase somebody made up because of the way it looked. Fats in your diet, even saturated fats, does not equal fat floating around in your bloodstream. My bias: I am pro-fat.

Coincidentally, this morning I was continuing to read The Great Cholesterol Con, and the very page I returned to talked specifically about the theory of arterial plaque formation. The author, Dr. Malcolm Kendrick,  is far from being onboard with current explanations. I won’t bother you with the details, but I would like to pass on the notion that not everything your doctor may tell you will be absolutely true, especially if he is of an older generation. Medical science is changing fast, and doctors are busy people who can’t always keep up.

Most likely, your doctor told you not to exercise just in case the plaque came loose and caused an embolus, which could lead to blockage. His order to not exercise, I suspect, was purely precautionary. Being told not to exercise sounds more serious than it probably is—if it were serious, he would have scheduled an operation or tests the same day.

When you see the cardiologist, remember to ask the questions you really want answers to, like: What do you mean I shouldn’t exercise? Not even my daily, one-mile walk? Why not? Are you expecting me to drop dead of a heart attack in the middle of the street, or are you just being cautious until we know more? Are you saying a moderate walk could be dangerous, or are you telling me not to run a marathon or increase my heart-rate to a degree that might tear plaque loose? What exactly are we talking about, here?

Ask questions like these and the responses are likely to reduce your worry and stress. If you are so stressed you can’t sleep well, everything else gets worse. The pains in your chest may be related simply to stress. The more stress, the more pain; the more pain, the more stress.

the worst, man crying in anguish in rainNot wanting to hear the worst will not save you because you will worry about the worst, anyway. Better to know the facts than to stress about your suspicions. Facts have limits; suspicions have no boundaries at all.

“What does that mean, exactly?” You may want to practice saying this, even if only in your mind, so that you are prepared to say it to the doctor. “What does that mean, exactly?” Even if you think you know what he means, ask anyway. If nothing else, you will get confirmation.

Be sure to ask it whenever you hear something that scares you—fear is the signal that you need to say “What does that mean, exactly?”

When you hear something scary, or even a little bit scary, respond by saying “What does that mean, exactly?” even if you just asked. Keep asking the question and you will get fuller and more useful answers.

If the doctor is suggesting surgery, go right to the heart of your fear, because avoiding your fear won’t help you.

  • What does that mean, exactly?
  • How much will it hurt?
  • What does it involve, exactly?
  • What is recovery like—how much does it hurt and how long does it take?
  • What are the possible complications?
  • What is the likelihood of death?
  • What are ALL of the alternatives to the procedure you are recommending?
  • What is the prognosis of not doing a procedure?
  • How can I reach you to discuss this further?
  • I would like to research this further—what sources would you recommend?

These are just a few questions that occur to me off the top of my head—it may be worth your time to research specific questions to ask, if not now, then certainly after your appointment as a next step.

On the optimistic side, as I said, from the research I have done so far, it should be completely possible to handle plaque with simple dietary and exercise changes, and they wouldn’t have to be extreme, unless you believe quitting Coke is too extreme a measure. If that is the case, stick with the statins and keep your fingers crossed.

I was talking to a friend who has in stage four cancer. We were in a bookstore together and she was looking at cookbooks for people with cancer. I suggested that she look into “juicing.” My friend’s response was: “We all know that isn’t going to happen.”

the worst, man crying in anguish in rainPersonally, I have a difficult time stomaching juiced broccoli—make that any juiced vegetable, but if I had cancer, truly, I would be drinking and eating broccoli daily and a long time before cancer had a chance to reach stage four.  Here is a woman saying, in effect, “I’d rather die than change my eating habits even a little bit.” That’s her choice.

(Serious approaches to juicing have performed miracles for lots of people. I wish I did more of it.)

A tailor sews, a baker bakes, and a surgeon cuts. That is to say, professionals’ views are formed by their experiences. They have biases.

That may be a good thing, but it may not be the best thing.

One bias I’ll bet your doctor does not have is one that says your problems can be cleared up with plain old food. Just because he doesn’t think it’s important doesn’t mean he’s right.

Even little kids can have plaque. Plaque is never a good thing, but plaque can come and go. That’s really good news.  You can change your long term health prospects with just your fork instead of a scalpel. Within just days or weeks, you’ll experience big changes in your health, changes that you’ll actually notice, and even bigger changes over months and years.

It is a change devoutly to be wished for. You won’t get a similar, far-reaching, comprehensive level of change from any pill on the market.

The bright side of your situation is really quite bright. It’s as rosy as getting a diagnosis of diabetes. You might think diabetes is bad—and it is incredibly bad—but in almost all cases, diabetes can be completely eliminated with proper eating habits. That is a wonderful situation to be in.

Sadly, most people won’t make the necessary changes to free themselves of diabetes. They maintain their lives as they are and rely on drugs to keep them keeping on. That’s their choice, of course, but no one can believe it is the best choice.

ChangeDon’t be like a person who would rather die of cancer than eat different foods. This situation of yours could be the wake up call you need to design a lifestyle that will take you healthfully through the next two decades or more. Maybe in two decades, science will have developed a pill that allows you to eat all of the bad stuff you eat now and live well into your hundreds. Yahtzee. We come from a long lived line. It would be a shame to miss the party boat into the far future because of a reluctance to change your eating habits, today.

As one piece I read put it: Science shows us more and more that the best way to be healthy is to behave the way we did as children—meaning the way children exercise and (presumably) eat (healthfully). What the piece didn’t mean was being childish, like the child who throws a tantrum because she can’t have her sweeties.

My strong suspicion is that you can dodge surgery, for now, and then reverse your condition with dietary changes. If your condition were serious, you would have already been in on the cutting board. If that is the direction your next doctor wants to push you, I would recommend not deciding anything hastily. There is lots of evidence that tons of coronary operations are done frivolously, unnecessarily, and without advantage to the patient (though with great advantage to the billing agent).

The easiest thing for you to do is to take pills and get surgery. I know you don’t want to do that because it scares you so much. I would be scared, too. That can be a good thing; fear can be the leverage you need to make the changes that change everything else in your life, for the better.

Doing the easy thing, in this case, means continuing to do the things the way you’ve always done them, especially eating the foods you’ve always eaten.

Unfortunately, doing the things you’ve always done is precisely what put you in this position in the first place.

I’d say it’s time for something better.

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